33 Rare Titanic Sinking Photos Taken Just Before And After It Happened

Published October 25, 2021
Updated March 18, 2024

These poignant Titanic sinking photos capture the disaster that took 1,500 lives one April night in 1912.

The winter of 1911-1912 had been a mild one. Higher-than-usual temperatures in the North Atlantic had caused more icebergs to drift off the west coast of Greenland than at any point in the previous 50 years.

And if not for that one anomalously warm winter, perhaps the Titanic might never have had any iceberg to hit. In fact, there may be no tragedy in history more suited to the “what if?” parlor game than the sinking of the Titanic.

What if one nearby ship’s radio warning of icebergs in the area had actually reached the Titanic instead of failing to transmit for reasons that still remain unclear? What if the radio aboard the Titanic hadn’t temporarily broken down the day before the disaster, causing radio operators to work through such a backlog of outgoing messages that they had no time to listen to yet another nearby ship’s warning of ice in the area on the night of the wreck?

What if there’d been no mix-up back at port in England and the ship’s lookouts had actually been given the binoculars that they should have received? What if First Officer William Murdoch had tried simply turning away from the iceberg instead of attempting the more complex port around maneuver in which he tried to turn sharply to one side to clear the bow from danger and then immediately turn back the other way to clear the stern?

And the most tortuous question of all — what if the Titanic had carried its full capacity of 64 lifeboats instead of the mere 20 that it was carrying?

In the end, all these questions came to naught. On the night of April 14, 1912, the Titanic catastrophically struck an iceberg. Early in the morning on April 15, the ship sank. Some 1,500 people perished in the North Atlantic.

Look through the gallery below for photos of the Titanic just before and after its infamous sinking. And below, discover the full story of that tragic night.

Photo Taken Before Titanic Sinking
Lifeboats On Titanic
Where The Titanic Sank
Titanic Sea Trials
33 Rare Titanic Sinking Photos Taken Just Before And After It Happened
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Was The Titanic Doomed To Sink?

Construction of the RMS Titanic began in 1909, and would take 26 months and the work of thousands of laborers to build. But though the ship attracted attention for its size — at 882 feet long, the Titanic was then the largest ship ever built — some believe that it was flawed from the start.

Some have theorized that the Titanic was built with millions of poor quality rivets, which more or less hold ships together. In 2008, The New York Times reported that its builder, Harland and Wolff, struggled to find enough rivets and thus purchased ones considered to be second best. What's more, rivets recovered from the wreck were found to have high concentrations of slag, which can make rivets brittle. This could have weakened the Titanic's hull.

Titanic Under Constrution

Public DomainThe Titanic under construction. Some believe that the ship was fatally flawed from the start.

This wasn't the only place where the Titanic's builders cut some corners. Initially, White Star Line marketed the ship as "designed to be unsinkable" and the British media described how its watertight compartments made the ship "practically unsinkable." But in the end the Titanic's bulkheads weren't watertight at all. As construction costs grew, they were tweaked to rise just 10 feet above the waterline. This change, however, was not publicized.

Building The Titanic
History Uncovered Podcast
Episode 64: The Titanic, Part 1: Building The ‘Unsinkable Ship’
It was supposed to be the greatest ship in history, a gargantuan marvel of modern engineering and unparalleled luxury. But the Titanic was doomed long before it ever set sail.

And on May 31, 1911, the ship left its dry dock in Belfast. Its maiden voyage would commence roughly a year later, in April 1912.

The Sinking Of The Titanic

The Titanic left Southampton, England, on April 10, 1912. Just days before the Titanic sank, passengers were photographed on deck strolling by the ship's lifeboats, completely unaware that they'd soon have to be put to use.

Indeed, the first couple days of the Titanic's voyage were peaceful. Aside from nearly colliding with the SS New York in Southampton, it made stops in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland (present-day Cobh) as planned before starting its voyage across the Atlantic Ocean toward New York City.

But disaster struck on April 14. Then, around 11:40 p.m., the Titanic struck an iceberg. The iceberg cut the ship along its starboard side, beneath the waterline, and the grand vessel quickly began to fill with water. Its designer Thomas Andrew, who was aboard for the Titanic's maiden voyage, soon grimly reported that it would sink in the next 60 to 90 minutes.

He wasn't far off. Over the next two hours and 40 minutes, the Titanic slowly began to founder into the freezing waters as its radio operators sent desperate cries for help and its confused passengers began to line up on the deck. The ship had just 20 lifeboats aboard, far fewer than it could have carried. But that wasn't immediately clear to many passengers, even as the crew instructed women and children to board the lifeboats first.

"There was no commotion, no panic and no one seemed to be particularly frightened," Eloise Smith, a first class Titanic survivor from the United States, later recalled. "I had not the least suspicion of the scarcity of lifeboats, or I never should have left my husband."

The nearest ship, the Californian, did not answer the Titanic's distress calls. (Its radio operator had gone to sleep, and though the captain saw the Titanic's distress flares he dismissed them as part of a "party"). The ship that did respond, the Carpathia, was four hours away.

And thus, the sinking of the Titanic occured at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912.

"As the bow went under, the stern lifted higher and higher into the air, then pivoted and swung slowly over my head," R. Norris Williams, a young tennis player onboard who had been swept into the icy waters, recalled.

The Sinking Of The Titanic Illustration

Public DomainA depiction of what the sinking of the Titanic might have looked like.

He continued: "Had it come down then I would have been crushed. Looking straight up I saw the three propellers and the rudder distinctly outlined against the clear sky. She slid into the ocean. No suction. No noise."

Approximately 1,500 people perished. But hundreds more were rescued by the Carpathia, which arrived at the scene three and a half hours later.

How The Carpathia Rescued Survivors

Upon hearing the Titanic's distress call, the Carpathia had charged to its rescue. Its captain, Arthur Rostron, steered the ship through 58 miles of treacherously icy waters and arrived at around 4:00 a.m.

By then, the Titanic had disappeared into the North Atlantic.

"On all sides we could see lifeboats making laboriously toward us, some dangerously overcrowded, some half empty," James Bissett, the ship's second officer, later recalled. "A mile away was a mass of wreckage, like an island, marking the spot where the Titanic had gone down."

Arthur Rostron And Molly Brown

Public DomainMolly Brown presenting Arthur Rostron with an award for his service rescuing survivors after the Titanic sinking. May 1912.

He added: "It should not have happened... but it did."

The Carpathia managed to rescue 706 people from the icy waters, including the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown — who quickly threw herself into the rescue efforts — and Williams, who refused a doctor's "cheerful" suggestion to amputate his frozen legs.

The addition of the Titanic survivors to the Carpathia doubled the number of people on the ship, and survivors like Brown busied herself with helping others. She passed out blankets, used her language skills to communicate with survivors who didn't speak English, and pressed the first class survivors to donate money to those who'd lost everything in the Titanic sinking.

She was steadier on her feet than others, including White Star Line chairman Bruce Ismay. After the Titanic sank, Ismay was hysterical. Charles Lightoller, the Titanic's second officer, recalled that Ismay "was obsessed with the idea, and kept repeating, that he ought to have gone down with the ship."

The Carpathia arrived in New York on April 18, three days after the Titanic's sinking. By then, news of the catastrophic event had spread across the world. Survivors soon began telling their stories, and an inquest was launched to investigate why exactly the ship had gone down.

The search for answers — and for the Titanic itself — would continue for decades.

Questions About The Sinking Of The Titanic

Why did the Titanic sink? Various theories have been suggested over the years.

Some point to the ship itself. In addition to its cheaper rivets and its compartments, one theory suggest that the ship had suffered from a fire which weakened its hull. Another postulates that the ship's navigation equipment malfunctioned because of interference from the Northern Lights.

But others believe that the Titanic's sinking can be chalked up to human error. And some place the blame at the feet of its captain, Edward Smith. He kept the ship at a high speed during the crossing, and it was traveling at 20.5 knots (23.6 mph) when it struck the iceberg. Why? It's possible that Smith was attempting to beat a record set by the Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic, that he was pressured into the high speed by Ismay, or that he believed that the crew would be able to react in time to a disaster, despite the high speed.

Edward Smith Before Titanic Sinking

Public DomainEdward Smith on the Titanic on April 10, 1912, the day it left Southampton for New York.

Smith has also been criticized for "ignoring" iceberg warnings. Some historians have indeed noted that if Smith did not "ignore" the warnings, per se, he perhaps did not react to them as mindfully as he should have.

An American investigation into the sinking concluded that Smith's "indifference to danger was one of the direct and contributing causes of this unnecessary tragedy" and that he should have slowed the ship. However, a British investigation found that Smith was not at fault.

And in any case, Smith could not have controlled other factors — like the Californian's lack of response to the Titanic's distress calls.

But at least one mystery about the ship was solved in 1985. Then, 73 years after the Titanic's sinking, American oceanographer Robert Ballard and French scientist Jean-Louis Michel discovered the wreck of the ship some 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland at a depth of 12,600 feet.

Since then, thousands of impressive artifacts have been brought up to the surface. These artifacts include instruments from the ship's band, clothing, the ship's telegraph, its chandelier, currency, jewelry, dishware, chunks of the ship itself, and even a whistle used by one of the Titanic's officers.

Now, more than a century later, the Titanic remains on the ocean floor where it sank in 1912. But it probably won't be there forever. Scientists are concerned about metal-eating bacteria which has started to consume it.

Regardless, the Titanic holds an important place in history. The optimism of its maiden voyage was matched only by the despair of its sinking.

In the gallery above, look through striking photos of the Titanic from before and after it hit the iceberg.

After viewing this collection of photos from the RMS Titanic's sinking, see 28 other Titanic photos that we promise you've never seen before. Then, discover Titanic facts that are sure to surprise you.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.