Did The Californian's Officers Recognise The Rockets they Watched as Distress Rockets


Sep 22, 2003
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Did The Californian's Officers Recognise The Rockets they Watched as Distress Rockets?

In my opinion the Answer is Yes, but I thought I'd it would be nice to see everyone elses opinion too. Heres Evidence from The British Inquiry on the Subject

(Gibson)
7757. I should like to ask one question. Did you hear any explosive signal? - No.

7758. Were those rockets which you saw go up explosives? Did you hear any explosion? - I did not, hear any report at all.

7759. Any stars? - Yes.

7760. You could see stars? - Yes.

7761. You mean stars from the rockets? - Yes.

7762. Were they stars of any colour or were they white stars? - White stars.

7763. Do you know that a distress signal, the regulation distress signal, is a rocket throwing stars? - Yes.

7764. You knew that? - Yes.

7765. (The Commissioner.) And you knew it then, did you? - Yes.

7766. (Mr. Laing.) And each of those rockets which you saw, which you have described as white rockets, were they throwing stars? - All throwing stars
(In My View This Means That Gibson Probably knew at the time he was distress rockets)

(Stewart)
8577. What did he tell you? - He told me he had seen a ship four or five miles off when he went on deck at 12 o'clock, and at 1 o'clock he had seen some rockets.

8578. Did not he say how many? - No, he did not say.

8579. Did not he say what sort of rockets? - I asked him; he said they were white rockets.

8580. This ship would have been in the ice or near the ice too? - Yes.

8581. Did you realise that your ship had stopped because the ice was dangerous? - Well, it was not safe to go on at nighttime.

8582. When Mr. Stone told you that he had seen a ship some miles off which had been throwing up rockets, what did you suppose the rockets must have been for? - I asked him what he did. He said the moment she started firing the rockets she started to steam away.

8583. (The Commissioner.) What steamed away? - The ship that was firing the rockets.

8584. Fired the rockets and then started to steam away? - Yes.

8585. (The Solicitor-General.) Did he tell you that five rockets had been observed, and then three more? - I do not think he did.

8586. Just to return to the question I put to you - because you have not quite answered it. I ask you, as an experienced Officer, when you were told this ship which was in the ice had been throwing up white rockets at night, what did you suppose she was throwing up her rockets for? - I thought what had really happened was she had seen a ship firing rockets to the southward, and was replying to them.

8587. (The Commissioner.) Will you repeat that to me? What did you think? - I thought the ship he saw firing rockets was replying to some other ship to the southward.

8588. Replying? Do you reply to another ship by firing rockets? - Well, my Lord, he told me he had called him up repeatedly by the Morse lamp and the ship did not answer.

8589. But I do not understand this replying by means of rockets. Did you ever hear of such a thing? - Well, I never heard of such a thing, but he might have replied to let them know he had seen them.

The Commissioner: You are supposing now something you have never heard of happening before.

8590. (The Solicitor-General.) Let me follow. Did it not enter your head when you heard this, that those might be distress signals? - Yes.

8591. It did? - Yes.

8592. What made you think they might be distress signals? - Because they were rockets.

8593. They were from the description just what you would expect if they were distress signals? - They were white rockets.

8594. And did Mr. Stone tell you he had reported to the captain? - He told me he had reported to the captain, yes.
(He Wasn't On Watch at the time, but talked to stone about what took place, and it seems to me he might've done more, though we'll never know)


(Stone)
8025. Is not part of the subjects of examination the signals of distress and the signals to be made by ships wanting a pilot? - Yes, the articles.

8026. That is one of the subjects in which you are supposed by the Board of Trade to be qualified before you get the certificate? - Yes.

8027. I suppose before you sat for that examination, you read something about signals? - I learned them.

8028. Do you mean to tell his Lordship that you did not know that the throwing up of "rockets or shells, throwing stars of any colour or description, fired one at a time at short intervals," is the proper method for signaling distress at night? - Yes, that is the way it is always done as far as I know.

8029. And you knew that perfectly well on the night of the 14th of April? - Yes.

The Commissioner: And is not that exactly what was happening?

8030. (Mr. Scanlan.) You have heard my Lord put that question. That was what was happening? - Yes.

8031. (The Commissioner.) The very thing was happening that you knew indicated distress? - If that steamer had stayed on the same bearing after showing these rockets -

8032. No, do not give a long answer of that kind. Is it not the fact that the very thing was happening which you had been taught indicated distress? - Yes.

8033. (Mr. Scanlan.) You knew it meant distress? - I knew that rockets shown at short intervals, one at a time, meant distress signals, yes.

8034. Do not speak generally. On that very night when you saw those rockets being sent up you knew, did you not, that those rockets were signals of distress? - No.

8035. (The Commissioner.) Now do think about what you are saying. You have just told me that what you saw from that steamer was exactly what you had been taught to understand were signals of distress. You told me so? - Yes.

8036. Well is it true? - It is true that similar lights are distress signals, yes.

8037. Then you had seen them from this steamer? - A steamer that is in distress does not steam away from you, my Lord.

8038. You saw these before this steamer steamed away from you? - I saw them at the same time the ship started to alter her bearings.

8039. (Mr. Scanlan.) But for a long time while this ship was stationary like your own, you noticed at frequent intervals that she was sending up rocket after rocket? - No.

8040. I thought that you told my learned friend that you had counted the rockets. Here is what you said. You said you had not your binoculars when the first rocket went up and you did not see the stars. Then you took your binoculars and you saw two other rockets and in each case you saw stars? - Yes.

8041. Did not those come in fairly quick succession one after another? - Yes.

8042. What do you mean by saying that you did not see them coming in quick succession one after another? - I said that the ship was altering her bearing from the time she showed her first rocket; she commenced altering her bearing by the compass
(In my View This Answers it For Stone Questions 8028-8033, While it is a little confusing, Stone says thats what was described as distress rockets to him was what he saw and would have recognised as distress rockets)

There has also been the question of Colour in Rockets, and some people have said that distress rockets (1912) were suppost to have colour (Particularly Red and Green). I however find this Argument hard to accept due to question 8028, and I don't Think Colour has much to do w/ matter of whether or not they were distress rockets)

heres a short Quote from it Describing a disdress rocket, Note the Key Words Colour and Description.

"rockets or shells, throwing stars of any colour or description, fired one at a time at short intervals"


Hopefully I'll Get some Responses
 
Dec 2, 2000
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If they didn't, I think perhaps they should have. Personally, I think they simply misread the situation and failed to follow up on it as aggressively as they should have. The "Oh s**t" moment came in the morning when the word got to them on the wireless. It happens, and often for no better reason then it just does.

However since these people are no longer available to question, I have no way of verifying that. (In other words, I could be wrong.)
 
Mar 22, 2003
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Jesse I think you answered your own question. What Stone and Gibson actually thought we of course have no way of knowing. However, you asked for opinion.

In my opinion, Stone, the OOW, was incapable of taking action into his own hands. Groves described him as an unimaginative type with little self confidence, and I believe that. Groves also described Lord as an austere type devoid of humour, and this too may be true. According to Gibson, Stone had reported to Lord after seeing the 2nd rocket. (The first one he saw he thought it may have been a shooting star.) Stone told Lord that he saw what looked like a white rocket come from the steamer that stopped about an hour before. In itself not a very alarming message. So Lord asked him if it was a company signal that he saw. Stone said he didn't know. I don't believe he reported to Lord that he was seeing multiple rockets fired in short intervals at that time. However, Lord was not quite satisfied by his answer. Lord knew that if it wasn't a company signal then it would have to be a distress signal. (See 6934-6944).

The mistake Lord made, and I believe he admitted that later in life, was not getting up and going topside to see what was really going on for himself. He trusted Stone to tell him what was going on. He told Stone to try and signal the steamer by Morse lamp and send Gibson down if got a reply. I think Lord had assumed that Stone would call down again if more rockets were seen, but Stone did not do that until much later after the steamer disappeared.

Lord assumed that Stone would know if distress signals were being fired, and Stone never thought of insisting that Lord come up and judge for himself, or to wake Evans and get on the wireless after having failed to get a reply from the steamer by Morse lamp. As Stone admitted, what he saw happening he knew meant signals of distress (8028). But he refused to believe what he was seeing because the master did not appear to be too concerned. He was not going to second guess Lord. I don't think Stone was very bright. Gibson saw much of it too, but as an apprentice it was not his place to second guess Stone.
 
Sep 22, 2003
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Samuel

You Seem to have made a good many points, and while I may have answered my own question, I'm Still very much interested in opinions as I know a good amount of board members are Historians or home some sort Experience in ships or both, I therefore find the opinions of those listed to be interesting and to make for good debate.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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Jesse, you may want to parse through the threads in this folder on that. A lot of this ground has been extensively covered. Short of that, Samuel spoke to a chain of command that had quite a few weak spots, not the least of which appears to be an unwillingness to take the initiative and finding reasons to avoid taking the initiative.

I'm inclined to agree with his observations.
 
Jan 21, 2001
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Jesse:

For what it's worth, I also believe that Stone and Gibson realized they were seeing distress rockets, for the very passages you posted above. I also think Capt. Lord knew that it was at least a possibility, considering his questions as to whether the rockets were company signals, or had colors in them, or whether they were all white.

Now, *why* nobody reacted with more urgency is anybody's guess, but ultimately any explanation for it gets hung-up in the miscommunication or finger-pointing between Stone and Lord. The two of them had different motivations that kept from acting, at least, that's what I believe. Stone wasn't willing (or able?) to be more forceful with his boss, and Lord wasn't willing to commit his ship to action in the dark of night. *If* Stone were to be more forceful, he would have to risk Lord's annoyance; and *if* Lord had wakened Evans, or gone out on deck to see for himself, he would have been forced to take action. I don't think either of them wanted to face those situations respectively. So while Stone was content to wait for Lord to do something, Lord was content to wait for Stone to say something more definite.

That's why, in the aftermath, we get these rationalizations: (Stone) "I couldn't get the old man out of the chartroom," and (Lord) "It wouldn't have happened if I had been notified properly."

Dave Billnitzer
 

Erik Wood

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It's important to remeber here that Lord was in overall command of that vessel, likewise his representitive on the bridge that night had an obligation to inform the master of anything that the OOW felt out of the norm. Perhaps I am thinking to much in my own 20th century thinking, but just telling the skipper and dropping it is completely unacceptable, especially if you have reason to believe something else is wrong, it this the OOW's duty to inform the master of the entire situation so that he can make a sound decision, and if that OOW feels that captain is either not acting appropaitly or isn't acting at all, it is his duty to see to the safety of the ship and in this case to help those who needed help IF IT WAS SAFE TO DO SO . Or better put, to see that Captain is made fully aware of the situation and to have it logged.

Having said that, from what we know Lord was given conflicting, inaccurate and incomplete information. As a master, I would have gotten up to see if I couldn't figure what was what. But then again I also have 90+ years of hindsight. I obviously expect a lot from OOW's and other officers. I expect them to be professional. I like any other Captain hate to be awakened 10 times in the middle of the night. However, I would much rather be awakened 10 times in the middle of the night, then not be awakened and have something bad happen. My temperment isn't always good at 2 am when I have gotten any sleep, but I see to my duty as the ships captain.

Whether the rockets where misread or not is not the issue. The issue is that the chain of command, and the duties of those in that chain, from the Captain down, didn't work that well that night.
 
Jan 21, 2001
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Erik and others with experience along these lines:

When a break occurs in the chain of command, where does responsibility lie? I don't mean generally here; I mean in a specific case like this. The chain from Lord to Stone wasn't a long one, as in say a business hierarchy.

In psychology, we talk about communication having two components - the giver of information, and the receiver. Either side can fail, or both at the same time. (My opinion is that both sides failed - Stone *and* Lord - in the case of the Californian.) Stone probably wasn't clear enough about his misgivings, but he did give Lord enough information that Lord asked about the color of the rockets, which tells me he was entertaining the possibility that those might have been distress rockets.

My question is really about chain of command though; does that allow for breakage at both ends of the chain? Or is one side typically held responsible for the entire failure?

Dave Billnitzer
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>When a break occurs in the chain of command, where does responsibility lie?<<

In general terms, it lies with the people in that chain of command who dropped the ball. Stone for not being as assertive as he should have been, and certainly Captain Lord for not checking things out for himself. Gibson doesn't get off the hook either. When charged with delivering information to the Captain, he had a responsibility to make sure he actually got it and understood it. Apparantly, this didn't happen. What happened on the Californian was a three ring circus in this regard and nobody gets off scott free.

Ultimately however, it lies with the captain of the ship. He's the ultimate authority and with that comes the ultimate responsibility.
 

Paul Lee

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If, as Lightoller was quoted in "The Ship That Stood Still", etc. etc., then why would Lord have asked about colours in the rockets? Surely he would have known that rockets of any description, fired one at a time, at short intervals would have meant nothing but distress?

Paul

 
Mar 22, 2003
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Surely he would have known that rockets of any description, fired one at a time, at short intervals would have meant nothing but distress?
I agree Paul, but what was he really told? According to Gibson's affidavit: "The Second Officer [Stone] told me that the other ship, which was then about 3 ½ points on the Starboard bow, had fired five rockets and he also remarked that after seeing the second one, to make sure that he was not mistaken, he had told the Captain, through the speaking tube, and that the Captain had told him to watch her and keep calling her up on the Morse light."
The 1st one Stone thought was a shooting star. The second one he thought was a white rocket. If that is all he saw when he called down to Lord, then as far as Lord is concerned what was reported to him did not mean distress, just a single white rocket. Problem is Stone never followed up after seeing several more fired at short intervals. When he sent Gibson down later, it was too late.

Michael, as far as Gibson's role in all this, he was told to go down and tell Lord the ship disappeared in the SW and had fired a total 8 white rockets. That was at 2:05 AM Californian time. The Captain got it, but it was too late to do anything. The ship had already disappeared. Gibson was never "on the hook" to begin with. Stone as OOW certainly was, and Lord as Captain certainly was.
 

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