The Titanic disaster and her lost souls: The how and why of the dead

On the 15th of April, 1912, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and sank within just a few hours. But how many lives were lost?
Christopher McFadden
The Titanic memorial in Belfast, Northern Ireland.


  • The Titanic was an engineering marvel in her day.
  • Thought "unsinkable," she hit an iceberg and was lost on the 15th of April 1912.
  • Somewhere around 1,517 people died, but how many, if any, were recovered from the icy waters?

The Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank on April 15, 1912, in the North Atlantic Ocean after colliding with an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. The ship, which was thought to be unsinkable, carried over 2,200 passengers and crew.

The collision did a lot of damage to the ship, rupturing several of the ship's forward compartments. As these filled with water, the bow dropped, causing water from the ruptured compartments to spill over into the succeeding compartments and eventually leading to the ship sinking. The damage was so severe that it only took around 2 hours and 40 minutes for her to sink into the North Atlantic Ocean.

Despite efforts to save the ship and rescue passengers, the disaster claimed the lives of more than 1,500 people. The Titanic's sinking remains one of history's most infamous maritime disasters.

But what happened to the dead? Let's find out.

How many people died on the Titanic?

According to most current estimates, of the approximately 2,200 people onboard the Titanic when she set sail, just over 1,500 never survived the voyage. The exact number is unknown because the original passenger and crew lists were inaccurate, for example, omitting some passengers and crew members.

The Titanic disaster and her lost souls: The how and why of the dead
Many people died when the Titanic sank.

The passengers on the Titanic who perished came from various backgrounds and nationalities. However, most of those killed were men, and many were third-class passengers, generally made up of those from lower social classes. According to available data, approximately 80% of male passengers in the third class (or steerage) died, while only about 14% of male passengers in the first class died.

Similarly, only about 3% of first-class women died, compared to about 50% of third-class women.

Their country of origin also influenced the demographics of the passengers on the Titanic. Most passengers were from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and other European countries, but passengers from the United States and other parts of the world were also present. Passengers included a mix of wealthy individuals, immigrants seeking a new life in America, and people traveling for business or pleasure.

The ship's crew was also massively impacted by the sinking, with approximately 700 killed. Crew members from all departments, including the deck, engineering, catering, and bridge, are included in the fatalities.

The crew was critical to the ship's operation and maintenance, and many worked tirelessly to save the passengers and keep the ship from sinking. However, due to the ship's limited number of lifeboats (the ship's 20 boats could carry just 1,178 people, and many were launched only partly loaded) and rapid flooding, many crew members could not escape and died in the disaster.

Many famous people onboard also met their end that fateful night. Several notable people died as a result of the Titanic's sinking, including:

  • John Jacob Astor IV was a wealthy businessman and real estate developer who was, at the time, one of the wealthiest men in the world.
  • Benjamin Guggenheim was a wealthy member of the Guggenheim family and an American businessman and philanthropist. According to one story, when told rescue was unlikely, he changed into his formal evening wear to face death.
  • Isidor Straus and his wife Ida, co-owners of New York City's Macy's department store. They were last seen sitting in deck chairs, preferring to die together rather than be separated.
  • The ship's designer, Thomas Andrews, who was on board for the maiden voyage.
  • W.T. Stead was a British journalist and editor known for supporting social reform.
  • Archibald Butt was a military aide to President William Howard Taft of the United States.
  • The band, led by violinist Wallace Hartley, played uplifting music to try to calm the passengers as they took to the lifeboats. Almost 40,000 people later lined the route to Hartley’s funeral.

The loss of these and many other passengers and crew members in the disaster shocked the world and prompted a renewed focus on improving maritime safety standards.

That is a huge death toll, but why did so many die?

How did most people die on the Titanic?

Most people who died on the Titanic perished due to drowning or immersion hypothermia, which resulted from the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Immersion hypothermia, also known as "immersion syndrome" or "cold water immersion syndrome," is a condition that can occur after prolonged exposure to cold water. The body's core temperature drops below normal levels due to heat transfer from the body to the surrounding cold water.

Shivering, numbness, confusion, impaired motor function, and loss of consciousness are all symptoms of immersion hypothermia. Not the most pleasant way to end your days.

As the Titanic sank, many passengers and crew members were forced to evacuate and try to find a spot on one of the few available lifeboats. However, due to a lack of lifeboats and the chaos of the evacuation (lifeboats were launched below capacity because the crew worried that the davits couldn't support the weight of a fully loaded boat), many passengers and most of the crew were unable to escape and were stranded on the sinking ship. By the time the captain released the crew, there were only three collapsable boats remaining.

Hundreds jumped into the freezing waters as the ship sank. Because the water temperature was near freezing, many died of hypothermia within minutes of entering it. Others survived a bit longer in the frigid water by clinging to debris or lifeboats, but almost all of those who went into the water perished.

Of all those not in lifeboats (the lion's share of people onboard who made it off the Titanic), only a handful was rescued when the Carpathia finally arrived. One of these very fortunate few was Rhoda Abbott, a third-class passenger who jumped from the Titanic's deck with her two sons.

The two boys perished, but Abbott managed to get into one of the collapsable boats. She was the only female Titanic survivor to be rescued from the water.

How long did it take for people to die after leaving the Titanic?

We can never really know how long people were in the water, but we can make some estimates.

The amount of time it takes to die in the North Atlantic Ocean depends on various factors, such as the water temperature, the person's physical condition, and whether they are wearing a life jacket. The water temperature in the North Atlantic Ocean at that time of year is typically near freezing, often falling below 41°F (5°C), which can quickly lead to, as we've seen, immersion hypothermia.

Without a flotation device, which many Titanic passengers did not have, a person can quickly become exhausted from attempting to stay afloat and drown in minutes. A person can survive for a longer period with a life jacket or other flotation device. However, immersion hypothermia can still set in and cause the person to rapidly lose consciousness or die.

Depending on the circumstances, survival time in the North Atlantic Ocean can range from a few minutes to several hours. However, it's important to note that the longer a person is exposed to cold water, the less likely they are to survive, so prompt rescue is critical.

In the case of the Titanic, it is estimated that it would have taken at most 15 to 45 minutes for most people in the water to succumb to the worst effects of immersion hypothermia (if they hadn't drowned). Given that it took around 3.5 hours for the Carpathia to reach the Titanic after receiving the Titanic's SOS, this would explain why so few survivors not in lifeboats were ever rescued.

Where did the dead bodies of Titanic go?

Given the death toll, it should not be surprising that many bodies were discovered in the aftermath of the Titanic's sinking.

The Titanic disaster and her lost souls: The how and why of the dead
Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada is the gravesite for about 121 victims of the RMS Titanic.

Many of the bodies were recovered by ships participating in the search and rescue effort, such as the Carpathia and the Mackay-Bennett, which were sent to the scene. The bodies were transported to various ports and mortuaries for identification and preparation for burial or transport to their families.

Most bodies not recovered, including that of the captain, are presumed to be still entombed in the Titanic wreckage at the bottom of the North Atlantic or were carried far afield by ocean currents and either sank or were consumed by marine life.

But, more about that in the next episode of this series.

Did they find dead bodies on Titanic?

So, what about people who could not escape the sinking ship, are their remains still down there?

The Titanic sank in approximately 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) of water in the North Atlantic Ocean. That is so deep it is estimated to have taken 5 to 10 minutes for the wreck to reach the sea floor. The people onboard would not have survived for long, but what about their bodies?

The survival time of a body at the bottom of the sea can vary depending on several factors, such as water temperature, depth, and access to oxygen. In cold water, such as the North Atlantic, where the Titanic sank, a body can survive for several weeks, or even months, if it remains in relatively shallow water and is protected from scavengers.

However, if the body sinks to a great depth or is exposed to warmer water, decomposition can occur much more quickly, and the body may not survive for very long. Additionally, the pressure at great depths can cause the body to break down or be crushed by the weight of the water.

That being said, the location of some bodies has, incredibly, actually been found.

Several expeditions to the wreck site have been conducted in the years since the disaster. The remains of Titanic passengers and crew members have been discovered during some of these expeditions. The first body was found in 1985, during the first crewed exploration of the wreck. Several other expeditions have discovered additional remains since then.

These "bodies," however, consist primarily of clothing and shoes that lie so that they could only have been deposited like that while attached to a sunken human body.

And that is your lot for today.

In the next episode of this short series, we'll look at how many bodies were recovered and what, ultimately, happened to them.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board