(Illustration by Mark Elliot from "What Sank the World's Biggest Ship?"/Sterling Children's Books)

“We’ve had a little accident.
They’re going to fix it, and then we’ll be on our way.”

Steward on the RMS Titanic, April 14, 1912

It wasn’t the loud scraping noise that woke 12-year-old Ruth Becker and her mother that freezing April night. It was the sudden silence. Like others aboard the grand new ocean liner RMS Titanic that moonless night 100 years ago, Ruth wondered why the ship’s powerful engines had fallen silent in the middle of the icy North Atlantic.

Their steward, whose job it was to take care of them, calmed their jitters with soothing words about the “little accident.” Whatever was going on couldn’t be that bad. Down below, the ship had 15 watertight walls that made it almost unsinkable. The delay would be short, he promised.

There had already been lots of excitement on the Titanic (pronounced tie-TAN-ick) in its five days at sea. The biggest and finest ship of its day, it was on its first voyage — a week-long crossing from England to New York.

Onboard were 2,200 passengers and crew members, and 3,500 sacks of mail (“RMS” in the ship’s title stood for “Royal Mail Ship”). Some of the richest people in the world had booked the fanciest staterooms. Their servants traveled with them. But more than half the passengers were in third class, the cheapest ticket. Most were immigrants wanting a new life in America.

There were more than 100 children on board, including:

●William Carter, 11, whose two dogs were in the ship’s kennel.

●Marjorie Collyer, 8, who accidentally left her favorite doll on the ship.

●Johan Svensson, 14, who was joining his father and older sister in South Dakota. The rest of the family, still in Sweden, was to follow. Johan’s mother had sewn his money into his jacket.

For kids such as Johan, in third class, much of the ship was off-limits, including the library, pool, steam baths and gym. So kids made their own fun. Frankie Goldsmith, 9, swung from cranes in the baggage area.

The ship was as long as three football fields and had nine decks. There were lots of places for children in first and second class to explore and play games.

Disaster in the dark

For four days, the trip went smoothly. Other ships warned of a large ice field ahead, but the Titanic’s officers weren’t worried about their “unsinkable” floating palace. They plowed ahead until disaster struck near midnight on April 14.

The Titanic, then about 375 miles south of Newfoundland, Canada, hit an iceberg. Up on deck there was no damage, but down below, water began pouring into some of the ship’s compartments. It was thought that water wouldn’t be able to flow from one compartment to the next. But that’s just what happened, and it soon became clear that so much water had flooded the ship that it would sink. The captain, told that the ship would go down within two hours, ordered lifeboats to be prepared so that passengers could get off the ship.

There weren’t enough boats for everyone, however. “Women and children first!” was the rule. But in the chaos, most of the boats set off with empty seats. And some men made it in, while some women and about half of the children —mostly from third class — did not.

As the last boat left around 2 a.m., more than 1,000 people were still on the Titanic, whose nose had slid into the ink-dark ocean. Suddenly the ship’s rear lifted straight up, and with a terrible groan, the Titanic split in two. Moments later, the entire ship had disappeared!

“It seemed as if . . . the whole world was standing still,” recalled Eva Hart, who was 7 when she watched with her mother from a lifeboat as the Titanic sank. “There was nothing, just this deathly, terrible silence in the dark night with the stars overhead.”

A place in history

The 700 survivors were rescued hours later by another ship, which raced 58 miles through the ice field after receiving the Titanic’s SOS call. The trip of their dreams had changed their lives forever.

It wasn’t until 1985, nearly 73 years after the tragedy, that ocean explorers finally found the Titanic. The ship rests on the ocean bottom, 2½ miles underwater, in two large pieces. Instead of the one big gash thought to have caused the ship to sink, there are six thin slits in the ship’s bottom, each no wider than a man’s hand, where steel plates were joined. The force of the crash seems to have torn the plates apart, letting water rush in.

Since the 1985 discovery, thousands of items, including dishes, playing cards and pieces of jewelry, have been pulled from the wreckage and put on display. Some people think the Titanic should be left in peace, to honor those who died on its first — and last — voyage.

— Marylou Tousignant