The sinking of the British passenger liner RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, was the single deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in modern history. During her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City, the ship struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and tragically ended her first and only journey 12, 425 feet below the surface of the ocean.
Of approximately 2,224 people on board, only 710 survived the disaster and were transported to New York, the ship’s original destination, by the RMS Carpathia, a ship which responded to the Titanic‘s distress calls.
Before her departure from Southampton, Titanic was considered unsinkable. She was equipped with state-of-the-art safety equipment such as remotely operated watertight doors and watertight compartments that were designed to keep the ship afloat in case of an accident. Still, the gargantuan ocean liner wasn’t saved by its advanced safety system: the unexpected collision with an iceberg caused it to fill up with water, break apart, and rapidly sink below the surface.
The most significant flaw of Titanic‘s safety system was the scarcity of lifeboats, which was responsible for the immense death toll. Titanic‘s lifeboats could only accommodate about 50 percent of the ship’s passengers.
However, 26 years before Titanic embarked on its doomed maiden voyage, a renowned British investigative journalist named William Thomas Stead tried to warn the public of such a safety system and the lack of lifeboats that plagued the newly built ships of the time. His warning consisted of a short story called “How the Mail Steamer Went Down in Mid Atlantic, by a Survivor,” which was published in the Pall Mall Gazette in March of 1886.
The plot of the story follows a British sailor named Thomas who boards a newly built passenger liner that embarks on its maiden voyage to the United States. Upon departure, Thomas realizes that the ship’s small number of lifeboats wouldn’t be enough to save all of the passengers and crew. However, no one takes his remark seriously. A couple of days into the journey, the liner strikes a stray sailing ship which, due to the heavy fog, wasn’t visible until it came dangerously close to the liner. In the havoc that ensues after the collision, the passengers and the crew realize that the liner is indeed equipped with far too few lifeboats. Out of 916 people aboard the liner, a mere 200 manage to board lifeboats, while more than 700 die in the disaster. Thomas manages to save himself by jumping into the water and climbing onto one of the lifeboats.
The story included the author’s editorial comment, which stated the following, “This is exactly what might take place and will take place if liners are sent to sea short of boats.” However, Stead’s cautionary tale received little attention at the time when it was published.
On the other hand, after the Titanic disaster, many people started seeing the story as an eerie prophecy, since the similarities between the plot and the events that occurred on Titanic were quite striking. Furthermore, in 1892, Stead wrote another short story that depicted a different maritime disaster. The second story, named “From the Old World to the New,” follows the crew of a ship that comes to aid of the survivors of RMS Majestic, a fictional passenger liner that capsized after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. After Titanic‘s demise, this story was also seen as a scary case of foreshadowing.
However, the weirdest coincidence that spawned much debate at the time was the fact that William Thomas Stead died in the Titanic disaster. He boarded the ship as a first-class passenger and intended to attend a peace conference at the Carnegie Hall in New York. According to several survivors, Stead was a cheerful passenger who marveled at the ship’s meticulous design.
After the collision, a survivor named Philip Mock claimed that he saw Stead clinging to a piece of debris with another passenger, an American colonel, entrepreneur, and writer named John Jacob Astor.
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Stead’s body was never found. He drowned in the freezing water of the Atlantic along with many others who failed to get a seat in one of the Titanic‘s lifeboats. His warnings were taken seriously only after the lack of lifeboats proved to be a key reason for such a disaster.