Crew members of the recovery ship CS Minia pulling a lifebelted Titanic victim from the sea.
From a distance, they looked like white dots bobbing on the water. Others would describe them as looking like flocks of seagulls.
But as the SS Bremen steamed closer to this strange apparition on the afternoon of April 21, 1912, passengers on deck suddenly began to scream. Their ship was steaming into waters scattered with the floating victims of the RMS Titanic.
“We saw one woman in a nightdress with a baby clasped closely to her breast,” reported passenger Johanna Stunke later. “There was another woman fully dressed, with her arms tightly clutching the body of a shaggy dog that looked like a St. Bernard.”
The Titanic sank 105 years ago this Saturday. While the 1912 disaster is remembered chiefly for its romance and myth, lesser known is the horrifying open-air graveyard that it left bobbing in the North Atlantic — and which Canadians ultimately had to sort through.
For about two hours, the Bremen was forced to carefully maneuver its way through the corpses. The disaster site was still littered with icebergs, at least one of which still bore telltale streaks of red and black paint.
A Titanic victim bein embalmed aboard the recovery ship CS Minia.
As the anxious, mostly German passengers of the Bremen braced for the sound of steel against ice, they gazed in horror at the bodies of those whose fates they desperately hoped to avoid.
“The first one was a lady with a baby in her arm,” remembered German immigrant Leoni Hermann, who was 11 at the time.
“We just hollered down into the breakfast room that there are people in the water. And as stiff like a piece of wood,” Herrmann said 75 years later in a recording taken by her grandson.
As the Titanic’s decks had tilted crazily forward, passengers had desperately tried to save their families by tying them to makeshift rafts. Bodies could now be seen lashed to deck chairs, doors and wooden gratings.
Everywhere, people appeared to have died embracing loved ones.
“I saw a man and a woman clasped in each other’s arms, two men clinging together and the body of a woman with a child in her arms lashed to a chair,” witness Beatrice Stenke later told the New York Times.
United States Library of Congress The SS Bremen.
Witness Sarah Muller similarly reported seeing a woman with a life preserver around her waist and a child in each arm.
Victims clad in pyjamas and night gowns had clearly been roused out of bed by the sinking. Others had died in formal evening wear.
Among the dead, it’s likely that the Bremen’s passengers were unwittingly gazing upon the faces of some of the world’s richest men.
The bodies of Macy’s owner Isidor Straus, real estate magnate John Jacob Astor and Canadian railroad tycoon Charles Hays would all later be recovered from this area.
Although the passengers of the Bremen were cut off from the news media of the time, they had known for days that something terrible had happened to the RMS Titanic.
Linked together by wireless telegraph sets, ships all across the Atlantic had followed the disaster in real time as the Titanic desperately sent out calls for assistance.
“Come as quickly as possible, old man; the engine room is filling up to the boilers,” read the ship’s last legible transmission, broadcast just 20 minutes before the Titanic’s final plunge.
For hours afterwards, shocked wireless operators kept tapping out messages in a pitiful attempt to rouse the missing ship.
The rescue ship Carpathia continued to send assuring telegraphs to the Titanic as it sped towards the wreck — albeit with the haunting caveat “if you are there.”
The iceberg with which Titanic supposedly collided.
“Steaming full speed for you … hope you are safe,” typed out one liner at 3 a.m., just as most of the Titanic’s victims were entering the final stages of hypothermia.
For days after the disaster, a pall descended over the busy shipping lanes of the north Atlantic.
If that year’s unusually heavy crop of icebergs could claim the largest and most technologically advanced ship afloat, those aboard tiny, rust-flecked steamers figured that they too were doomed to die freezing before they would see Baltimore, Montreal or New York.
Like the Bremen, the SS Rhein was also following directly behind the Titanic.
After getting word of the disaster on April 16, the Rhein’s anxious captain swung out the vessel’s lifeboats and ordered repeated evacuation drills. Meanwhile, jittery passengers took to sleeping fitfully in their clothes; ready at a moment’s notice to dash to the boat deck.
The pocket watch found on the body of Titanic steward Sidney Sedunary. It stopped at 01:50, roughly 30 minutes before the Titanic sank.
On the morning of April 20 in a cloud of heavy fog, this ship, too, saw firsthand the aftermath of the world’s deadliest maritime disaster. As one passenger described it, they witnessed “acres of water filled with bodies.”
“Steamer Rhein reports wreckage and bodies,” was the blunt telegraph message received at the New York offices of the Titanic’s owner, the White Star Line.
It was Canadians who would be tasked with cleaning up the Titanic’s seascape of death. The White Star Line would ultimately charter four ships out of Halifax with the simple instructions to rush to the scene with as much embalming equipment as they could carry.
“Fine weather started to pick up bodies at six a.m. and continued all day till five thirty p.m. Recovered fifty one bodies, forty six men, four women and one baby,” reads the April 21 diary entry of a crew member aboard the Mackay-Bennett, a cable ship that recovered the majority of the more than 300 Titanic victims pulled from the ocean.
As details of the sinking became known, poets and newsmen on both sides of the Atlantic were building up the disaster as an elegant, “English” sinking: Stoic men bravely doing their duty before consigning themselves to the deep.
A deck chair recovered from the wreckage of the RMS Titanic. Several victims were seen lashed to chairs like these.
But the bodies told a different story: Crushed skulls, broken arms, “smashed” torsos.
Some of the victims had been injured in the sheer violence of an ocean liner breaking apart. Others had been battered by the awful panic that had swept the Titanic’s crowded, sloping decks following the departure of the last lifeboat.
The ship sank in an era when many British citizens carried concealed pistols. As the ship entered its final plunge, nearby lifeboats reported hearing shots ringing out from the decks.
Many victims were also found to be carrying small fortunes in cash.
The Mackay-Bennett recovered $15,000 from its 306 bodies — the modern equivalent of more than $350,000.
There were as many as 700 immigrants on board the Titanic, and many were carrying their entire life savings to America.
With water lapping at the door of their stateroom, they had stuffed their pockets with diamonds, gold bars and banknotes and dashed to the top decks with the thin hope that they might still have a chance of getting to New York.
By late April, sun and salt began causing lifebelts to fray and break, dropping their wearers to the bottom of the ocean. According to Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard, the places where their bodies fell can still be seen on the ocean floor in the form of matching pairs of shoes laying side by side.
Still, for more than a month after the recovery ships had given up the search, Atlantic steamers would continue to encounter the telltale white dots from the Titanic.
In June, the SS Ottawa was 900 km from the Titanic’s final position when it came across the badly decomposed remains of a steward, a love letter still tucked into his jacket pocket.
Three day later, another ship, the SS Ilford, would similarly find the floating body of kitchen worker William Frederick Cheverton.
But it was to be another White Star Line vessel, the RMS Oceanic, that would encounter the most haunting relic of all.
On a night renowned for an orderly lifeboat evacuation, the Titanic’s Collapsible A had been the exception. As water overtook the Titanic’s bridge, the canvas boat became the scene of a desperate melee for seats.
Titanic’s Collapsible D photographed the morning after disaster. Although of the same design as the boat in this photo, Collapsible A was not launched in time before it was overtaken by floodwaters.
On May 13, at a spot more than 300 km away from the Titanic’s last reported position, the RMS Oceanic was ordered to stop at the sight of a peculiar half-submerged shape bobbing in the waves.
A party of sailors sent to investigate the shape came upon a nightmarish scene: Tooth marks, badly decomposed bodies wedged under seats and “women’s rings” in the boat’s bottom— the result of husbands trying desperately to haul their wives aboard.
The three dead men included Canadian first class passenger Thomson Beattie, who was found still clad in evening wear. He had won the fight for seats, but in the knee-deep waters of the capsized boat, he had died of exposure before dawn.
As one watching Oceanic passenger reported later of the grisly body recovery, “the arms came off in the hands of the ‘Oceanic’ boarding officer.”