The majority of the 1,500 people who died when the RMS Titanic sank were 3rd class passengers and members of the crew. Many researchers attribute the disproportionate loss of life to the liner’s design, which imposed some restrictions on 3rd class passengers. However, further investigation showed that the causes were much more prosaic.
Some passengers were neglected
Third-class and crew cabins were located in the hold, while promenade areas were on lower decks and in the quarter. They were separated from the promenade decks for wealthier passengers by special partitions – staircases leading to upper decks had metal gates, the keys to which were kept by stewards. Some sources claim that these partitions were required by American immigration laws at the time.
Some 3rd class cabins were located at or below the waterline. This is why 3rd class passengers were the first to feel the collision with the iceberg.
Water started flooding many cabins right after the crash. People rushed to the corridor, trying to get to higher ground, but the majority of them never made it.
After the collision the crew was busy saving 1st and 2nd class passengers, leaving people in the lower decks to their own devices.
This approach reflected the spirit of the times – in the early 20th century it was considered inappropriate to conceal the differing attitudes to rich and poor. Considering that most 3rd class passengers were immigrants seeking jobs in America, it wouldn’t have even occurred to the crew to act otherwise.
Locked or not?
The first inquiry into the cause of the Titanic crash was opened in Washington in the days after the tragedy. Investigators paid much attention to the fate of 3rd class passengers. The main question was whether exits from lower decks were locked or not.
All interrogated crew members insisted unanimously that there were no restrictions for 3rd class passengers, and that they were not barred from the boat-handling deck. However, some passengers contradicted this claim in their testimony.
American author Archibald Gracie, a 1st class passenger on the Titanic, said that after all the lifeboats were lowered, a big crowd of people rushed from the liner’s hold onto the boat-handling deck. His testimony compelled investigators to start a search for 3rd class survivors.
They didn’t know what to do
William Olden Smith, the head of U.S. Senate subcommittee on Titanic hearings, travelled to New York in order to find some of them.
With the help of Irish and Jewish communities in New York City, he located three survivors but none of them could confirm that access to upper decks was blocked. As a result, investigators came to the conclusion that many 3rd class passengers perished because they were indecisive and did not speak English.
The inquiry found that some passengers were simply afraid to go up to the boat-handling deck, while others were arguing with each other and could not decide what to do.
The language barrier also played a role. Many passengers did not speak English. They could not understand each other or even read the directions to upper decks.
When some of them managed to reach the boat-handling deck, almost all the lifeboats had been lowered. There were just a few folding boats that the crew was going to lower last. It is these boats that saved 3rd class passengers who managed to get out of the hold.