When the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic in 1912, it took just two and a half hours for the largest ocean vessel in the world to sink, taking the lives of nearly 1,500 people with it. Though 710 passengers and crew survived, they made it away with just their lives. The ship itself would become a mass grave and time capsule lost until it was rediscovered 73 years later.
While survivors of the Titanic arrived in New York aboard the RMS Carpathia three days after the tragedy, initial reports said that the Titanic was being towed to shore at this time. When the error was corrected, and the mass casualties revealed, ships set off immediately to recover what they could from the perilous waters of what would eventually be called Iceberg Alley. The only thing recovered at this time, however, were bodies.
A small fleet of ships carrying embalming supplies, clergy, and undertakers recovered hundreds of bodies. The first ships to reach the site were quickly exhausted of their supplies. At the time, health laws only allowed embalmed bodies to be returned to port, so undertakers prioritized embalming first-class passengers, leaving the rest floating in the ocean. Bodies continued to be retrieved by passing ships for months.
Retrieval ships reasoned that they had recovered wealthy passengers because their remains might be needed to settle affairs of their estate, and delivered many of them to an ad hoc morgue set up in a curling rink. The bodies not recovered lasted for about a year in the open sea, held up by their life jackets. Only when the flotation devices rotted away did they sink.
Though a few expeditions to find the wreck of the Titanic were launched in the ’60s and ’70s, it wasn’t until 1985 that a team led by surveyor Robert Ballard located the wreck. Since then, a number of explorers have brought back items from the wreck, including pieces of coal from the engine room that now reside in the Ripley collection.
When the Titanic was put to sea, it was the largest ship afloat, measuring 882 feet long and standing 175 feet tall. To power the largest ship in the world, engineers equipped her with two steam engines and one steam turbine. Combined, they produced 46,000 horsepower, consuming 600 tons of coal a day. All this coal had to be shoveled into furnaces by hand.
A total of 176 firemen shoveled around the clock, shoveling enough coal to produce 100 tons of ash that would be jettisoned into the ocean. Reports show that firemen of the time were well paid—£6 a month—but that the exhausting labor resulted in high suicide rates nonetheless.
After the Titanic struck the iceberg and began taking on water, the firemen almost immediately found themselves waist deep in freezing water. Fearing the cold water touching the hot boilers would cause an explosion, engineers instructed firemen to stay below decks and vent as much steam as possible. Less than a quarter of the crew survived the sinking, and a few firemen numbered among them.
The coal in the Ripley collection was recovered in 1994, but further souvenir hunting by tourists has caused irreparable damage to the wreck of the Titanic. After one team collapsed the crow’s nest tower while retrieving the ship’s bell, UNESCO put it under world heritage site protections.