WARNING: Graphic content

For those leading the recovery efforts, the task at hand was grim.

As rescue ships approached the ghostly sea where the Titanic plunged into the ocean in the dead of the cold night on April 15, 1912, white specks began to appear in the distance.

To onlookers aboard, they looked like "clustering and moving along the waves like a flock of seagulls". Hundreds of them. All grouped together.


But as the SS Bremen pushed closer towards the site on Saturday, April 20, passengers began to scream, reports News.com.au.

The Bremen, heading to America from Germany, had steamed into the pathway of the Titanic disaster.

The ship joined the Carpathia in the recovery mission, along with four White Star Line ships ordered to rush to the scene. Ice, coffins, canvas bags and embalming equipment were packed onto the ships - this was not a rescue, this was a recovery.

The white specks were frozen bodies of the dead, wrapped in the ill-fated steamer's life belts. For days, great quantities of these bodies, along with doors, pillows, chairs, tables, and scattered remains, floated along the North Atlantic.

"The sea became littered with bodies," noted one survivor, Mary Davis Wilburn.

"The dead came up holding children in their arms. The poor people never had a chance."

Two icebergs crashed against the sea, one a hundred feet high at its tallest peak.

Red and black paint etched into at least one them, a reminder of the horrors that befell the bodies below them.


"The first one was a lady with a body. We ran downstairs and told them [the crew], every body came up," Leoni Hermann, who was aboard the S.S. Bremen as an 11-year-old at the time, recalled in an interview.

"Everybody was crying. As we went further, there was another body. They picked one up, a man. They brought him up on the ship and examined him, they really looked at him and saw him."

Surviving wireless operator of the RMS Titanic, Harold Bride. Photo / Getty Images
Surviving wireless operator of the RMS Titanic, Harold Bride. Photo / Getty Images

It was 11:40pm on April 14, 1912, when Titanic made contact with an iceberg during her maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, sealing her fate.

She sank to her watery grave the following morning, at 2:20am, killing 1,526 passengers. This Saturday marks its 105th anniversary.

As the Titanic turns to historical legend, it is primarily romanticised; the necklace with the real life love story, or the illustrations that showed the luxurious life of the passengers.

But the reality for the rescuers in the days after the tragedy was anything but romantic.

While many talk of the days leading up to the disaster, fewer talk about the days in the North Atlantic after it.

Of the open-sea graveyard that surrounded the ships. Of the fog that rolled around the wreckage. Of the bodies that "bobbed in the swells".

Of the funeral services held on board rescue ships. Of sounds of the weighted bodies of victims plunging into the sea.

"For nearly an hour the words 'we therefore commit this body to the deep' are repeated and at each interval comes, splash! as the weighted body plunges into the sea, to sink to a depth of about two miles,"

Frederick Hamilton, a cable engineer aboard the White Star Liner ship, the Mackay-Bennett, described in his diary.

"Splash, splash, splash."

The Mackay-Bennett spent nearly two weeks at sea. Hamilton recorded picking up a total number of three hundred and five bodies, one hundred and sixteen of which were buried at sea. It was this ship that recoverd most of the bodies of the victims.

Bodies were stacked onto mounds of ice for those to be claimed by relatives.

"A large amount of money and jewels has been recovered, the identification of most of the bodies has been established, and details set out for publication," he wrote in his diary on April 26, after five days of recovery.

"It has been an arduous task for those who have had to overhaul and attend to the remains, the searching, numbering, and identifying of each body, depositing the property found on each in a bag marked with a number corresponding to that attached to the corpse, the sewing up in canvas and securing of weights, entailed prolonged and patient labour.

"The Embalmer is the only man to whom the work is pleasant, I might add without undue exaggeration, enjoyable, for to him it is a labour of love, and the pride of doing a job well."

For those aboard the Bremen, it was a distressing sight to behold.

"I saw a man and a woman clasped in each other's arms, two men clinging together and the body of a woman with a child in her arms lashed to a chair," Beatrice Stenke told the New York Times.

"We saw one woman in a nightdress with a baby clasped closely to her breast," Johanna Stunke, a passenger aboard the SS Bremen, later detailed.

"There was another woman fully dressed, with her arms tightly clutching the body of a shaggy dog that looked like a St. Bernard."

Some were dressed in full evening wear, others in night gowns and pyjamas. One woman was found with a life belt around her waist and a child in each arm.

Despite being cut off from mainstream media at the time (this was 1912 and they were at sea, remember), passengers on the Bremen were aware, if not prepared, of what they were about to see.

Wireless messages from the Titanic had been running across the airwaves since the disaster, and ships across the Atlantic were answering their calls for help.

"Come as quickly as possible, old man; the engine room is filling up to the boilers," the Titanic's last wireless pleaded at 1:50am, 20 minutes before the Titanic's final plunge.

"Steaming full speed for you ... hope you are safe," a liner responded at 3 a.m. Tragically, the last of the surviving victims would have been succumbing to hypothermia by that time.

In fact, victims looked truly battered by the disaster.

"The cruelty of the disaster is most evident with the bodies," writes Encyclopedia Titanica.
Witnesses described bruised and battered bodies, crushed skulls, broken arms, some even "cut up from the event of the sinking".

"They were frozen in the treacherously cold north Atlantic, at night, and were bleached by the sunlight, during the day. As if an amusement for a cruel sea, they bobbed, had their faces repeatedly dunked in the water, and became wrinkled and discolored as they decomposed."

Some were found with gunshot wounds, some by the hand of humankind in the panic that prevailed in those few terrifying hours before the ship sank, with its sloping decks and tilting body.

Crews described the scene as "cold, wet, miserable and comfortless" - a stark reminder of the fragility of human kind, in an age where the unsinkable Titanic became a ship of legend.

"Another burial service held, and seventy seven bodies follow the other," Hamilton wrote on April 24.

"The hoarse tone of the steam whistle reverberating through the mist, the dripping rigging, and the ghostly sea, the heaps of dead, and the hard weather-beaten faces of the crew, whose harsh voices join sympathetically in the hymn tunefully rendered by Canon Hind, all combine to make a strange task stranger.

"Cold, wet, miserable and comfortless, all hands balance themselves against the heavy rolling of the ship as she lurches to the Atlantic swell, and even the most hardened must reflect on the hopes and fears, the dismay and despair, of those whose nearest and dearest, support and pride, have been wrenched from them by this tragedy."

By the end of April, the harsh combination of salt and sun on victims' lifebelts began to cause them to break, and bodies started to disappear underneath the ocean floor.

In June that year, reports of sightings of bodies continued; a steward and a kitchen worker.

"We've seen clothing," Titanic director James Cameron said in 2012 of the possibility of bodies on the ocean floor.

"We've seen shoes. We've seen pairs of shoes, which would strongly suggest there was a body there at one point."

But on this night, not only do we remember the horror that unfolded, we remember the aftermath.