Sinking

Seaman Leslie Morton, a lookout stationed at Lusitania’s bow, spotted the foam from the torpedo speeding towards Lusitania.  He thought he saw two torpedoes and shouted, “Torpedoes coming on the starboard side!”

The bridge seemed not to have heard the warning until Seaman Thomas Quinn made a second cry of warning from the crow’s nest, “Torpedo!  Starboard side, sir!”

By that time it was too late for Lusitania to take evasive action.  The torpedo struck the ship just under the bridge.  The time was 2:10 p.m.

A jet of water from the impact sent a column of water and debris into the air that knocked lifeboat 5 overboard.  A second explosion that could never be fully explained rocked the ship soon thereafter.  Survivors attested that this explosion felt more powerful and was internal, different from the feeling of the initial impact.  This second explosion sent a cloud of choking steam and dust swirling around the bridge and base of the first funnel that soon dissipated.

Captain Turner ordered Quartermaster Hugh Johnston to turn Lusitania towards Ireland in effort to beach the ship.  Johnston put the wheel hard over and the ship turned but soon overcorrected to port.  Turner ordered the rudder back to starboard, but the ship’s hydraulics had failed and the ship was not responding.  Lusitania was tracing an arc in the water.  Turner then ordered the ship’s engines to be reversed to stop the ship’s headway, but the steam lines had ruptured (probably due to the second explosion).  Steam pressure continued to fall, and the ship’s engines did not respond.  Johnston could only watch the commutator as Lusitania’s starboard list crept upward from 15 degrees to 18, 19, past 20…

The design of the coal bunkers as longitudinal bulkheads meant that in case the ship was damaged that water would be sectioned off on one side of the ship.  At the time of Lusitania’s construction, the worst damage that war could do to ships came from shells.  In that case, longitudinal bulkheads would have doubled as protection for the ship’s machinery.  With the advent of the torpedo, the longitudinal compartments compounded the damage torpedoes made on the ship.

The longitudinal compartments had the unfortunate side effect of causing the ship to list 7 degrees when one compartment was breached, 15 degrees when two were breached, and so on until the ship was in danger of capsizing or having water slosh over the top of the compartments until the ship’s buoyancy was compromised.  The resulting list had the other side effect of causing the lifeboats on the high side of the ship to swing inboard, making them unlaunchable, and the lifeboats on the low side swing out, so that evacuating passengers and crew would have to bridge a massive gap between the deck and the lifeboat with a 60-foot drop in between.

The wireless telegraph operators, Robert Leith and Donald McCormack, sent out an SOS, which was received at Queenstown.  Despite being about 10 miles from the Irish coast, the fleet of fishing trawlers and small boats coming to Lusitania’s aid were not fast vessels, and most would take about 2 hours to reach the site of the stricken ocean liner.

The ship’s electric plant soon failed, and the wireless operators switched over to battery power.  As saloon passenger Oliver Bernard ran through the first class entrance on the boat deck, he claimed to have seen the elevators stuck between decks A and B, trapping hapless passengers and crew inside.  Bulkhead doors could not be opened electronically, and those trapped in the boiler rooms could only crawl up for a chance to reach safety.

Lusitania’s headway had to slow down before Captain Turner gave the order to abandon ship.  Passengers were more confused than panicked, as they were still trying to comprehend what had just happened to their ship. An Italian family from third class consisting of a grandmother, mother, and three children had turned to Charles Lauriat for help.  Lauriat put lifebelts on the grandmother and mother, and found another for the oldest child.  The family then proceeded to sit down on a collapsible boat, quietly awaiting further instructions.  Lauriat also saw that several people had their lifebelts on incorrectly and sought to assist them; however, some thinking that he was trying to take their belts ran away in terror.

Lusitania‘s forecastle soon plunged underwater.

The ship’s starboard list made launching the port side boats virtually impossible.  Staff Captain Anderson ordered out the passengers who had entered the port side lifeboats so that the boats could be pushed over the side of the ship and then lowered.  While the inch-high rivets along the hull threatened to damage the port side lifeboats, this is not known to have happened.

Further stories of port side lifeboats crashing inboard and then careening towards the bow are not documented in passenger and crew accounts; however, many lifeboats on both sides overturned either while loading or lowering.  Lifeboat 2 carrying stewardess May Bird pitched her and her companions into the ocean, where she climbed back aboard Lusitania to attempt getting off in a lifeboat again.  Lifeboat 12 upset in the falls, spilling its complement, as did lifeboat 20, which was carrying saloon passengers Ogden Hammond and his wife Mary.  Mary would be lost in the spill.  Saloon passenger Isaac Lehmann tried to force the lowering of lifeboat 18 against the Captain’s orders, resulting in that boat swinging inboard and crushing a number of people on deck, including Caroline Hickson Kennedy and her sister, Kathryn Hickson.

Of the port side lifeboats, only lifeboat 14, carrying saloon passengers Virginia Loney and Mary and Laura Ryerson managed to be launched (lifeboat 2 eventually floated off with May Bird inside as the ship sank), but the forgetting to put in the plug at the bottom of the lifeboat caused the lifeboat to be swamped after it left the mother ship, resulting in more casualties, of which included Mary Ryerson.

On the starboard side, deck chairs were required to assist passengers across the chasm between the lifeboats and the mother ship.  Saloon passengers Charles and Mabel Learoyd were in a starboard lifeboat which was struck by another lowering boat and capsized.  Mabel survived.  Her husband did not.  Charles Lauriat attempted to free lifeboat 7 from the mother ship by cutting away at the ropes that tied down the boat, but he realized that Lusitania would sink before the lifeboat could be freed.  Lauriat pleaded to others in the boat to jump.  Only a few listened, and he jumped over himself.  He looked back and saw the small craft and its screaming occupants dragged under by the mother ship.

Lifeboat 11 upset on the first attempt at launch, spilling out its complement.  War correspondent Ernest Cowper put 6-year-old Helen Smith, who had been separated from her parents and wandering by herself on deck, into lifeboat 13 before climbing in himself.  Number 13 was safely launched.

Third class passengers Elizabeth Duckworth and Alice Scott climbed into lifeboat 17 after seeing off Alice’s son Arthur in another lifeboat.  At the last minute, Elizabeth decided to climb out. Second cabin passenger Ian Holbourn thought that by assisting 12-year-old Avis Dolphin and her nurses Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith into lifeboat 17 that he would be getting them to safety.  To the horror of Holbourn and Duckworth, they saw the lifeboat capsize just before it reached the water.  Avis survived.  Her nurses and Alice Scott did not.

Second cabin passenger Joseph Marichal, who was convinced that the second explosion had been caused by the torpedo detonating illegal munitions aboard, put his family aboard lifeboat 21 after seeing lifeboat 17 spill.

As the ship continued to sink, lifeboat 11 became flush with the water, where fleeing passengers and crew now scrambled aboard.  Oliver Bernard and third class passenger Francis Luker jumped in.  David Alfred Thomas and his secretary Arnold Rhys-Evans saw a woman standing by with a baby who seemed frozen and unable to save herself.  Thomas pushed the woman and her baby into lifeboat 11 before he and his secretary jumped.  As the lifeboat cast off from the mother ship, Phyllis Wickings-Smith tossed her baby daughter Nancy into the boat, where Luker caught her.

As second cabin passenger Margaret Cox entered lifeboat 15 with her son Desmond, she feared that the ship’s funnel would fall on top of them before they could get to safety.  Under the command of First Officer Arthur Rowland Jones, lifeboat 15 was safely launched.

Only six lifeboats, numbers 1, 11, 13, 15, 19, and 21, were successfully lowered, all from the starboard side. Some of Lusitania’s collapsible lifeboats floated off as the great ship sank, providing refuge for many of those in the water.

Through his periscope on the U-20, Walther Schwieger could see the death and destruction that he had caused unfolding before him.  By 2:25 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, Schwieger had seen enough and directed the U-20 back out to sea; however, survivors such as second cabin passenger Emmie Hill would say that they saw a submarine surface to watch the destruction after Lusitania had vanished beneath the waves.

As water continued to spill over the bulkheads, the ship seemed to right herself.  Word soon spread that the bulkheads were closed and the danger was over.  On the boat deck, saloon passengers Margaret Mackworth and Dorothy Conner felt a false sense of relief until Howard Fisher, who had gone looking for lifebelts, reported back to them on the alarming speed at which the ship was sinking.

Captain Turner stayed on his command.  As the water reached the bridge, he turned to Quartermaster Johnston and said simply, “Save yourself.”

As Johnston ran into the water, Turner climbed higher to stay with his ship as long as possible until he was washed into the sea.

Second cabin passenger Alice Middleton did not have a lifebelt on, but a man stopped and gave her his.  She would not know until years later that the man who helped her strap on a lifebelt so that she may live was millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, who himself did not know how to swim.

A terrified Rita Jolivet found Charles Frohman and her brother-in-law George Vernon on deck by the verandah café.  Captain Alick Scott gave Frohman a lifejacket, which Frohman gave to a passing woman.  Frohman, Vernon, and Jolivet all offered Scott their lifejackets, but Scott answered, “If I am going to die, it’s only for once.”

The ship lurched, and Frohman told Rita to hang on to the railing and save her strength.  To the end Charles Frohman was calm, musing, “Why fear death?  It is the most beautiful adventure in life.”

Detective-Inspector Pierpoint had been unable to release the German stowaways in time to save them, who drowned below decks.  Pierpoint himself was now on deck and swept into the ocean in the final wave.  The ship disappeared from beneath him.

As Pierpoint found himself paddling in the water, the funnels of the ship dipped under, and he found himself, along with second cabin passenger Margaret Gwyer and third class passenger Harold Taylor, being sucked down a whirlpool into the gaping hole of funnel number 2.  A fortuitous boiler explosion blew all three out of the funnel and back into the water, albeit covered entirely in soot.  When Margaret found herself on the same lifeboat as her husband, Reverend Herbert Gwyer, her astonished husband did not recognize her.

The ship plunged bow first.  Her stern rose into the air, exposing her propellers, before her stern, too disappeared beneath the waves.

The ship’s aerials made one, final swipe, dragging down those unfortunate enough to be in their path.  A wire landed on the end of lifeboat 15.  Those inside the lifeboat held their breath as the wire threatened to drag them down, but were relieved when the wire finally snapped, letting them go.

“My God, the Lusitania’s gone!” exclaimed George Kessler from his swamped collapsible.

Lusitania sank in 18 minutes, about 11.5 miles (19 km) off the Old Head of Kinsale.  Lusitania had traveled about two miles from where she had been torpedoed to her final resting place, leaving a trail of destruction in her wake.  It was a beautiful, clear, calm day with the lighthouse of the Old Head of Kinsale still visible in the distance.

About the Author