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Captain Edward J. Smith played a role in one of the most famous disasters at sea in history, the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
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It made one stop in Queenstown, Ireland, the next day before setting out into the Atlantic. There the ship took on more passengers as well as mail to be delivered to the United States. In all, there were more than 2,200 people aboard the ship as it made its way across the ocean.
The first few days seemed to pass without incident. On the morning of April 14, the Titanic received a warning about ice in its path from the Caronia. Smith reportedly posted this message on the bridge. He then led the religious service for the first class passengers. Another message about dangerous ice came from the Baltic in the early afternoon. Smith showed this message to Joseph Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line and president of IMM. Ismay held on to this note until later that evening.
The earlier warning from the Baltic is posted on the ship’s bridge around 7 p.m. A half an hour later, Smith attended a private party held by Mr. and Mrs. George Dunton Widener in the ship's a la carte restaurant. Other guests included railroad executive John B. Thayer and Major Archibald Butt. Around this time, another ice warning from the nearby Californian was sent to another ship in its fleet; this transmission was reportedly overheard by the Titanic crew.
After the dinner party, Smith met with his second officer Charles Lightoller on the bridge. Not long after their conversation ended, Smith turned in for the night. Swamped with telegraphic messages for passengers, the operators on the Titanic put aside a warning about icebergs from the Mesaba. A warning transmission from the Californian to the Titanic was also cut off by operators.
Around 11:40 p.m., a crew member spotted an iceberg in the path of the Titanic, but the crew was unable to move away in time. The ship scraped against the iceberg and suffered damage to its forward area. Several holes have been made in the ship’s side, allowing sea water to begin rushing in. Soon after the collision, Smith went to the bridge and worked on assessing the situation. He soon learned that the ship was on its way down and ordered that the crew to prepare the lifeboats. The first distress call went out after midnight.
Unprepared for such an event, the Titanic did not have enough lifeboats to carry all of its passengers to safety. Smith tried to manage the situation the best that he could, helping with the loading of the boats and managing the transmission of distress calls. He was last seen headed for the bridge.
After 2 a.m. the next morning, the Titanic fully slipped into the dark cold waters of the North Atlantic, taking its captain with it. Several stories emerged about how his life ended. There were reports that he had shot himself on the bridge. Another had him in the water, swimming with an infant in tow and putting the child on a lifeboat before slipping beneath the water. It is commonly held, however, that Smith followed the marine tradition of remaining aboard his doomed vessel.
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