Hypothermia or Death by Drowning? The Titanic.

I’m so pleased to host Paula Moldenhauer today at Redwood’s Medical Edge. It was 100 years ago that the Titanic sunk and there is still speculation on many fronts. Cause of death of the victims in the water reamains one of them.

What do you think–did those victims die from hypothermia or did they drown?

Welcome Paula!

“For forty-five minutes the eerie, distressed cries reached across the frosty depths, tugging at our very souls. Their words were unintelligible at this distance but not their agony. They cried with decreasing volume as the mass of dying humanity became a crowd, a cluster, and finally a solitary whimper.

The quiet that followed, may the gods help me, brought great relief. At first my tortured ears strained without permission, listening for that one more sound of life, but I knew it would not come. Not from those frozen corpses shrouded in darkness. Not from that bitter grave.

It was finally—mercifully—silent.”

                                                                        Excerpt from Titanic: Legacy of Betrayal

In the historical research for Titanic: Legacy of Betrayal, most first-hand accounts of survivors talked about the horrible sound of the victim’s screams that started as a roar and tapered off as those in the water were rendered unconscious or dead. 

Now, one-hundred years later, there is still some dispute over whether the majority of the RMS Titanic’s victims drowned or died from hypothermia.

Paula Moldenhauer

According to the Pacific Yachting Magazine, “Cold water carries heat away from the body 25 times faster than air of the same temperature and as a result, the body core immediately begins to lose heat to the outside environment. At first, the body tries to generate more heat by shivering, but this is not enough to offset the loss of heat to the water. Within 20 to 30 minutes, depending on water temperature, body core temperature drops to below 35° C (95° F) cognitive functioning and judgment become affected. This cooling, if not checked, leads to disorientation, unconsciousness and eventually death.”*

Still, most statistics tell us that most people die of drowning, not hypothermia. 

Maybe “Cold Shock,” the initial minute or two of exposure to cold water, provides an explanation. It signals a “gasp” reflex, which can cause serious problems if your head is under water. Next, you hyperventilate, your heart races, and blood pressure spikes. It’s hard to breathe and panic increases. In some people these symptoms cause cardiac arrest. Even healthy individuals can have difficulty keeping their head above water in such stressful situations!
Kathy Kovach

Cold Shock is followed by Cold Incapacity. During this time, “neuromuscular activity slows and body fluids literally congeal in the muscles.”* It becomes increasingly difficult to do anything that requires manual dexterity. Your hands and fingers stop working first, then the deeper tissues of the arms and legs cease operating properly. After ten minutes, they no longer respond to your will. Even experienced swimmers find short swims difficult or impossible. Without proper flotation equipment it is hard to keep your face out of the water and prevent inhalation.

If victims survive the first two stages, hypothermia sets in after 20-30 minutes of exposure. The body’s core temperature drops to 95 degrees F. Once hypothermia begins the victim’s clothing, body fat, and other factors come into play. On average, there is about another 30 minutes of “useful consciousness” left. 

According to PYC, “During this last period, it is still likely victims will die from drowning, unable to keep their airways above water as they slip into disorientation and unconsciousness. The only victims who actually die of hypothermia are those who have managed to keep their airways above water, even after unconsciousness, by securing themselves to floating wreckage or through the use of self-righting lifejackets.”*

Which brings us back to the RMS Titanic. Experts say Titanic’s life jackets kept victims afloat, but were not-self-righting. (You can learn more about this here.) Since survivors report hearing cries for help for 40 minutes to an hour despite the frigid 31 degree water, this seems to indicate that at least some of the victims were able to avoid drowning and succumbed to hypothermia.

Still, despite the obvious fact that that the RMS Titanic victims were in freezing water, the technical cause of death could still be drowning in most cases, as people lost the ability to keep their head above water.

Either way even now, 100 years later, I’m haunted by the thought of almost 1,500 people left in the water, crying for help.

(BTW, Here’s what to do to prevent hypothermia according to the Red Cross.)

*The direct quotes were taken from The Chilling Truth About Water. You can also find a chart there that breaks down survival times in cold water.

Paula Moldenhauer co-authored, Titanic: Legacy of Betrayal,with Kathleen E. Kovach. Author, speaker, and mom of four, Paula has published over 300 times. Her first two novels released in 2012. She serves as the Colorado Coordinator for the American Christian Fiction Writers and homeschools. Paula loves peppermint ice cream and walking barefoot. Her greatest desire is to be close enough to Jesus to breathe His fragrance. Her website offers homeschooling and parenting articles, devotionals, and information about her books. www.paulamoldenhauer.com Visit her on facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/PaulaMoldenhauerAuthor

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