Encyclopedia Titanica

Carpathia and the Titanic Rescue

Second Officer of the Carpathia recalls a dramatic night


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As the Carpathia thrust on into the night, Captain Rostron stood silently his cap raised a little from his brow, his lips moving in silent prayer. Then, like an electric spark, he was hurtling around, galvanizing everybody to activity.


James Gordon Partridge Bisset started his seagoing career as an apprentice aboard the windjammer County of Premboke. After four years during which time he had risen to the ranks of first mate in a variety of sailing vessels, he transferred to steam, initially in cargo vessels, but eventually was able to join the Cunard Line, as fourth officer of the Caronia, but then with increasing responsibility aboard some of the Line's more humble passenger and cargo vessels, including the Ultonia, Ivernia, Brescia (under Captain Rostron), and Phrygia. By 1912, as he recalled in a 1959 memoir, he was ready for a bigger challenge...:

SS Ultonia (1898-1917) which Bisset joined in 1907 as Fourth Officer.

The Olympic and Titanic

After I had made seven or eight Mediterranean cargo cruises, each of three months' duration, the novelty had worn off, and I was hoping that my turn would soon come to be rostered for duty again in one of the big passenger liners; but promotion in the Cunard service never came quickly or easily. Every officer had to earn it the hard way, in the years of experience in the Company's small as well as big vessels, and patience was a necessity.

During the year 1910, when we returned to Liverpool after each voyage, the main topic of discussion among shipping people there was the building of the gigantic White Star liner, Olympic, then in progress at Harland and Wolff's shipyards in Belfast. She and her intended sister ship, Titanic, designed for the transatlantic mail­ and-passenger service, each of 46,000 tons, would be by far the biggest ships in the world, easily surpassing in size the two Cunard giants, Mauretania and Lusitania, which were of only 32,000 tons. The two big Cunarders, launched in 1907, had ushered in the modem era of the gigantic "super-liners." When they were launched it was thought unlikely that any bigger vessels would ever be built; but their success was a challenge that was taken up almost immediately by the American-controlled combine, the International Mercantile Marine, which owned the White Star Line.

The keel of the Olympic was laid in December, 1908. She was 882 feet in length overall (100 feet longer than the Mauretania) and 92 feet beam. Harland and Wolff's shipyard had to be enlarged to accommodate her. The biggest vessels built there previously had been the Adriatic (24,541 tons), launched in 1907, and the Baltic (23,876 tons), launched in 1904 – these two having provided the challenge which Cunard had answered with the Mauretania and Lusitania.

Now the two new giant White Star liners would wrest supremacy in size from Cunard and all other competitors. The Olympic was launched at Belfast on October 20, 1910, and lay there for eight months being fitted out. She had four funnels, and triple screws, a straight stem, raised forecastle and poop, and a very long midships superstructure. She was claimed to be unsinkable, as she had fifteen watertight bulkheads, the doors of which could be closed by electric control from the bridge. Her passenger accommodation was luxurious on a scale never previously attempted. She was the first liner to have a swimming pool. Her dining saloon, 114 feet long, could seat 532 persons.

Olympic and Titanic
Olympic and Titanic under construction
(The Shipbuilder, Special Number, June 1911)

As soon as the Olympic was launched, the keel of her sister ship Titanic was laid down. Work began on the second vessel immediately, from the same plans, with only minor modifications. A third giant sister was to follow (the Britannic).

In the meantime, Cunard also had two new liners on the stocks, on the Tyne, but these were only medium size, 18,000 tons—the Franconia and the Laconia (the first ships bearing those names, which, after both these ships had been sunk by enemy action during the First World War, were applied in the twenties to two new and slightly larger ships).

The White Star Line had also launched in 1909 two medium­-sized ships, the Laurentic and Megantic, of 14,000 tons. The Hamburg-Amerika Line in that year had launched two fine steamers, the Cleveland and the Cincinnati, each of 16,000 tons. Norddeutscher Lloyd in 1908 had put into service the Prinz Frederich Wilhelm and the Berlin, each of 17,000 tons, and in 1909 the George Washington, 25,000 tons—the first of the "big" German liners.

The competition on the transatlantic route had therefore become keener than ever before, with no less than nine fine new ships brought into service in two years, and all the rival companies striving to be excellent. But imagination boggled at the magnitude and magnificence of the two White Star superliners of 46,000 tons. Wise heads predicted difficulties in docking and undocking—"Too big to handle!"

Too big! What could be the limit of a ship's size? A dazzling new era was dawning. "Progress is inevitable. We must keep up with our competitors!"

The Olympic was fourteen times greater in tonnage than the Brescia in which I was plodding along: that is, she had a tonnage equal to a fleet of fourteen average cargo steamers. She was a whole fleet in one hull. It seemed fantastic to me, as to many others who had begun their sea careers in sailing vessels of 1,000 tons.

I heard two old salts arguing in a Liverpool pub:

"She'll be a floating palace."
"Floating boarding-house, you mean. Not like going to sea at all!"
"But think of all the work and wages–a thousand men working for two years building her."
"That's in Belfast, not here. A waste of money."
"And think of all the work for her people. She'll carry a crew of a thousand seamen, firemen, trimmers, stewards."
"They'd be better on shore. She's so big, she'll bump into summat."
"She's unsinkable."
"My eye and Betty Martini, No ship's unsinkable." "She's a credit to Old England."
"Ireland, you mean? And she's no damn good to Liverpool. She'll be sailing out o' Southampton."

So the arguments continued, but there was no doubt that I.M.M. and White Star had struck a mighty blow for prestige and profits. Cunard and the Germans would need to look to their laurels.

If a distinction is to be drawn between liners and mammoth liners, the launching of the Olympic in October 1910, and her maiden voyage in June 1911, were the crucial steps forward into the era of gigantic shipbuilding. But the Mauretania and Lusitania had inaugurated that era.

The Olympic did not succeed in taking the Blue Riband for speed from the Mauretania. On her maiden voyage she attained an average speed of 21.17 knots, but the Mauretania held the Blue Riband in 1909 with a speed of 25.89 knots, and in 1910 with 26.06 knots, setting a record which stood for twenty years thereafter. That was the feather that remained in Cunard's cap.

In May 1911, after having made ten voyages to the Mediterranean in the Brescia in twenty-nine months, I was transferred from her to the S.S. Phrygia, [the former Oro of the Plate Steamship Company] and promoted to Second Officer: a rise which I felt that I had worked to earn. This promotion, entitling me to two gold stripes on the sleeve and an extra pound a month in pay, came to me at the age of twenty-eight years, after thirteen years at sea, including four years in the Cunard service. I had gained experience, the hard way, but I did feel that, as Second Officer in a cargo steamer, I was soaring high in the nautical firm­ament. I had a long and stiff climb ahead, and I knew it. Cunard Captains are not born with four stripes on their sleeve. They have to earn them.

[Section omitted in which Bisset discusses voyages in the Phrygia and his training to become a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve aboard H.M.S. Hogue]

On leaving the Hogue, I spent a few more very happy days in London, and then returned to Liverpool and the Cunard service. My appointment as a Sub-Lieutenant in the R.N.R. was officially confirmed by a notice from the Admiralty on January 25, 1912.

The Marine Superintendent informed me that I was posted for "general relieving duties" in the port of Liverpool for one month, while the S.S. Carpathia was being refitted, and that I would then join her early in February as Second Officer. This was another lucky break. I could live at home with my parents, reporting daily to the Marine Superintendent for whatever handy work was required, relieving officers in Cunard ships in port while they went on shore with short leave.

At this time I renewed acquaintance with Percy Hefford, who had been shipmates with me in the old S.S. Nether Holme six years previously. He had passed for Master and Extra Master, and was now Third Officer in one of the Cunarders on the transatlantic run. When his ship was in port, he stayed at our home. His ambition, like mine, was to be appointed to the Mauretania or the Lusitania.

One evening when we were talking of this, the framed picture of the Lusitania, hanging on the wall of our sitting-room, where we were yarning and joking, suddenly fell to the floor with a crash of broken glass! It had been hanging there for five years, and the supporting wire had rusted through. We were both young enough to be a little shaken by the superstition that a falling picture presages death, but we passed it off with a jest, as there was no reason to suppose that the Lusitania was ill-fated.

Lusitania Mauretania
Lusitania and Mauretania


At this time the Cunard Atlantic Mail services from Liverpool to New York were being maintained by the Mauretania, the Lusitania, the Caronia, the Carmania, and the Campania, together with the two new 18,000-ton liners, the Franconia and the Laconia. To meet the challenge of the White Star superliners, the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Britannic, Cunard had placed an order with Brown's shipyards at Clydebank for a 45,000-ton liner, the Aquitania, the keel of which was laid in 1911. She was intended to work with the Mauretania and the Lusitania to maintain the regular weekend departure schedules from both sides of the Atlantic. Liverpool was still the Cunard terminal port and home port, but the White Star services were now based on Southampton, and calling at Cherbourg.

The Olympic had been in service since June, 1911, and had proved a great attraction to passengers by her undisputed status as the biggest ship in the world. But she had a setback on September 20, when, after being only three months in service, she collided with a British cruiser, H.M.S. Hawke, which tore a hole forty feet long in her side, above the waterline. This necessitated docking for repairs, and the incident gave some support to pessimists who insisted that she was "too big to handle."

Olympic after Hawke Accident
SS Olympic at Southampton Docks after the Collision with H.M.S. Hawke

The Titanic had been launched at Belfast on May 31, 1911, and was being fitted out much more elaborately than the Olympic. She was described in newspaper reports as "the Wonder Ship," and "the Last Word in Luxury." Advance publicity acclaimed. her as "the Unsinkable Ship" and as "the Biggest Ship in the World." In fact she was of the same design and dimensions as the Olympic, and in the final computations of gross tonnage the Olympic was 111 tons heavier: the Olympic 46,439 gross tons, the Titanic 46,328 gross tons.

Yet the Titanic was indeed a Titan—imaginatively named from that race of giants in Greek mythology, of planetary dimensions, the Sons of the Earth and the Brothers of Time. The very name of this gigantic new ship had a fascination. It was a masterstroke of nomenclature and a challenge to fate. She was scheduled to go into service in April, 1912. No ship so stupendous in luxurious appointments had ever been built, or ever would be built. She would be the superb, the supreme liner. Her name, like that of H.M.S. Dreadnought, was an inspiration expressing the confidence of a seafaring folk at the zenith of power and glory. I hoped that I would see her someday, in her pride, but I had no premonition of what I was destined to see…

During this period on shore, I realized that, at the age of twenty-nine, I had never been confirmed as a communicant of the Church of England. I had been duly baptized in my infancy, but, having gone to sea at the age of fifteen, I had missed the opportunity which comes to most youths to attend confirmation classes in order to qualify as a full member of the Church. I discussed the problem with the Reverend E. V. Savage, Chaplain at the Mersey Seamen's Mission, in Hanover Street, Liverpool. He gave me the necessary instruction in the Shorter Catechism, and presented me on February 7, 1912, as a candidate for confirmation by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Reverend Francis James Chavasse, a saintly and gentle man who was much beloved by the Merseysiders who were in his pastoral care. As I was due to go to sea again in a few days, the Bishop accepted me into his flock by confirming me in the chapel at his palace in Abercromby Square. He gave me my first communion and also a prayer book, which remained with me throughout the years, at times when I needed it.

Three days later, on February 10, 1912, I joined the S.S. Carpathia at Liverpool, as Second Officer. After being refitted, she was returning to her previous service transporting emigrants and cargo from the Adriatic and Italian ports to New York, making on an average seven voyages a year, in rotation with the Pannonia, the Ultonia, the Slavonia, and the Saxonia. Having been in this service as Fourth Officer in the Ultonia in 1908, I knew what to expect, as far as the routine work was concerned; but, fortunately perhaps, we never know with certainty what is ahead of us, as time unrolls to reveal the interruptions that, pleasantly or unpleasantly, may shatter all our humdrum anticipations.

Carpathia Brochure
SS Carpathia Brochure Cover
(Courtesy of Charles Haas)

My chief regret was that I would be away from England for a year. As a rule the ships in the Adriatic service were recalled to Liverpool, in rotation, after twelve months, for mechanical overhaul, stocktaking, and replacements and repairs of furniture and fittings, and annual holiday leave for the crews. This was the only Cunard service at that time not working directly from Liverpool on outward and homeward voyages from and returning to that home port at frequent intervals; but, from the administrative point of view, the Adriatic service was ultimately based on Liverpool, with yearlong voyages, consisting of fourteen Atlantic crossings (seven round trips) between Trieste and New York to be accomplished before each ship returned to the home port at Liverpool to refit and pay-off.

Though disappointed at the prospect of such a long absence from England, I was pleased at being again in a passenger liner. The S.S. Carpathia, launched on the Tyne in 1903, was a twin­ screw steamer of 13,603 tons, with a straight stem, a tall single funnel, and four steel masts. She had a speed of fourteen knots. She was specially designed for the Adriatic migrant service, and, with this in view, she originally had accommodation for 1,600 third-class passengers, 200 second-class; and no first-class. In this way she was the forerunner of the modem "tourist-class" liners.

Third class Smoking Room
The Carpathia's Third Class Smoking Room
(Courtesy of Charles Haas)

She was in no sense a "luxury liner," but she was a comfortable and friendly ship. When I joined her, she was in the ninth year of her service, and well settled in to her steady work. She had a crew of approximately 300. Her Master was Captain Arthur Rostron—that highly efficient seaman, known in the Cunard service as "the Electric Spark"—under whom I had served for a year in the S.S. Brescia three years previously. He believed devoutly in the power of prayer.

The navigating officers were Chief Officer Hankinson; First Officer Dean; Second Officer (myself); Third Officer Rees; Fourth Officer Barnish. Other officers included Chief Engineer Johnstone and six other Engineer Officers; Doctor Frank McGhee and two other doctors-one Hungarian, one Italian; the Purser, E. G. F. Brown; Chief Steward Harry Hughes; and the Wireless Operator, Harold Cottam. Fifteen men of assorted abilities, associated as we were with one another and nearly 300 others of the ship's people in our various departments for working the ship, we had no inkling, at the outset of that voyage, that presently we were to be drawn into a maelstrom of tragedy and poignant emotion and disastrous mischance, unique in sea history; and that the mind-numbing horror that lay in wait for us would remain vivid in the memory of each and every one of us to the end of our days.

Ladies room
The Carpathia's Third Class Ladies Room
(Courtesy of Charles Haas)

The Carpathia's upperdeck passenger accommodation had been refitted for a particular purpose on this voyage. In the ordinary course of events, after refitting, she would have proceeded from Liverpool to Fiume with empty passenger compartments, to resume the emigrant-carrying trade; but someone at the Head Office of the Company had the bright idea of using her for a "Mediterranean cruise." She could take a limited number of cruise passengers as far as Naples. There they would be transferred to the Caronia, to be brought back to Liverpool.

1912 Carpathia Cruise Advert
Advertisement for cruises aboard Cunard vessels including the Carpathia in 1912

In 1912, the temporary use of passenger liners as holiday-cruise vessels was a novelty. Perhaps that outward cruise in the Carpathia and return in the Caronia inaugurated the "cruise-craze" that later developed so extensively. The Caronia was taking cruise passengers from New York to the Mediterranean, and would return to Liverpool for the transatlantic mail-run.

A great deal of planning was, and still is, required at Cunard headquarters to organize the movements of the many vessels in the Company's service, on the various routes, to allow for rotation in refitting the ships, transfer and promotion of officers, annual leave for the ships' people, and other routine or special requirements. The office work on shore in a big shipping company is a complicated game of chess, in which the ships are the pieces moved.

To make the Carpathia's accommodation pleasant for the cruise passengers, her upperdeck cabins, which previously had the rating of second-class, were furbished and fitted out as first class. The cruise was well advertised, and 200 pleasure seekers embarked for a holiday voyage to the "sunny Mediterranean." Among them were Captain Watt (then ex-Commodore of the Cunard Line) and his two daughters; Sir Robert MacConnel and his daughter, Muriel, and some well-known Belfast people, the Ross family and the McGuires, besides many others of wealth, culture, charm, and varied attainments-all in quest of relaxation, in holiday mood.

SS Carpathia
SS Carpathia at sea

This was my first experience of a pleasure cruise. I have had many since, but none more lighthearted. The officers, like the ship, had been furbished, and were expected to be fountains of information when not actually on watch on the bridge. Captain Rostron not only had no objection to our mixing with the passengers, but encouraged and urged us to be sociable. We joined in dancing, games, shipboard concerts, and shore excursions at Lisbon, Gibraltar, Algiers, Tunis, Bari, Venice, Fiume, Trieste, and other ports. All kinds of jokes were bandied around, and seemed side-splitting at the time-mainly puns! The Doctor and the Purser were inclined to be unsociable. They walked up and down the deck together, in deep conversation on philosophical matters, presumably, as they didn't like to be interrupted. Miss McGuire nicknamed them "Brace and Bit."

"Why?" I asked her.
"They're a complete boring outfit!"

Miss MacConnel asked the Purser: "Don't you ever get homesick?"
"No," said the Purser. "I'm never home long enough!"

A steward said to one of the passengers, "Eight bells have gone, madam."
"I didn't take them!" she said, indignantly.

Catty jokes: "She's a decided blonde–she only decided recently...." "She's a suicide blonde–dyed by her own hand."

Riddles: "What is pornography?"–"A book on chess!"

Nautical joke: The passenger in the Bay of Biscay who boasted that he had eight meals a day—"Four down and four up…"

And so to Naples, and the end of an enjoyable cruise. One of our lady passengers, who had no sense of humor, was a highly educated person, who pestered all the officers for information on nautical matters. Doctor McGhee remarked to me one day when he saw her approaching us on the deck, "She's a good woman in the worst sense of that word!"
The studious lady asked me, "Why do you say 'port' for 'left' and 'starboard' for 'right'?"
"Is this a riddle?" I countered.
"No, I'm asking you for information on a serious matter!"
"Well," I murmured, "if you're looking forward, the port side of the ship would be on your left, and the starboard on your right, certainly! But if you're looking aft, then the port side would be on your right and the starboard on your left! That's why, to avoid confusion, we don't use right and left. Those words depend on an individual point of view, whereas port and starboard define the ship's sides at all times."
"But if you're steering," she argued, "you must look ahead."
"Everyone in a ship isn't steering!"
"The bow is the sharp end, and the stern is the blunt end-is that correct?" she asked.
"You could call them that, but I've never heard those terms used by sailors," I said.
"Well, when you're looking toward the sharp end, starboard is on your right-why?"
"It's a nautical term!"
"But what does it mean?"
"It means what you've said. Starboard is the right-hand side of the ship when a person is looking forward or ahead!"
"But what has it to do with a star or a board?"
"Nothing! It's just a nautical term."
"You don't know!" she said, triumphantly. 'Well, I can tell you. I've just looked it up in my encyclopedia."
"Good gracious," I gasped, "did you bring your encyclopedia with you on a cruise?"
"It's very necessary, to improve the mind, but it's only a small encyclopedia."
"Go on," I urged her. "Tell me what starboard means!"
"It means steering-board!"
"In Viking ships they steered with a board overside. on the righthand side as the steersman looked ahead, the way you can steer a canoe with a paddle. This was called the steorbord or steering-board. Hence the starboard side means the steering-board side!"
"But what about the port side?" I asked. "It used to be called the larboard side." "True enough, but why?"
"Larboard in Old English meant loading-board, or gangplank. That was on the opposite side of the steering-board, or starboard. So it was called larboard, but it sounded too much like starboard, so they changed it to 'port side,' meaning the side of the ship nearest to the shore or wharf when loading," she explained, learnedly.
"You got all that from your little encyclopedia?" I exclaimed. astounded.
"Yes, travel broadens the mind, doesn't it?" she said, earnestly. In many years of being quizzed by passengers, I found that it helped them to remember the difference between port and star­ board if I reminded them that P-O-R-T has the same number of letters as L-E-F-T. Similarly, the navigation light on a vessel's port side is the same colour as port wine. Every profession and trade has its own technical terms, but sea­faring men have to explain their mysteries to passengers, especially on pleasure cruises-with as much patience as possible, and usually enjoy being quizzed.

After our cruise passengers were disembarked at Naples, some minor alterations were made in the deck cabins, which were divided into first class and second class, each with separate dining rooms, so that the Carpathia now had accommodation for 150 first-class, 50 second-class, and 1,600 third-class passengers. The intention was to cater chiefly for American tourists in the first and second class, while continuing the emigrant transportation trade in the extensive third-class accommodation on the lower decks. We proceeded from Naples to Palermo in Sicily, for Italian and Sicilian emigrants, who had booked the entire third-class accommodation. These lively people were catered for by Italian cooks, stewards, and stewardesses, and looked after by the Italian doctor, Italian purser's clerks, and Italian ship's police. The women's quarters were forward and men's quarters aft, strictly segregated after "lights out" at 11 P.M. The living-quarters were multiple­berth compartments, with promenade space on the foredeck and afterdeck.

Third Class Cabin
A Four-Berth Third-Class Cabin on the Carpathia
(Courtesy of Charles Haas)

At our speed of fourteen knots, the passage from Palermo to New York required twelve days in fine weather. Soon after we left Palermo, the sinister Black Hand symbol of the Mafia secret society appeared in several places on the white paintwork throughout the third-class quarters. The boatswain reported this with indignation to the Captain, who, equally indignant, told him to clean off the Black Hands with turpentine, and to renew the white paintwork. This was done, but next morning more Black Hands were found in new places on bulkheads and along alleyways. The symbols of intimidation had been put on with black paint.

Despite careful watch by the ship's police and crew, the culprits were never detected. As fast as the Black Hands were scrubbed out and painted over, new imprints were found elsewhere. This was extremely annoying. There was obviously a well-organized and determined gang of the Mafia on board, taking their gangster mentality with them to America. What their game was, we had no means of knowing. America would reform some of them and exterminate others, the incurables.

Early in April, we docked in New York, and lay ten days at Pier 54 discharging and loading cargo. While we were there, the gigantic liner Olympic arrived. It was the first time that I had seen her. She was berthed at the White Star Pier. I went on board her for a short visit of curiosity, and that was the first time that I ever trod the deck and bridge of a superliner of over 40,000 tons–"leviathan liner," the first of her kind, in the long-ago of the spring of the year 1912, at the beginning of the Modern Age, with all its marvels and confusions.

Her promenade deck was a quarter-of-a-mile around. Her bridge was 100 feet from port wing to starboard wing. Her boat deck. was 75 feet above the waterline. Everything was colossal, awe­ inspiring, and, as I thought, unwieldy. I was old-fashioned enough to think that she must be "too big to handle"–but that was only my innocence and perhaps envy. The young White Star officer who showed me her splendours explained that she was unsinkable. She had fifteen watertight bulkheads, the door of which could be closed electrically by pressing a button on the bridge. She had a double bottom. But very strangely she did not have a "double skin" in the sides of her hull, as the Mauretania and the Lusitania had, for bunkers, and as the pioneer of all big ships, the Great Eastern, launched in 1858, had with her double hulls three feet apart. That expense had been saved, in the Olympic, as also in her sister, the Titanic. These new White Star mammoths were built with single hulls of riveted steel plates. The designers reckoned that a hole in the side, below water level, would flood one watertight compartment below decks, and then the ship would remain afloat with the buoyancy of the other watertight compartments.

Section showing Titanic's Double Bottom
An Unsinkable Titanic (1912)

Unfortunately, the watertight bulkheads had not been carried completely up to the deckheads. A leak, too big for the pumps to subdue could cause water to overflow above the watertight bulkheads from one compartment to another. It was extraordinary that the designers had overlooked this possibility. The publicity that these big ships were "unsinkable" was tragic optimism.

The White Star people in New York were exultant at the news that the Titanic had completed her trials on April 1–April Fools' Day–with a speed of 22 knots. and that she had arrived at Southampton on April 3, in readiness for her maiden voyage, scheduled to begin from Southampton on Wednesday, April 10, with calls at Cherbourg and Queenstown. If she maintained an average speed of 22 knots, she would arrive in New York on Tuesday, April 16. The Olympic was due to leave New York on Sunday, and the Titanic would berth two days later at the vacated pier. The two gigantic ships would probably sight one another in midocean. It would be a dramatic history-making encounter.

News-cables reported that many prominent people had booked passages in the Titanic for her maiden voyage. Among them were the multimillionaires, John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, George D. Widener, Isidor Straus, Joseph Bruce Ismay (Managing Director of the White Star Line), Colonel Washington Roebling (builder of the Brooklyn Bridge), Charles Melville Hays (President of the Grand Trunk Railway) and J.B. Thayer (President of the Pennsylvania Railroad)—some of the richest men in the world—and many others in the mere million-dollar class.

But wealth was not the only mark of the world fame in the Titanic's dazzling first-voyage passenger list, which included the names of William Thomas Stead, the greatest of living journalists, who was loved and hated by millions of people for his opposition to the Boer War, and for his views on "spiritualism"; Henry Harper of the leading American publishing firm; Henry Burkhardt Harris, theatrical magnate and entrepreneur, one of the most prominent and admired men in New York's theatrical world; Major Archibald Butt, a personal assistant of President Taft of the U.S.A.; Frank D. Millet, one of the foremost American painters; Clarence Moore, one of the leading social lights of Washington, D.C., who was a famous horseman and sportsman ...

The lists went on and on. These famous people and their womenfolk were the creme de la creme of America's upper-class society. Their names were household words in that period when wealth, social distinction, or intellectual and artistic achievements occupied the newspaper space that nowadays is given to film actors, sporting champions, and criminals.

On Wednesday, April 10, at midday, the Titanic left Southampton. She called at Cherbourg that evening to embark more passengers, and at Queenstown next day.

She left Queenstown at 2 P.M. on Thursday, April 11, bound for New York, having on board 1,316 passengers and 891 crew–a total of 2,207 souls.

Of the passengers, 328 were travelling first-class, 272 second-class, and 716 third-class.

She was not a "full ship." She was certified by the Board of Trade to carry 2,650 passengers and 897 crew–a total of 3,547 souls. Cunard's Mauretania and Lusitania were each certified to carry 2,200 passengers and a crew of 900, total 3,100 souls. They were far better-designed vessels in every way than the Olympic and the Titanic.

On the day that the Titanic left Queenstown, westward bound for New York, the Carpathia left New York, eastward bound for Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. We had on board 120 first­ class and 50 second-class passengers-chiefly Americans going as tourists to Europe–and 565 third-class passengers, who were chiefly Italians, Hungarians, Austrians, Serbians, and Greeks returning to their homelands on visits. In addition, we had a crew of approximately 300, making a total of 1,035 souls in our care. But the Carpathia was, fortunately, not a full ship on this eastbound passage. She was certified to carry 2,100 souls. Almost two­thirds of her accommodation below decks was vacant, and all too soon it would be needed.

1912 Advert
An advert for Carpathia's 11 April departure appears above a similar advert promoting Titanic's intended 20 April departure from New York.

AT the outset of her maiden voyage, when the Titanic was leaving Southampton, at noon on Wednesday, April 10, 1912, the problems of undocking a leviathan liner were graphically demonstrated. After her moorings had been cast off, and her propellers had begun to turn, her forward movement caused a sudden displacement of a vast volume of water inside the restricted space of the dock. This set up a suction which caused the American liner New York, berthed at an adjacent quay, to strain at her moorings. The New York was a vessel of 10,500 tons. The sudden strain snapped her manila mooring-lines. She swung away from the quay, drawn by the suction and by the pressure of a breeze, and bore down rapidly toward the port beam of the Titanic, amidships. A collision appeared inevitable. The New York was entirely out of control, with her engines stopped and no officers on her bridge.

The Commander of the Titanic, Captain Edward J. Smith, was on his bridge with the Pilot, and all his officers were on stations. Captain Smith was one of the most experienced of the White Star shipmasters. He had commanded the Adriatic and the Majestic, and had made several crossings of the Western Ocean in command of the Olympic before being appointed to command the Titanic on her maiden voyage. Instantly appraising the situation, he stopped the Titanic's engines. Though the giant ship continued under way, the surge of her propellers had ceased, and, as she glided ahead, the swinging stern of the New York cleared the port quarter of the Titanic with only inches to spare.

The New York Incident
The New York Incident viewed from the boat deck of the Titanic.

This narrow escape from a collision proved that the Master and the Pilot, and all others concerned in handling the big ship, had not yet acquired full experience of the theoretical and practical problems created by her massive bulk. The amount of water displaced by a vessel of 46,000 tons in motion is capable of mathematical calculation. As much as 60,000 tons may be pushed ahead of her and to the sides of the bow, creating an eddy or suction astern which is formidable in a narrow dock or embanked channel, its force depending on the speed at which the vessel is moving. The Titanic had three screws, and it would have been advisable to use only one, at dead slow, to move her, with the aid of tugs, away from the wharf and out of the narrow mouth of the Itchen River and into Southampton Water; but even in that wider channel ships have to proceed slowly, to avoid damaging with their "wash" the embankments or other vessels at moorings. Captain Smith or the Pilot, or both of them, had underestimated this effect. The development of leviathan liners had created new problems of many kinds, requiring a new kind of seamanship. Technical progress had been too rapid for mental adjustments to it to be fully made. This is typical of progress in all fields of human effort. Mistakes are made by pioneers for the benefit of those who come after.

The Titanic was a "hoodoo ship" from the beginning, but only because she was a forerunner of the gigantic superliners. Not one, but many errors brought her to disaster; but from each of these errors the necessary lesson would be learned, to make her successors safe.

Typical of the way in which mental adjustments lagged behind technical progress were the regulations of the Board of Trade for lifeboats. The Titanic was certified to carry a total of 3,547 persons, passengers and crew. Yet the regulations for lifeboat accommodation were based on an old rule that was hopelessly out-of-date. This rule, made in 1894, stipulated that "vessels over 10,000 tons" must carry sixteen lifeboats, with a total capacity of 5,500 cubic feet, plus rafts or floats with 75 per cent of the capacity of the lifeboats, that is, an additional 4,125 cubic feet. As lifeboat accommodation is based on the calculation that one person requires ten cubic feet, the Titanic was therefore compelled by law to provide lifeboat and raft floatage for only 962 persons, while at the same time she was certified by the Board of Trade to carry 3,547 persons! Apparently no one in authority had noticed this discrepancy. The Titanic had sixteen wooden-planked lifeboats and four "Englehardt" patent collapsible boats or rafts. The total cubic capacity of this floatage was sufficient for 1,178 persons, scarcely more than half of the 2,207 persons carried in the liner on her maiden voyage. This was in excess of the Board of Trade requirements, but no one thought that lifeboats would be needed in an "unsinkable ship." No provision was made for boat-drill, or for lifeboat training of the crew. The regulations merely classified this huge vessel of 46,000 tons as "over 10,000 tons" and the tragic incompetence of that definition was not apparent, until too late.

The near mishap in the dock at the outset of the voyage was considered by some of the ship's people as an ill omen. This may have been superstition, or it may have been seamanlike judgment which took the form of a whisper that she was "unlucky."

The rumour had started several days before the Titanic left Southampton. Newspapers for months had been printing articles extolling her wonderful qualities, but, on the morning when she was due to leave Southampton, twenty-two men who had signed on in her crew were missing. At the last moment, thirteen others were signed on as substitutes. All members of the crew were British, and most of them had their homes in Southampton.

When she reached Queenstown, one man deserted. If he was affected by the fo'c'sle rumour that she was an unlucky ship, or if he had some premonition of his own, perhaps he was "fey."

Leaving Queenstown at 2 P.M. on Thursday April 11, the Titanic steamed along the Irish coast in fine weather, and had Fastnet Island abeam at 5 P.M. From there she steamed on the Great Circle course southwesterly for 1,634 miles, to the vicinity of the "Corner" or turning-point, in long. 47 deg. W. lat. 41 deg. 30 min. N., on the usual track of vessels westward bound for New York. At this point ships veer almost due westerly, headed for Sandy Hook at the entrance to New York Lower Bay, 1,222 miles from the "Corner." (These distances are approximate, as the "Atlantic Tracks" were not defined in 1912, and shipmasters set courses at their own discretion.).

At a speed of 22 knots, she would travel 528 miles per day of twenty-four hours of elapsed time, but, as she was making a westing through thirty-seven and a half degrees of longitude between Fast­ net and the "Corner," the clock was retarded two and a half hours in that transit, with a "gain" of time.

In three days traveling from Fastnet, that is, in seventy-four and one half hours elapsed time, at 22 knots, she would cover 1,639 miles, and would arrive at the "Corner" at 5 P.M. on Sunday, April 14.

To travel the distance of 1,222 miles from the Corner to Sandy Hook would require another 51 hours of elapsed time. Adding two and a half hours for the further westing to New York, this gain would be occupied in the slow-speed passage of the harbor channels and quarantine delays. She would therefore berth at New York at the earliest at 5 P.M. on Tuesday, April 16–an inconvenient time to arrive for publicity purposes. Moreover, a passage of six full days from Queenstown would evoke no paeans of praise for the "Wonder Ship" when the Mauretania was regularly making that passage in four-and-a-half days.

Any reduction of the Titanic's speed below 22 knots, on the passage between the "Corner" and Sandy Hook, whether in the hours of darkness or daylight, would have meant either a night arrival in New York on Tuesday, or even a morning arrival on Wednesday, the seventh day out from Southampton–a slow passage in fine weather, with no excuses to be made for such an anti­climax to tremendous publicity.

In these circumstances, the requirements of publicity, or, as a later generation would term it, "ballyhoo," took precedence over sound and safe seamanlike judgment.

Captain Edward John Smith
Captain Edward John Smith

Captain Smith was at the disadvantage of having on board as a passenger the Managing Director of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay. There is testimony that Ismay urged the Captain to maintain maximum speed, and dictated to him the expected time of arrival at New York.

The speed was increased to twenty-two and one half knots during the hours of darkness on Sunday. This was the greatest speed of which the Titanic was capable. Her average speed on the preceding three days, from Fastnet to the "Corner," had been slightly less than twenty-two knots. As with all who recklessly press on to reach a destination, regardless of risks by the way, on land as on sea or in the air, the belief is that time gained is time saved–but what do they do with the time they save?

At sea, the shipmaster must be in sole command. He has the duty as well as the right to ignore any orders from the owner in matters concerning navigation. If Captain Smith deferred to Ismay, that was one of the factors, but not the only one, in the Titanic tragedy…

On Sunday morning, when the Titanic had not yet reached the "Corner," the Carpathia. was plugging along at fourteen knots, eastward bound on the Great Circle course from Sandy Hook to Gibraltar. I was on the bridge in the 8 A.M. to 12 noon watch. On this third day out, covering 336 miles in a day of twenty-four hours, we were approximately 1,000 miles to the eastward of New York but we were "losing time"–that is the ship's clock was being advanced one hour for each fifteen degrees of longitude in our easting (roughly 675 miles in that latitude).

Our course was easterly, a little to the north of the 40th parallel of N. latitude. At 9 A.M., our wireless operator, Harold Cottam, handed up to the bridge a message he had picked up from the Cunarder Caronia, which was westward bound from Liverpool to New York. She reported sighting ice in lat. 42 deg. N., extending from long. 49 deg. W. to 51 deg. W.

This was nothing for us to worry about, as we were to the southward of it, but I informed the Captain, who remarked, "It seems to be a big field. Keep a sharp lookout. Carry on!"

The Caronia's message was picked up also by the Titanic. It was the first of several ice-warnings that she received during that day. We had only one wireless operator in the Carpathia. He had a "shack" on deck abaft the bridge. His apparatus had a range of not much more than 150 miles. We considered him to be of very little use. He could communicate with vessels beyond our visual range; but vessels that we could not see were of little interest and certainly no danger to us. From eye level on the bridge, fifty feet above water level, we had a view to the horizon eight miles away, and that was more than enough sea room in which to avoid collisions with any other vessels, or with icebergs.

It was a clear, sunny day, with excellent visibility, but a sparkling frostiness in the air, caused by cold currents from the icefield to our north.

I went off duty at noon, loafed around, chatted with passengers, and had a nap during the afternoon. The eight to twelve watch was by far the best for getting in good sleeps at "natural" hours of rest.

When I came on duty again at 8 P.M., I noticed that two more ice warnings had been picked up by Cottam. One was from the White Star Baltic, eastward bound, reporting ice sighted at 1:42 P.M. in long. 49 deg. 52 min. W., lat. 41 deg. 51 min. N. The other was from the Leyland Line cargo steamer Californian, westward bound, reporting ice at 7:30 P.M. in long. 49 deg. 9 min. W., lat. 42 deg. 3 min. N.

Cottam mentioned also that the Titanic was now strongly within his radio range. She was sending a large number of commercial marconigrams to Cape Race in Newfoundland for transmission by cable from there to New York or to Europe. "Busy traffic," he commented. "Stock exchange quotations and that sort of thing for the multimillionaires!"

Harold Cottam
Cottam as a student at the British School of Telegraphy
(Clarke & Hyde photo in Illustrated London News,4 May 1912)

The icefield defined by the messages sent out by the Caronia, the Baltic, and the Californian was directly in the Titanic's track. She had received all these warnings.

As the Carpathia carried only one wireless operator, his instrument was left unattended while he took his meals, rest, and recreation. He sent and received messages only in Morse, with ear phones clamped over his head. Being an enthusiast, he was to be seen crouched over his apparatus, sending or receiving messages, for many hours throughout the day, from 7 A.M. until 11 P.M. or even midnight.

Ships equipped with wireless usually carried only one operator. It had not occurred to shipowners that three operators are required to stand watches in rotation for an efficient twenty-four hours service per day. The main duty of the operators was to send and receive commercial marconigrams for passengers to and from shore stations, which relayed them as telegrams. Ships' messages were also transmitted as marconigrams. These included messages between ships, such as ice warnings, or between ships and the shore, with expected times of arrivals or owners' instructions and suchlike.

When marconigram business was slack, the operators in ships "gossiped" unofficially with one another, often in a joking and sometimes profane and insulting manner. The operators nearly always knew what ships were within range, and exchanged at least identification signals and brief messages of greeting. There was no systematic organization of the use of "wave-lengths." The operators manipulated their crystal detectors, until they heard signals, and then joined in, listening for anything of interest, or sometimes "chipping in" with a comment or their own identification. Frequently an operator transmitting marconigrams would signal to another in his neighborhood Q R L, meaning "Keep quiet, I'm busy," or G T H ("Get to hell!").

Nearing the shore, on both sides of the Atlantic, conditions in the ether were made chaotic by the activities of hundreds of amateurs, known as "tin-can operators," who cut in on ships' messages with their own comments, sometimes frivolous or sarcastic. These pests "faded" 150 miles from the shore, but, even in midocean. there were usually half a dozen or more ships within range of one another at any time, and many of the operators, having met on shore or in training schools, were personally acquainted. They were a fraternity of pioneers, considered to be cranks, and had the curious habit of addressing one another as O M ("Old Man"). A common signal exchanged between them was G T H O M Q R L ("Get to hell, old man, shut up, I'm busy!"), or A S OM ("Wait a minute, old man!"). Acknowledgment of an identification was often T U O M G N ("Thank you, old man, goodnight").

At 9:40 P.M., Cottam handed up to the bridge a message he had just received from a westward bound steamer, S.S. Messaba [sic], reporting an extensive icefield sighted from long. 49 deg. W. to 50 deg. 30 min. W., between lat. 41 deg. 25 min. N. and lat. 42 deg. N. This was only a confirmation of the warnings we had received earlier in the day from the Caronia, the Baltic, and the Californian. On our course we had not sighted any ice. We were thirty miles to the southward of this field, which according to the various warnings received during the day appeared to be slowly drifting southwards from lat. 42 deg. N., and now had its southern limit in lat. 41 deg. 25 min.

Captain Rostron came on to the bridge, and I told him of the latest ice warning. He called the Wireless Operator and asked him what ships were within his range.

"The Titanic, sir," said Cottam, "coming in very strong. She seems to be only thirty or forty miles away, but may be more, as she has a powerful transmitter. She's sending marconi to Cape Race. Then there's the Californian. She's stopped her engines for the night because she's surrounded by ice."

"It must be thick, then," commented the Captain, quickly. "I suppose that the Titanic will have to slow down, or steer a more southerly course than the usual track. She'll be late in New York. It's hard luck on her maiden voyage! Any other ships near?"

Cottam told him that he had identified four others within his 150-mile range-radius of our position-the Norddeutscher Lloyd S.S. Frankfort; the Canadian Pacific S.S. Mount Temple; the Allan Liner S.S. Virginian; and a Russian cargo-steamer, S.S. Birma. These were in addition to the Mesaba, the White Star Baltic, and the Cunarder Caronia identified earlier in the day. He had picked up faint signals also from the Olympic, now eastward bound out of New York, 500 or 600 miles to the westward of our position. She, like the Titanic, had a powerfui transmitter, and carried two operators.

"Thank you," said the Captain. "I suppose you'll be turning in presently for the night?"

"Yes, sir," said Cottam. "I may listen in to Cape Race for awhile, in case there is any news of the coal strike in England."

I walked with the Captain in the darkness to the port wing of the bridge. The weather was calm, the sea smooth, with no wind. The sky was clear, and the stars were shining. There was no moon, but the Aurora Borealis glimmered like moonbeams shooting up from the northern horizon. The air was intensely cold.

Though visibility was good, the peculiar atmospheric conditions, caused partly by the melting of the large icefield to our northwards in the waters of the Gulf Stream, made the sea and sky seem to blend into one another, so that it was difficult to define the horizon.

Captain Rostron stood silently gazing ahead, and to the sky, and then turned to the north, watching the play of light from the Aurora Borealis. I knew better than to interrupt his meditations. Presently he raised his cap a few inches from his forehead, and uttered a silent prayer, moving his lips soundlessly.

After this he turned to me, and said, in a matter-of-fact voice, "You may sight the Titanic if she bears southward to avoid the ice. I don't suppose she'll try to run through it, when the growlers and bergs are so thick that the Californian has stopped for the night. Wonderful thing, wireless, isn't it? The ice has come south very early this year. There must have been an early thaw on the Labrador Coast. We're in clear water here, but keep your eyes peeled, all the same!"

"We'll soon be into the warmer weather,'' I remarked.

"Who knows what's ahead?" he said, quietly, then added, "I'm sorry for Smith of the Titanic. After all the newspaper boasting, she's proved a slowcoach on her maiden voyage, and now this ice­ field will make him lose more time if he steers to the southward around it, as I suppose he will! She must be a wonderful ship, but all their newspaper bragging seems a kind of blasphemy, claiming that she's 'unsinkable' and all that kind of thing."

Aware of the Captain's piety, and respecting it, I murmured agreement. He changed the subject briskly. "The night's clear, and I'll turn in." Going into the chartroom, he wrote out his night orders, handed them to me, and, in his usual crisp manner, said "Goodnight!" and went to his cabin below the bridge.

The quartermaster at the wheel struck four bells for 10 P.M., repeated by the lookout man in the crow's nest on his bigger bell with the cry, "All's well and lights burning brightly."

The promenade decks of the Carpathia were deserted on this chilly night, and the ship gradually became silent as the passengers turned in to their bunks, free of care. At six bells (11 P.M.) all was quiet, except for the throbbing of the engines; and most of the lights on deck and in the passenger compartments and saloons had been put out.

Wireless Shack
The Carpathia's Wireless Shack, situated aft of the upper deck
(Eaton & Haas Collection)

There was a light in the wireless shack. Cottam was listening to the stream of marconigrams sent out by Operator Jack Phillips of the Titanic. He heard Operator Cyril Evans, of the Californian, trying to cut in with an ice warning, 'We are stopped, blocked by ice."

At that time (11 P.M.) the Titanic was not more than twenty miles from the Californian. The mammoth ship was driving on, at her utmost speed of twenty-two and one hall knots, trying to make up time, and headed toward the icefield. Cottam smiled as he heard the curt reply from Phillips to Evans, "Shut up, old man, I'm busy!"

After that, Evans closed down for the night and went to bed. Cottam also hung up his earphones and got ready to retire. He had every right to do so, as Evans had. The Titanic's big-business marconigrams to Cape Race were not worth listening to.

At 11:40 P.M., the Titanic struck an iceberg, ten miles southwards from where the Californian lay at a standstill, and approximately fifty miles N.W. by N. of the Carpathia's position at that time. The collision had been a glancing blow on the starboard bow, and the big liner proceeded half a mile or more before she was stopped for investigations of the damage.

The wireless distress call was not sent out immediately. I had heard nothing new from Cottam at midnight, when I was relieved on the bridge by First Officer Dean. I handed over the Carpathia's course and details to him, and went to my cabin below the bridge. Captain Rostron's cabin was in darkness. He had gone to bed two hours previously.

There was a light in the wireless shack. I saw Cottam unlacing his boots, getting ready to tum in. He had taken the headphones off his ears.

I undressed and got into bed. Not feeling very sleepy, I picked up a book and began reading. At 00.15 A.M., the Titanic sent out her first distress-call: "C Q D C Q D C Q D (six times) M G Y (Titanic's call sign). Have struck an iceberg. We are badly damaged. lat. 41.46 N., long. 50.14 W."

Cottam was not listening at that moment. Ten minutes later, at 00.25 A.M., he idly picked up the headphones. At that time nothing was being transmitted. Instead of switching off and going to bed, he decided to call up Phillips of the Titanic. On getting the curt response-from Phillips-"K" ("Go ahead"), he began affably tapping out "G M O M (Good morning, old man). Do you know that there are despatches for you at Cape Cod?"

To his utter amazement Phillips broke in: "C Q D C Q D S O S S O S C Q D S O S. Come at once. We have struck a berg. C Q D O M. Position 41.46 N., 50.14 W. C Q D S O S."

This was the first time in history that the internationally agreed signal of distress was sent out from a liner at sea.

Cottam, half dressed, sprang up to the bridge, told Dean of the message, and then woke the Captain.

By this time it was 00.30 A.M., and I was dozing off to sleep. Suddenly I heard the Captain's voice, singing out orders up to the bridge, "Stop her. Send for the Chief Engineer. Send for the Chief Officer. Call all the Officers. Call all hands on deck and get ready to swing out the boats."

This last order particularly brought me out of my bunk on the jump. I flung on my clothes and overcoat, pulled on my boots and sprang up the bridge ladder to find out what was what. Dean tersely informed me in an excited voice, "The Titanic has struck a berg and has sent out the distress signal."

Already the Carpathia was being turned around. The Captain was in the chartroom, working out the course. He came out onto the bridge and said briskly to the helmsman, "North 52 West! Full ahead!"

"Aye aye, sir, North 52 West!"

The other officers, including the Chief Engineer, were now on the bridge. The Captain beckoned us into the chartroom, and said, "The Titanic has struck a berg and is in distress fifty-eight miles from here on the bearing N. 52 W. We will make our utmost speed in going to her rescue. Call out an extra watch in the engine-room and raise every ounce of steam possible. We may reach her in four hours. All seamen on deck for sharp lookout and to swing out the boats. We may have to pick up 2,000 or more people. All stewards on duty to prepare blankets, hot coffee, tea, and soup. The doctors to stand by in the dining-rooms. All gangway doors to be opened. Boatswain's chairs slung at each gangway. Pilot ladders overside. Forward derricks to be rigged and steam on winches. Oil to be got ready to quiet the sea if needed. Rockets to be got ready. Everything must be done as quietly as possible so as not to alarm our own passengers."

All this, quickly spoken in Captain Rostron's clear and steady tones within less than a minute, roused men still drowsy to a pitch of intense alertness. The Chief Engineer hurried below. The Chief Officer attended to details on deck, telling us off for the various duties, while more and more orders flowed from the Captain.

Smoking Room
The Carpathia's first-class smoking room would be converted to a dormitory to accommodate Titanic survivors,
(Courtesy of John P. Eaton)

Within a few minutes the engines increased the tempo of their thudding, and presently we were belting along at sixteen knots: the greatest speed that old lady had ever done in her life. The Captain called me to the starboard wing of the bridge. "Station yourself here, Mister, and keep a special lookout for lights or flares-and for ice! I will remain on the bridge. In this smooth sea it's no use looking for white surf around the base of the bergs, but you will look for the reflection of starshine in the ice pinnacles. We'll be into the icefield at 3 A.M., or perhaps earlier. Extra lookouts will be posted on the bows and in the crow's nest, and on the port wing of the bridge, but I count on you, with your good eyesight, and with God's help, to sight anything in time for us to clear it. Give that all your attention!"

"Aye aye, sir!"

As the Carpathia thrust on into the night, Captain Rostron stood silently beside me for a minute, his cap raised a little from his brow, and his lips moving in silent prayer. Then, like an electric spark, he was hurtling around, galvanizing everybody to activity.

ON the Captain's instructions, our wireless operator (Cottam) had signalled to the Titanic at 00.45 A.M.: "We are coming as quickly as possible and expect to be there within four hours." This was acknowledged by Phillips: "T U O M (Thank you, old man)."

After that Cottam did not send any more signals. He refrained from doing anything which would interfere with the transmissions from the Titanic. He heard her signals answered by other ships­ the Frankfort, the Mount Temple, and, at 1.25 A.M.—from a great distance (400 to 500 miles to the westward) by the Olympic. But there was no signal from the Californian, which lay only ten miles from the Titanic's position. Her wireless operator had shut down for the night and gone to bed before the first distress signal was sent out.

The land-station at Cape Race had heard the distress signal, and was relaying it to ships at sea, and to other stations on land. It was from this source that the news first reached New York, picked up by amateur wireless operators.

At 1.25 A.M., Cottam heard the Titanic signalling to the Olympic, "We are putting the women off in the boats." At 1.45, the Titanic called up the Carpathia: "Come as quickly as possible. Engine room filling up to the boilers. T U O M G N."

When these two messages were handed to Captain Rostron, he envisaged for the first time the possibility that the Titanic might actually be foundering. Until then, he had assumed that she was seriously damaged-otherwise she would not have sent out a distress signal—but he expected that she would remain afloat, and that possibly the whole of her passengers, crew, and mails would have to be transferred to the Carpathia, or to other steamers which might hasten to the rescue.

It seemed incredible that the great "unsinkable ship" could actually sink. At 1.45 A.M., her wireless signals became faint. This indicated that the electric power plant had failed, and that the reserve batteries were being used. At 2.05 A.M., her wireless signals ceased entirely. At this time the Carpathia had run twenty-four miles at the forced speed of sixteen knots. We were thirty-four miles from the Titanic's position.

At 2.40, when we had twenty-five miles to go, we sighted a green light on the horizon ahead. For a moment this was disconcerting. It looked like the starboard navigation light of a steamer, perhaps of the Titanic herself, unaccountably nearer than we had thought; but then the light vanished, and we knew that it had been a pyrotechnic rocket, flaring at 500 feet above sea level, to appear to us to be on the horizon from our distance of twenty-five miles away.

Though the night was cloudless, and stars were shining, the peculiar atmospheric conditions of visibility intensified as we approached the icefield with the greenish beams of the Aurora Borealis shimmering and confusing the horizon ahead of us to the northwards. My face was smarting in the frosty air as I stood on the wing of the bridge, keeping a lookout for icebergs.

When the green flare was sighted ahead, Captain Rostron ordered a rocket to be fired in reply, followed by the Cunard identification rockets of coloured balls of fireworks ("Roman candles"), and these were repeated every fifteen minutes, to let the Titanic people know our position. The sudden bursts of light from our rockets added to the difficulties of lookout. but they were an imperative procedure in the circumstances.

At 2.45 I sighted the glimmer of a starbeam in an iceberg three­-quarters-of-a-mile ahead of us on the port bow. I immediately reported it by singing out to the Captain, who was standing by the helmsman. He reacted promptly in a seamanlike manner, altering course to starboard and reducing to half speed.

Then he strode out to the port wing of the bridge to make his own observations, and, when he had sighted the berg and saw that we had avoided it with ample clearance, and that no other obstruction was in sight, he brought the ship back to her former course and moved the engine-telegraph handle again to Full Speed Ahead.

I may remark now, in the retrospect of the years, that, in this incident, and what followed it, my own feelings and senses were concentrated to a rare pitch of intensity. I dare say that every man on the bridge and on lookout in the Carpathia felt likewise that his nerves were as taut as violin strings, attuned by the hand of a master player.

Arthur Rostron, responsible for the safety of 1,035 souls in his own ship, but knowing that more than 2,000 people were in peril twenty miles away, and that every minute was precious, drove the Carpathia at forced full speed, in darkness, into the icefield in which the Titanic had met with disaster!

In taking this calculated risk, he relied on seamanship and sharp lookout, which had apparently been neglected in the Titanic. He knew—as every shipmaster of experience gained in the North Atlantic, and to the south of Cape Horn, knew—that icebergs are visible by starlight half-a-mile ahead in clear weather. That allows sufficient sea room in which to avoid them.

In the Carpathia we had a dozen pairs of eyes on the look out for bergs. It happened that I sighted the first one we met with, because I had been specially told off for that purpose, and I had keen eyesight, and I knew what to look for, and I was keyed up to abnormal alertness; but, if I had not sighted it, the men in the crow's nest, or on the bows, or on the other wing of the bridge, would assuredly have done so in time to sing out a warning to the men in the wheelhouse who were standing on the alert for that very warning.

The fact that the Titanic had struck a berg in calm weather on a clear night meant one of three things—insufficient lookout; responses too slow from her bridge; or that the big vessel at her full speed had not quickly enough answered her helm to avoid a collision.

Despite her extensive electrical installations, the Titanic either did not have a searchlight or did not use it. We in the Carpathia did not have a searchlight; but as our track was to the southward of ice limits, we did not need one. In fact, very few merchant ships used searchlights, except in the passage of the Suez Canal.

The disaster of the Titanic was due to a combination of exceptional circumstances, and not to any one factor for which any individual could be blamed. The calm sea and the absence of wind to whip a surf around the base of the berg made sighting unusually difficult; the ice had come further south than usual at that time of the year; finally, the berg was not isolated, but was part of an extensive field which greatly increased the mathematical chances of collision. Yet these were only some of the many exceptional elements that combined to produce the Titanic disaster...

Within a few minutes we sighted another berg. We steered around it as before, and then sighted another, and another.

Captain Rostron later stated his earnest belief that the "hand of God was on the helm of the Carpathia" during that half hour when, in eight more miles at forced full speed, we zigzagged among the bergs, clearing them with sufficient room as we sighted them one after the other.

At 3.15 we were within twelve miles of the Titanic's wirelessed position. At intervals we sighted green flares, and our course was steered now on bearings from these, but we could not sight the big liner's masthead lights, or any other lights of her superstructure or hull. At 3.30 there were numerous bergs surrounding us, and small growlers of ice grinding along our hull plates.

Captain Rostron reduced speed to half, and then to slow, as the Carpathia was steered cautiously toward a green flare sighted low in the water, at a distance difficult to judge in the continuing peculiar conditions of visibility. It appeared likely, but at first was not certain, that this flare was from a lifeboat.

We were longing for daylight. I glanced at the deck of the bridge, and to my joy could see the holes in the gratings. Daylight was coming in. The light of the green flare toward which we were steering had burned out. Captain Rostron ordered the engines to be stopped. It was 4 A.M. We had arrived in three-and-a-half hours.

Powerful is the force of routine. As eight bells sounded for the change of the watch, the lookout man in the crow's nest sang out the long-drawn wailing cry, "A-a-all's WELL and LIGHTS burning BRIGHTLY ... "

Chief Officer Hankinson
Chief Officer Hankinson

First Officer Dean was relieved on the bridge by Chief Officer Hankinson. At that moment, in the dim grey light of dawn, we sighted a lifeboat a quarter of a mile away. She was rising and falling in the ocean swell, and now, as so often happens at dawn, a breeze sprang up and whipped the surface of the water to choppy seas.

The boat was labouring toward us. In her sternsheets stood a man wearing officer's cap and uniform, steering with the tiller. Only four other men were in the boat, each of them with an oar, but rowing feebly, as though they were inexperienced, and also utterly exhausted. Huddled in the boat were twenty-five women and ten children.

With the breeze that had sprung up, the boat was on our windward side, and drifting toward us. It was not practicable to manoeuvre the Carpathia to windward of the boat, so that she could make fast on our lee side in the smoother water there, as correct seamanship required. A large iceberg was ahead of us, which would have made that manoeuvre difficult when time was the chief con­ sideration. If the boat had been well manned, she could have passed under our stem to the leeward side; but, as she drifted down toward us, the officer sang out, "I can't handle her very well. We have women and children and only one seaman."

Captain Rostron gave me an order, "Go overside with two quartermasters, and board her as she comes alongside. Fend her off so that she doesn't bump, and be careful that she doesn't capsize."

I hurried with two seamen to the rail of the fore deck, where rope ladders were hung overside. As the boat came alongside, we climbed quickly down and sprang onto her thwarts, and, by dint of much balancing and fending off, succeeded in steadying the boat and dropping her astern to an open side door on "C" Deck, where we made her fast with her painter to lines lowered by willing hands from the doorway.

Many of the women and children castaways were seasick from the sudden choppy motion of the boat caused by the dawn breeze. All were numbed with cold, as most of them were lightly clad. Some were quietly weeping.

As they were in no fit condition to climb safely up the short Jacob's ladder to the side door, bosun's chairs were lowered, also canvas bags into which we placed the children, and, one at a time, they were all hauled to safety.

During this operation, we were occupied with allaying the fears of the women and children, and getting them safely out of the boat. They behaved well, waiting their turns to be hauled up to the door.

As we fastened one of the women into a bosun's chair, I noticed that she was wearing a nightdress and slippers, with a fur coat. Beneath the coat she was nursing what I supposed was a baby, but it was a small pet dog! "Be careful of my doggie," she pleaded, more worried about her pet's safety than her own.

When the women and children had been sent up, the four oarsmen and the officer climbed up the ladder—the officer being the last of the castaways to leave the boat. I followed him up, leaving our two seamen in charge of the boat, to hook her on to Number One derrick, ready to be hoisted to our foredeck.

The officer was a young man, Joseph Boxhall, Fourth Officer of the Titanic. I took him up to the bridge, to report to our Captain.

Without preliminaries, Rostron burst out, excitedly, "Where is the Titanic?"

"Gone!" said Boxhall. "She sank at 2.20 A.M."

In the moment of stunned silence that followed, every man on the bridge of the Carpathia could envisage the appalling reality, but not yet to its fullest extent. It was now 4.20 A.M.

Boxhall added, in a voice of desperation, "She was hoodoo'd from the beginning…"

Captain Rostron took the young officer by the arm, and said quietly and kindly to him, "Never mind that, m'son. Tell me, were all her boats got away safely?"
"I believe so, sir. It was hard to see in the darkness. There were sixteen boats and four collapsibles. Women and children were ordered into the boats. She struck the berg at 11.40. The boats were launched from 12.45 onwards. My boat was cleared away at 1.45, one of the last to be lowered. Many of the boats were only half full. People wouldn't go into them. They didn't believe that she would sink…"

"Were many people left on board when she sank?"

"Hundreds and hundreds! Perhaps a thousand! Perhaps more!" Boxhall's voice broke with emotion. "My God, sir, they've gone down with her. They couldn't live in this icy cold water. We had room for a dozen more people in my boat, but it was dark after the ship took the plunge. We didn't pick up any swimmers. I fired flares ... I think that the people were drawn down deep by the suction. The other boats are somewhere near "

"Thank you, Mister," said Rostron. "Go below and get some coffee, and try to get warm."

Our immediate task was only too clear—to search for the people in boats or rafts, and any other survivors. The increasing daylight revealed dozens of icebergs within our horizon. Among them were four of five big bergs, towering up to two hundred feet above water level. One of these was the one that the Titanic had struck. Dozens of smaller "calves" or growlers drifted sluggishly on the choppy seas. To the northwards was a field of pack ice extending westwards for many miles.

On all sides we could see lifeboats making laboriously toward us, some dangerously overcrowded, some half empty. A mile away was a mass of wreckage, like an island, marking the spot where the Titanic had gone down. Captain Rostron decided that we must give priority to picking up the people in the boats. They were in danger of perishing from exposure to the cold, or perhaps of capsizing; and among them were a large number of women and children. They at least were living, and could be rescued; but it was unlikely that any swimmers could have survived in water that was almost at freezing point, among those chunks of melting ice.

In four-and-a-quarter hours, from 4.15 A.M. to 8.30 P.M., we picked up 703 survivors from the sixteen wooden lifeboats and four "Englehardt" collapsible boats. After 6 A.M., the Carpathia's deckrails were lined with our own passengers, joined by increasing numbers of rescued people, anxiously watching each boat arrive. The rescue operations proceeded in a deathly silence. Except for an occasional working order, no one was capable of saying anything that would be adequate to the occasion.

The Titanic lay in Davy Jones's Locker, two miles deep below us. With her plunge to those deeps, fifteen hundred people had been drawn down to death in the icy waters, to perish in a vortex hundreds of fathoms deep. Their bodies, with the added buoyancy of the cork lifebelts which most of them wore, would gradually rise again to the surface. If any strong swimmers had got clear of the down suction, or had clung to wreckage in the darkness, they would surely have perished of cold within two hours after being immersed. The surface temperature of the water, by thermometer readings, was 33° F. —only one degree above freezing point. This was due to the large quantity of ice floating in small pieces from the disintegrating bergs.

The dead bodies were there, totally or partially submerged, but, in the choppy seas, it was now almost impossible to sight them, as white lifejackets would have an appearance similar to that of the thousands of small pieces of floating ice or white-painted wreckage. A dead body floats almost submerged.

The water had a sinister greenish crystal tinge. People lining the decks of the Carpathia stared overside in shocked fascination and horror; for here, a thousand miles from land, the elemental ocean was, in truth, a watery grave, in which, as a quick count and calculation indicated, the lives of fifteen hundred human beings had been extinguished almost without warning—plunged from warmth, light, and gaiety to icy doom.

Captain Rostron ordered the Carpathia's house-flag to be lowered to half mast. The ship was in mourning.

At 8 A.M., when eight bells were struck, the lookout man's wailing cry of "A-a-all's WELL!" resounded like a ghostly sardonic lamentation, mocking the truth. But it had a meaning, beyond routine. In the midst of death we were in life.

Though so many had perished, many, too, had been saved. For them, at least, all was as well as could now be expected.

I took over the watch on the bridge from Chief Officer Hankinson. It was of no importance that I had gone without sleep all night, and that I had already been on duty for twelve hours; for, like all the other officers and members of the crew, I was keyed up to the tenseness of action in which fatigue is unnoticed.

Now the morning sunlight rippled on the slight seas. The last of the Titanic's lifeboats was labouring toward the Carpathia. She was crowded with seventy-five survivors, and her gunwales were within three inches of the water; but a good seaman was at her tiller. He was Charles Lightoller, Second Officer of the Titanic. He had gone down with the ship, and had been picked up by Boat Number Twelve. He had taken command of her, and had picked up other survivors. We manoeuvred the Carpathia to windward, and drifted down to him, so that he was able to make fast along­ side in our lee, and all the people in the boat were got safely on board.

Besides Lightoller and Boxhall, two other officers of the Titanic were saved. They were Third Officer Herbert Pitman and Fifth Officer Harold Lowe. All these officers had done grand work in launching the boats and handling them.

When Lightoller arrived with the last of the possible survivors, the best and worst was known. We had then received on board 493 passengers of the Titanic, comprising 315 women, 52 children, and 126 men. The rule when her lifeboats were lowered had been "women and children first."

We had also picked up 210 of the crew, comprising 189 men and 21 women. In all, we had 703 survivors on board, and the bodies of four men who had died of exposure in the lifeboats. According to later published official estimates, a total of 1,503 persons had perished. These were 661 men, 101 women, and 53 children of the passengers, and 686 men and 2 women of the crew. Of the women and children who had perished, some had timidly refused a chance to go into the lifeboats. Others in the confusion had been unable to reach the lifeboat stations from below decks. The final rollcall of the dead and of the living, of both passengers and crew, revealed that 1,347 men, 103 women, and 53 children had perished; while 315 men, 336 women, and 52 children
had been saved.

These figures indicated the supreme sacrifice made by the men who had stood aside on the Titanic's decks to allow women and children to enter the lifeboats.

There was no reflection of wrong conduct on the men who had survived in the boats. Some, including crew members, had been ordered to go to handle the boats. Others had been allowed to go or had jumped in when boats were being lowered only partly filled with women and children. Others had been picked up from the water.

Among the men who had perished were the Master of the Titanic, Captain Smith; her chief officer, H. T. Wilde, and First Officer Murdoch, who had been on watch on the bridge when the collision occurred.

Her First Wireless Operator J. G. Phillips, had gone down, but the Junior Operator, Harold Bride, was saved.

The passengers who had perished included the millionaires Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Martin Rothschild, Isidor Straus, Charles Hays, William Dulles, Frederick Hoyt, Clarence Moore, Emil Taussig, J.B. Thayer, Washington Roebling and Harry Widener; the famous journalist, W. T. Stead; the theatrical manager, Henry Harris; President Taft's adviser, Major Archie Butt; the artist Frank Millet . . . and the many more . . .

Among the survivors were Bruce Ismay, who, according to evidence, had jumped into a boat that was being lowered half empty; Henry Harper, the publisher; Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon; Baron von Drachstedt; Colonel Archibald Gracie; and others who had taken a proper opportunity to jump into boats, or had been picked up from the water.

The survivors were given immediate care and attention by our three doctors and by the stewards and passengers. Intense activity was going on, as the stewards found berths for the survivors.

Our first and second-class passengers, and all the officers in the Carpathia, willingly gave up their cabins to women and children, and moved below to the third-class cabins.

Haling aboard a lifeboat
Hauling aboard the Carpathia one of Titanic's lifeboats
(Library of Congress)

In the meantime the Titanic's boats were being hauled up to the Carpathia. Our own boats, which were swung out on davits, had not been lowered. They were now returned to the chocks. Six of the Titanic's boats were hoisted up to the Carpathia's foredeck, and seven were carried slung overside in davits. This was all that we could conveniently hoist and stow. The others were set adrift.

When Lightoller's boat came alongside, the survivors previously taken on board knew finally the extent of their bereavements. If their loved ones were not in that boat, they had perished. At that moment seventy-five of the married women among the survivors, who had dared to cling to hope, had to face the fact that they were widowed, and that their children were orphaned. Others learned that a son or a father had gone. The extinction of hope came as a shock too terrible for the relief of weeping. The minds of the bereaved were numbed. There were no words that could comfort them. Anguish was silent. There was no hysteria. There was only a pall of unutterable grief, and a dazed staring from eyes of bewildered incredulity.

While we had been picking up the survivors, in the slowly increasing daylight after 4.30 A.M., we had sighted the smoke of a steamer on the fringe of the pack ice, ten miles away from us to the northwards. She was making no signals, and we paid little attention to her, for we were preoccupied with more urgent matters; but at 6 A,M. we had noticed that she was under way and slowly coming toward us.

When I took over the watch on the bridge of the Carpathia at 8 A.M., the stranger was little more than a mile from us, and flying her signals of identification. She was the Leyland Line cargo steamer Californian, which had been stopped overnight, blocked by ice.

Californian alongside Carpathia
The Californian alongside the Carpathia

Now she steamed up to within half a mile from the Carpathia and stopped. An officer, on the wing of her bridge, using hand-flags, signalled, "What's the matter?"

By Captain Rostron's order, I replied, with handflags, "Titanic hit berg and sank here with loss of fifteen hundred lives. Have picked up all her boats with seven hundred survivors. Please stay in vicinity to search for bodies."

This was the first exact information received by the Californian of the disaster that had occurred on her horizon, within an hour's steaming range if she had gone to the rescue.

Many excuses were subsequently put forward to explain why the Master and officers of this 6,000-ton steamer had so tragically failed to rise to the opportunity which had been theirs of saving the lives of perhaps every person in the Titanic.

There had been no willful neglect on their part, but rather a deficiency of seamanlike reactions in extremely unusual circumstances. Her Captain had been careful for the safety of his own ship when he had stopped her for the night at the edge of the pack ice. He had done the right thing in ordering his wireless operator to send out ice warnings, and a broadcast notification that he was stopped for the night.

The Californian, with her port and starboard lights, and white masthead light, and stem and bow lights burning brightly, had been in no danger of collision or of being rammed as she lay at a standstill in mid-ocean, surrounded by pack ice, on a clear and frosty night, with no wind, and a smooth sea. She was snug, and there was no need to keep a sharp lookout. Her engines were stopped, and her fires banked, to keep a low head of steam up until the morning. Her Captain, officers, engineers, and crew could relax. Most of them had gone to bed early.

Watches had been kept on her bridge throughout the night, but they had been standby watches, with nothing much for the officers to do. At 11 P.M., the Wireless Operator (Evans) had gone to bed. He knew that the Titanic was near, though she was not then in sight. At this time also the Captain turned in. At 11.10, the Third Officer, who was on watch, saw the lights of a big liner, westward bound, on the southern horizon.

At 11.40, as the Titanic struck the berg, she had veered to port.

This meant that her deck lights had suddenly become almost invisible to the Third Officer of the Californian. He surmised that the deck lights had been dimmed, to encourage the passengers to go to bed.

The Third Officer had been relieved at midnight by the Second Officer and an apprentice. They noticed the masthead and side lights of the distant liner, which they assumed was heading south­ westwards to get clear of the icefield.

At that moment, the Titanic was beginning to sink by the head. The watchers in the Californian thought that she was dipping below the horizon. Later, the Second Officer noticed that the disappearing liner was firing rockets at intervals. He went below, at 1.15 A.M., woke his Captain, and informed him of this. The Captain drowsily asked, "Are they company signals?''

This was one of the most tragic moments of that fateful night. Rockets were the well-known signals of distress, but some of the big shipping companies were in the habit of using Roman candles—combinations of coloured fireworks, which resemble rockets—as signals of identification for their ships, especially when approaching Light Vessels or Shore Signal Stations or the entrances to ports, but also at sea when passing other ships at nighttime, at a distance beyond easy visual range for morse-lamp signalling.

This was a practice which should never have been allowed, especially after all big ships were equipped with wireless. The use of fireworks should have been restricted to signals of distress. Con­ fusion could arise, and, in fact did arise, tragically, when the Titanic's rocket signals of distress were mistakenly believed by the Captain and the Second Officer of the Californian to be "only company signals."

That error of judgment was one of many such in the net of circumstances that dragged the Titanic to her doom.

On the Captain's drowsily murmured instructions, the Second Officer had tried to signal to the liner with a morse lamp, but had failed to get a response. This was not surprising, as the officers of the Titanic were at that time occupied in lowering the lifeboats. When the Titanic sank at 2.20 A.M., the Second Officer of the Californian thought that she had finally dipped below the horizon, going away to the southwestwards. If she had not veered to port after striking the berg, he would not have made this tragic error of observation. His view of the sinking ship had been stern on, at nighttime, in the "graveyard watch," from ten miles away-and in those circumstances there was some excuse for his wrong thinking.

The Chief Officer of the Californian had relieved the Second Officer at the 4 A.M. change of the watch. Informed that a big ship, which was now out of sight, had fired rockets two hours previously, he became concerned and puzzled. The Second Officer remarked that he had also sighted rockets or company signals from a different vessel in the distance to the southeastward. (These had been fired from the Carpathia.)

At 5 A.M., the Chief Officer had awakened Wireless Operator Evans, who sleepily switched on his radio apparatus, and presently heard the startling news from the German steamer Frankfort, and later from the Canadian Pacific S.S. Mount Temple, that the Titanic was believed sunk.

At this time the Carpathia was picking up boats, but not transmitting wireless signals. Our operator was awaiting orders from Captain Rostron, who, like everybody else in the Carpathia, was preoccupied with the rescue work.

The Captain of the Californian, sighting the Carpathia stopped ten miles to his southward, had got under way at 6 A.M., headed toward us, and, in two hours of cautious navigation among the icefloes and bergs, came near enough to us for handflag signalling at 8 A.M.

So he learned that, while he had slept snug, fifteen hundred people, whom he could have saved, had drowned. Yet, on analysis of the evidence given at the subsequent official inquiries, it became clear that heavy blame for their inertia could not be placed personally on the drowsy mariners of the Californian. There were excuses for their faulty reasoning at each stage. The blame lay on shipowners generally, for not having realized that one wireless operator in a steamer was not enough.

When the last castaways from the Titanic came on board the Carpathia at 8.30 A.M., Captain Rostron had a difficult decision to make. Should he remain to pick up dead bodies? Should he proceed, through ice, to the nearest port, Halifax? Should he continue his voyage, and land the survivors at the Azores or Gibraltar? Or should he return to New York, a run of four days, to land them at their originally intended destination, delaying the Carpathia's voyage-schedule by eight or nine days?

Or should he make a rendezvous by wireless with the Titanic's sister ship, Olympic, and transfer the survivors to her at sea with the lifeboats?

It did not take Captain Rostron very long to arrive at the correct decision—to return to New York!

The survivors had suffered more than enough. To remain there to pick up dead bodies from the sea would have added to the anguish of the widows and orphans and others bereaved. To search for, pick up, identify—and rebury in the sea—fifteen hundred corpses would be a lengthy, agonizing, and ultimately futile procedure.

Among the Carpathia's passengers was an American Episcopalian Minister. Captain Rostron asked him to conduct Divine Service in memory of the dead, and in thanksgiving for the rescue of the living. This service was held in the first-class lounge, while the Carpathia slowly made a circuit of the "island" of wreckage which marked the spot where the Titanic had gone down.

From the bridge, I sighted only one dead body. It was of a young man, semi-submerged, with his lifebelt on, seemingly asleep in the water, lying on his side. We did not stop to pick him up.

Most of the passengers and crew of the Carpathia, and some of the survivors of the Titanic, were crowding the deckrails, to stare overside. Some stated later that they saw many bodies. They may have done so, or what they saw may have been floe-ice or wreckage. The Captain gave me an order, "Bear away from the wreckage southwesterly..."

The Californian was standing by, and was now in wireless communication with us. Captain Rostron sent a wireless signal to her: "I am taking the survivors to New York. Please stay in the vicinity and pick up any bodies.''

This was acknowledged by the Californian. At 9 A.M., in bright sunshine, we were steaming at full speed to the southwestward, away from that scene of death, with our load of sorrow—the be­reaved, the shocked, the mind-numbed, humbly thankful to be alive.

An hour later, we received a wireless signal from the Master of the Californian: "I have not found any bodies, and I am resuming my voyage."

Being bound from London to Boston, he was evidently desirous of making as much progress as possible through the icefield by daylight, and could scarcely be blamed for that decision.

If he had remained on the scene of the disaster and attempted to pick up the bodies from the water, no useful purpose would have been served. It would probably have taken him a fortnight to find them all. His ship would have become a floating morgue. He would have had no means of identifying the bodies. If he took them to Boston for inquests and earth burial, the identifications would still be difficult and perhaps impossible in most cases. All that he could have done in practice would have been to recommit the bodies to the deep. It was better, then, to leave them where they were, undisturbed.

Unweighted, and in most cases buoyed by life jackets, the bodies of the Titanic's dead—the celebrities, the lesser-known, and the humble unknown to fame—were flotsam in the wide Atlantic for weeks, and some, it was believed, for months after the disaster. A cable-laying ship, the S.S. Mackay-Bennett, went out from Halifax two weeks afterwards, and picked up 205 bodies [sic], which were given religious burial; but this was the utmost that could be done for piety's sake. The mail steamers for many months gave the region of the floating dead a wide berth; the Atlantic tracks were haunted, and, even to this day, shipmasters steer clear of the place where the Titanic sank.

As the Carpathia steamed to the southwestward with her load of sorrow, we passed dozens of icebergs in the first three hours, frequently changing course to avoid colliding with them, before we were able to set course for New York, in open water, after taking sights of the sun at noon, in lat. 40 deg. 45 min. N.

Carpathia Titanic Lifeboats
Carpathia with Titanic's lifeboats stowed on deck and her own boats swung out.
(Library of Congress)

I have never since seen, and never wished to see, so much ice as I had seen that day, so far south in the Atlantic. The early thaw, which had set this field of vast extent adrift, was one of the many unusual circumstances of the Titanic fatality. But, as a direct result of that disaster, the International Ice Patrol was established (in 1913) to survey and keep constant watch on all ice movements, and to warn shipping of them. Thereafter, the tracks of shipping in the North Atlantic were laid down by international agreement, to eliminate all risks of collisions with ice. Experience had been gained, but at a tragic price.

At the change of the watch at noon, when I handed over the course and details to First Officer Dean, I was dog-tired, after having been practically sixteen hours on duty throughout that night and morning of strenuous anxieties. All the ship's people in the Carpathia had been likewise under the stress and strain of exceptional duties and the poignant emotion that hung over the ship like a pall. I went below for a meal, and then to sleep in a bunk in a third-class cabin to which my dunnage had been transferred, when my cabin below the bridge had been willingly given up to one of the bereaved women survivors.

But restful sleep was impossible. I could only doze fitfully. At 4 P.M., I went up on deck, and talked to some of the survivors, including the three rescued officers, who were also finding sleep impossible. From them I learned how and why the "unsinkable" ship had sunk. It had been a tragedy of errors, but those errors were a combination of fatal circumstances utterly unlikely ever to happen again. That was the crux of this disaster. It should not have happened ... but it did happen!

Titanic Survivors on Deck
George and Dorothy Harder in conversation with Mrs Beckwith
(Photo by Bernice Palmer, Smithsonian Institution)

According to what I was told that day, by the men who knew the facts, while their impressions and mine were only too vivid, it appeared that the odds against any repetition of such a calamity at sea were so great that we could only feel awed at the magnitude of the mischance.

The Titanic had been belting along at twenty-two-and-a-half knots when the lookout man in the crow's nest sighted the berg, dead ahead. He sounded his gong three times, and then telephoned his warning to the bridge.

First Officer Murdoch received this warning, and gave the order to the helmsman, "Hard-a-starboard." This order was in accordance with the prevailing practice, a legacy of tradition that is, from the days when helm orders referred to the tiller, as used in open boats and small ships, before steering wheels were introduced. In other words, the order "hard-a-starboard" meant, "Put your tiller over to the starboard side, hard, as far as it will go." That was how this order was applied in British ships in 1912. (It continued to bear that meaning until a new practice was introduced on January 1, 1933.) Helmsmen understood that, on receiving the order, "Hard-a-starboard," they must put the wheel to port, thereby putting the tiller to starboard, and the rudder to port, causing the ship's head to go to port.

When Murdoch gave the order, "Hard-a-starboard," the helmsman at the wheel of the Titanic reacted correctly, and the ship's head began to pay off to port.

The ship then had the iceberg on her starboard bow, but, as she passed close by it, the submerged part of the berg (comprising seven-eighths, of the berg's bulk), protruding invisibly underwater, scraped heavily along the Titanic's starboard side, opening up her hull plates on that side in a gash extending below her water­ line for 300 feet from the fore peak, for approximately one-third of the ship's length.

Murdoch immediately rang the engines to Stop and then Full Astern, until the liner came to a standstill half a mile past the berg. He also pressed the control button that electrically closed the doors in the watertight bulkheads. The time was 11.40 P.M. Captain Smith came on to the bridge immediately, and ordered soundings to be taken in the holds forward as the ship began to settle down slowly by the head.

Inspection revealed that water was pouring into the six forward watertight compartments, gaining on the pumps which had been started without delay. There were sixteen watertight compartments in the ship, but the bulkheads had not been carried up to the deckheads. Consequently, as each compartment flooded, water poured over from it into the next compartment aft. Captain Smith then knew that his ship was doomed. He ordered the first wireless distress signal to be sent out at 00.15 A.M., the first rockets fired at 00.45 A,M,, and at that time also gave the order to lower the lifeboats, with "women and children first."

The last boat was lowered at 2.05 A.M., and the ship sank at 2.20 A.M. She had remained afloat for two hours and forty minutes after striking the berg.

As the ship had collided with the berg not head on, but had struck it a glancing blow with her starboard bow, it was evident that the disaster had been caused by a split-second mistiming in the alteration of her course. That is, if her head had paid off to port for another ten, or, at most, say twenty feet, she would have avoided striking the underwater base or "platform" of the berg.

A speed of 22½ knots (say 25.9 statute miles per hour) is equivalent to approximately 2,280 feet per minute, or 38 feet per second. Assuming that the berg was sighted exactly half a mile dead ahead, there would be one minute and 9½ seconds in which to avoid a head-on collision. In smaller steamers, which travelled at speeds of from 11 to 15 knots, the time margin between the first sighting of a berg and the alteration of course to avoid collision was correspondingly increased to as much as two minutes, which was ample for manoeuvring when a sharp lookout was kept and alert men were on the bridge.

It was therefore safe enough, in practice, to proceed at eleven knots, in an ice region, even in darkness, when night-visibility was good; but it was not safe for a vessel of the bulk of the Titanic to proceed at 22½ knots among bergs, when the sea was smooth and there was no surf breaking around the base of the bergs to assist the lookout man to sight them.

A vessel of 46,000 tons, travelling at 22½ knots, develops a tremendous momentum through the water. The surge of her propellers, with violent disturbance of the water under her stem, causing the stern to press downwards, may interfere with her responses to movements of her rudder, making her slow in paying off when the helm is put hard-a-starboard or hard-a-port, unless her designers have allowed for this factor in the design and size of the rudder.

The Cunarder Mauretania was famous for her manoeuvrability at full speed. She answered her helm instantly in all conditions; but this quality was not built into the Olympic and the Titanic. They were clumsy ships. There was too much brag and not enough seaworthy performance in their construction. But in seafaring, as in every other human activity, men may learn from experiences that are sometimes dire.

The immediate cause, or causes, of the Titanic's collision with the iceberg, then, allowing that her speed of 22½ knots had to be maintained for publicity purposes on this maiden voyage, could be analyzed as an unforeseen delayed reaction, or delayed reactions, that occurred in altering her course to port during the time margin of one minute and nine seconds that would normally have elapsed between the first sighting of the berg and her passing it abeam.

During that fateful sixty-nine seconds, the following sequence of events took place: (1) the lookout man sighted the berg; (2) he struck his bell three times; (3) he telephoned to the bridge; (4) First Officer Murdoch answered the telephone; (5) Murdoch gave the order to the helmsman, "Hard-a-starboard"; (6) the helmsman obeyed the order; (7) the ship's tiller went to starboard, and her rudder to port; (8) the ship's head paid off to port; (9) the starboard bow struck the underwater ice and scraped along it for 300 feet of the ship's side, with sufficient force to open the hull plates, and then the ship veered off from the ice amidships.

Somewhere in this sequence of events there was a delay, or there were cumulative delays, amounting to a loss of a fractional period of time, perhaps not more than one or two seconds, which would have been sufficient, at the liner's speed of 38 feet per second, to enable her to clear the obstruction or to reduce its impact to a minor glancing blow.

That was the element of Fate in the Titanic disaster. Blind Fate had snipped the life-threads of all those people in one tick of the clock… like THAT!

But it would be grossly unfair to place the sole responsibility for this colossal tragedy on the lookout man, the Officer of the Watch, the helmsman, or even on the Captain—even though, in fact and in law, the Captain must bear the burden of blame when any mishap occurs in his ship which could have been avoided by timely precautions…

As Captain Smith, and also First Officer Murdoch, had gone down with the ship, they had atoned for any errors of judgment which might have been ascribed to them. Their view of the sequence of events could never be ascertained; but this disaster was too tremendous to be explained away by finding one scapegoat, or two, or three, to bear the brunt of the blame. It could be explained, and was explained ultimately, as the fatal culmination of a long and complicated sequence of interrelated causes which lay deep in human nature itself—the errors of judgment made by many fallible men, in greater and lesser degrees of responsibility.

In the beginning was the brag. That was one of the prime causes of this fatality; for, if there had not been so much extravagant publicity, claiming that the Titanic was "the biggest ship in the world ... the most luxurious ship ever built . . . the unsinkable ship…," and so on, then more attention might have been given to seamanlike considerations, of which safety at sea is by far the most important.

It would have been better for the Titanic to have arrived behind schedule in New York than never to have arrived at all; but her Captain took the responsibility of driving on at forced full speed into the icefield, to save a few hours of time on the passage, instead of reducing speed during the hours of darkness, or navigating on a longer course to skirt the icefield to the southwards.

Wisdom after the event is sad wisdom. The directors of the White Star Line had become bemused by their own propaganda. They believed that this ship was "unsinkable." A publicity catch­word had warped their judgment of reality. This happens often in politics, with dire results, especially in international relations; but words are no substitute for facts.

If this giant ship had been built with a double hull, instead of a single hull, a glancing blow from an iceberg would not have sunk her. If she had four propellers instead of three, she could have developed sufficient speed to take the longer course, southward of the ice, without losing too much time.

Granting the decision to run through the icefield, if she had a powerful searchlight, the bergs could have been sighted more easily. Without a searchlight, if extra lookouts had been stationed on the wings of the bridge, to give oral warnings directly and not by telephone, the vital moments of time would have been gained. If her rudder had been designed to function more efficiently at full speed, she would have veered to port more sharply.

If her watertight bulkheads had been carried by her builders up to the deckheads, she would have remained afloat until rescuevessels had time to come up.

If, instead of relying only on distress signals by wireless and rockets, she had signalled persistently to the Californian with a Morse lamp, beginning a few minutes after the collision, such signals would most probably have been answered.

Arrangement of the watertight bulkheads
An Unsinkable Titanic (1912)

If the Californian had carried two wireless operators, instead of only one, the S O S would almost certainly have been heard in that ship only ten miles away.

When it came to launching the boats, if more boats and rafts had been provided, and if there had been boat drill, more lives would have been saved…

These were contingencies which the foresight, not of any one man, but of the many concerned, could have met; but, because so much was neglected by so many, the tragedy of the Titanic had the inevitability of a decree of fate. It was the first big shock in the modern era to remind us that nothing made and managed by human hands is perfect; that mechanical progress has limitations; and that the Unforeseen is always likely to curb man's most grandiose strivings.

AS the Carpathia steamed on westwards, making for New York, she was a gloomy and silent ship. No one smiled. The usual shipboard jollity was entirely extinguished. People walked around or sat in silence, or conversed in subdued tones, almost in whispers. Everyone was numbed by shock. The faces of widows, tense and pale, their eyes staring in despair as they gazed to seaward, ex­ pressed grief inconsolable; but almost every one of the survivors was bereaved, if not of relatives, then of friends. They had been in the presence of a supreme sacrifice, and they knew it; for now each person who had survived was acutely aware of the splendid gallantry of those who had held back from the boats and gone down with the ship.

When the last of the lifeboats had been lowered, there had remained on board the sinking ship 1,390 men, 103 women, and 53 children.

Some of the women passengers had deliberately refused to go into the lifeboats. They chose to remain with their menfolk to the end. With them also stayed their children. It is possible that some of the women who made this choice did not believe that the ship would sink. Others, and some of the men, may have been "trapped" down below, on the lower decks, by the closing of the doors in the watertight bulkheads, and had been unable to find the escape ladders that led upwards from each compartment.

Of the women who perished, five were first-class passengers, fifteen second-class, eighty-one third-class; and two stewardesses. The first- and second-class passengers, being nearest to the boat decks, had easy opportunities of entering the boats. All the children in the first and second class were saved. The fifty-three children who perished were all in the third class on the lower decks.

Of the men who perished, 115 were first-class passengers, 147 second-class., 399 third-class, and 686 of the crew.

The men (and another 43 who were later picked up in the water, making a total of 1,390 men) had all stood aside on the decks when the lifeboats were lowered, in obedience to the cry that was taken up and repeated from one end of the ship to the other: "Women and children first!"

In the final fifteen minutes before the ship sank, after the last of the boats had been lowered, these men thronged the upper decks, calmly and silently awaiting death. There they stood, millionaires and working-class men of many nationalities, seamen, stewards, firemen, and trimmers, shoulder to shoulder, in the equality, unity, and brotherhood of the total unselfishness which each and every one of them deliberately accepted as necessary.

There was no panic. When the Titanic was in her death throes, everything that is admirable and superb in human nature came to the fore. This was what made the survivors, and everyone else in the Carpathia when the facts were known, feel dazed, in silent, bewildered reverence and humility, with a feeling of pride, too, that so many men, of so many different kinds, had responded to death's imminent threat with courage and dignity.

Typical of this courage was the behaviour of the men of the Titanic's orchestra of eight musicians. They had been playing the usual shipboard light music earlier in the evening, finishing at 11 P.M.; but, when the ship struck, they assembled again in the first-class lounge, and began playing popular tunes, as though to assure the passengers that all was well.

Even while the boats were being lowered, the lively melodies of Yip-I-Addy-I-Aye and Alexander's Ragtime Band encouraged the people to remain cheerful. The bandmaster, Wallace Hartley, had previously been in the Mauretania, and had made hundreds of crossings of the Atlantic. Two others, Theodore Brailey, pianist, and Roger Bricoux, cellist (a Frenchman), had belonged to the small orchestra in the Carpathia, and had left her in Liverpool only two months previously. The first violin, Jock Hume, was a Scot from Dumfries; the bass viol, Fred Clarke, was a Liverpool man. George Krins and Percy Taylor were Londoners, and Jack Woodward was from Oxfordshire.

These eight musicians continued playing cheerful tunes, until the water flooded around their ankles. Then, as their final number, and adieu to life, they played the hymn, Autumn, after the last boat had been lowered. Every man in that brave little band went down with the ship, and perished.

Captain Smith, with Chief Officer Wilde, First Officer Murdoch, and Second Officer Lightoller, stood on the bridge as the ship went down. She was sinking by the head, at a steep slant, with the stem high in the air. Men on the decks moved aft as the waters engulfed her forward. Some jumped overboard and began to swim away. Others, perhaps unable to swim, were crowded on the poop as the weight of water flooding below decks overcame the ship's remaining buoyancy, and she glided at a steep angle, to founder head first, while a wall of water swept along the decks, washing hundreds of people overboard, at her stern. These were almost all drawn down by the suction which followed the ship to the deeps. Second Officer Lightoller had survived by a miracle. He had stepped from the bridge into the water, and attempted to swim away, but was almost immediately dragged under by the suction of water cascading through the fiddley (gratings) of one of the engine-rooms abaft the bridge. He was brought hard against the gratings of the fiddley, and held there under the weight of water pouring through, when suddenly, as the boiler-room filled, a great bubble of air and warm water, expelled by the dowsing of the furnaces, blurted through the fiddley from below, like a geyser. Its eruptive force carried Lightoller with it away from the side of the ship as she went down.

Being a strong swimmer, he struck out vigorously in the darkness, and by chance came upon one of the rafts ("collapsible boats") which had not been launched but had floated overboard. It was overturned, and men were scrambling onto its keel. In all, thirty swimmers succeeded in getting onto this raft.

It was a perilous safety, as the raft was awash, but one of the bigger lifeboats, which already held forty-five people, came over and took the thirty men from the raft. Lightoller then took command of this boat, and eventually brought it to the Carpathia's side.

These, and the many other stories which the survivors had to tell of their experiences, made the Carpathia a ship of sorrow and wonderment. We, who had merely hastened to the rescue, were now aware that chance had made us play our unrehearsed role in the final scenes of one of the greatest sea tragedies of all time—great not only in the leviathan size of the ship that had gone down, and in the numbers who had perished, but also in its revelation of the workings of chance and mischance, and of the mysterious powers of Fate in human affairs.

This was a fatality unparalleled, illuminating the vanity of human wishes and the power of courage in extreme adversity. No wonder, then, that the people of two continents, and beyond throughout the world, informed only briefly of the fact that the Titanic had sunk, with heavy loss of life, were now eagerly awaiting the details of that tragedy, which only the survivors in the Carpathia could divulge.

The Carpathia was a crowded ship, with 1,740 souls on board. At 4 A.M. on Tuesday, when few people were on deck, Captain Rostron read the burial service over the four bodies we had picked up, and they were re-consigned to the deep.

The Purser and his assistants had by this time completed compiling and checking an exact list of the survivors that we had on board. The Captain instructed our wireless operator (Harold Cottam) to transmit this list as a marconigram, via Cape Race, to the office of the White Star Line in New York. The utmost accuracy was required, as the transmission of a list of survivors implied that those whose names were not included in that list had perished.

Unfortunately, our radio apparatus had a range of only 150 miles. Cottam could hear signals from Cape Race, but his messages were not getting through clearly. Hundreds of marconigrams were being sent out from Cape Race, and other shore stations, addressed to the Master of the Carpathia, from anxious relatives and friends of passengers in the Titanic, inquiring if this person or that had been rescued. Press telegrams in dozens were demanding details, and offering large sums in payment for exclusive news.

To make the situation more difficult, many of the survivors on board were asking Cottam to transmit marconigrams to their friends and relatives on shore, announcing that they were saved. Conditions in the radio shack became almost chaotic, as Cottam found it impossible to "clear the air" in the welter of signals that cluttered it from shore stations and other ships. But he worked on and on, to the limit of his endurance, with no sleep for two or three days and nights, sending and receiving, until the Junior Wireless Operator of the Titanic, young Harold Bride—who, though rescued, was injured and suffering from shock and exposure—was able to give him standby help while he snatched an hour's sleep now and then.

The Captain had strictly ordered that no news stories should be transmitted to the press. He realized that there would be an official inquiry into the disaster, and that evidence would be taken on oath to ascertain the facts. The press statements should come, not from him, but from the White Star office. Fortunately, Cottam was able to make fairly good radio contact with the White Star Olympic, as her course was converging to ours. Presently she was within 100 miles, or less, and the full list of survivors was transmitted to her, and relayed to the White Star office in New York. This discharged Captain Rostron's responsibilities in that aspect of the matter; but otherwise it became practically impossible for Cottam to cope with the deluge of signals or to answer the inquiries.

Newspapermen in New York, unaware of his difficulties and of the weak range of his apparatus, became annoyed, and unfairly suggested that a "censorship" had been imposed on news, for some sinister purpose vaguely hinted at.

The White Star office released the news, received per the Olympic, in time for publication in the New York evening papers on Tuesday. It was to the effect that 1,800 persons had probably perished, and that 675 were saved, mostly women and children. We in the Carpathia had no means of knowing the intense excitement that this announcement would cause in New York and throughout America and the wider world.

The passenger lists of the Titanic having already been cabled from Southampton, emphasising the names of the multimillionaires and other celebrities on board, the first scrappy news received stunned New York with the prospect that so many people of national and international fame had perished.

As the truth of this surmise was gradually established by elimination of names such as those of Astor and Guggenheim from the published lists of the survivors, the excitement in New York mounted almost to a pitch of hysteria. Every newspaper printed full front-page stories and supplementary pages of news, descriptions of the Titanic, biographies of the presumed dead, and came out with black borders and pictures (drawn from imagination by staff artists), while declaring unreservedly that the wreck of the Titanic was "the world's greatest marine horror."

The arrival of the Carpathia in New York was awaited with tense anxiety and impatience. Then our passage was delayed as we ran into a thick fog near Nantucket Shoals, and had to grope our way for hours at dead slow with our steam whistle eerily blaring.

On Thursday afternoon, April 18, the fog lifted, and at 6 P.M. we had Sandy Hook Light Vessel abeam, at the entrance to New York Harbour. Here for the first time we had an indication of the tremendous reception that awaited us. A fleet of more than fifty small craft, including tugs, ferry boats, steam launches, and yachts, crowded with newspaper reporters and photographers, relatives and friends of the dead and of the survivors, and adventurers who were merely urged by curiosity, converged toward the Carpathia as an unwanted escort for the pilot boat.

Captain Rostron gave the order, "Nobody to be allowed on board except the Pilot."

This was necessary to avoid confusion and delay at quarantine and the customs, and also to protect the survivors of the Titanic from being harassed.

We were "on stations" for entering port. My station as Second Officer was on the bridge, while the Chief Officer was stationed at the bows, and the First Officer and Third Officer were at the stem. The Third Officer (Rees) had the duty of receiving the Pilot on board. For this purpose the accommodation ladder had been rigged, and was lowered as the pilot boat came alongside.

When the Carpathia came to a standstill, the tugs, ferries, steam launches, and yachts clustered around her, their occupants expecting that we would lower gangways to allow them on board. When they realized that this would not be allowed, pandemonium broke out. They came in close, singing out questions, some through megaphones, in a deafening clamour of confusion; some holding up wads of dollar bills in an attempt to bribe people lining the Carpathia's deckrails to lower ladders or ropes overside, or to answer questions for publication, giving details of the Titanic's death plunge and its causes and sequels. The officers stationed on deck, with our boatswains, seamen, and masters-at-arms, had a busy time fending these "pirates" off.

In the meantime, Third Officer Rees, at the accommodation ladder, was having a lively time. Five newspaper reporters had somehow managed to get into the pilot boat. Rees went down to the bottom of the ladder, and stood by as the boat came alongside. "Pilot only!" he warned.

The five newsmen attempted to get on to the ladder ahead of the pilot, but Rees, a strongly built man, fended them off, and, when they persisted, had to use force, giving one or two of them a sock on the jaw.

Then one of the reporters used a stratagem. He put soap or some similar substance into his mouth, and began frothing at the mouth, screaming hysterically, "Oh! My poor sister! My sister is on board! I must see her! Let me up, Mister, and I'll give you a hundred bucks."

"No," said Rees. "Two hundred bucks!"

"No. Stand back. Captain's orders. Pilot only!"

Neither rush tactics, nor frothing at the mouth, nor bribes availed. Rees got the pilot onto the ladder, waited until he was on board, then followed him quickly up, as the ladder was hoisted, leaving the frustrated newshawks in the boat, putting on a remarkable exhibition of profanity.

As soon as the Pilot was on the bridge, our engines were rung to Full Ahead, and we steamed through the channels of the entrance shoals, and into the Lower Bay, followed and accompanied abeam by our escorting fleet, some of the small craft continuing to range alongside, as reporters continued their efforts to "get the story" in megaphone interviews.

At the Narrows we stopped in quarantine, and were boarded by the Immigration Department's officials and doctors. The inspection was a mere formality, as pratique was granted without medical examination of the survivors individually. This was a humane gesture in the circumstances. Darkness had now set in, with drizzling rain, as we proceeded into the Upper Bay.

Near the Statue of Liberty, a Cunard tug came out to assist us to our berth. The tugmaster had instructions from the Marine Superintendent that we should stop near the White Star Pier and lower the Titanic's lifeboats. We had six of these on our foredeck and seven slung overside in davits. These boats suspended over­side might have interfered with our docking, and were therefore better got rid of. They were the only material salvage of the Titanic.

As we passed Battery Point, we saw a crowd of people congregated there in the rain. It was estimated in the newspapers next day that 10,000 people waited for hours at the Battery to see the Carpathia arrive. What they saw was "the impressive sight of the rescue ship steaming up the Harbour, brightly lit, with boats hanging overside, and sparks flying from her funnel," as one newspaper report described the scene.

The Titanic's Lifeboats are lowered
The Titanic's Lifeboats are lowered

We stopped near the White Star Pier and lowered the Titanic's boats-those off the foredeck by derrick, and the others with our davits. It was now 8.40 P.M., New York time. On the Captain's orders, I left the bridge to supervise the lowering of the boats. Men had come off from the White Star Pier in a launch, which took the boats in tow and brought them into the dock. Each boat had the name TITANIC painted on it. They had reached their destination.

Small craft continued to throng around us. Photographers ignited magnesium flares as the boats were lowered.

When I returned to the bridge, after an absence of twenty minutes, as we got under way again, I saw a huge man, at least six feet four inches tall, and powerfully built in proportion, standing near the Captain.

"This man," said the Captain to me, "is on board without my permission. See that he does not leave the bridge. When we get to the Pier, hand him over to the Marine Superintendent for necessary action."

With that, the Captain turned his back. on the stranger, and busied himself with details of berthing.

"Who are you?" I asked the stranger.

"I'm a reporter from the Globe," he said, with a grin, "and, boy, have I got the greatest story in the world? I've scooped them all. I've been interviewing the survivors and your crew. Oh, boy, what a story, WHAT A STORY! But now the Captain won't talk! And who are you, Mister? What's your story? Is it true that the Titanic's officers shot the third-class women and children dead, so that millionaires could get into the boats? Is it true that you picked up people floating around on lumps of ice? ls it true that the band played 'Nearer, My God, to Thee'? ls it true that dogs were saved and children left to drown?"

"Don't ask me," I said, ruffled. ''I'll tell you nothing. How did you get on board?"

"Never mind that! I'm only doing my job, that's all. I got on board. I made it. I was told to get the story, and I got it. You can do what you like with me."

I sized him up. He was twice as big as me, and I wondered what would happen if he decided to leave the bridge to get more stories. "You heard the Captain's orders that you're to stay here until the ship berths?" I said.

"Sure, I heard them, and sure I'll stay here! Globe Reporter on Bridge as Carpathia Berths!" he chuckled. "How's that for a scoop? Sure, I'll stay put. Gee, what a story, WHAT A STORY!"

It was 9.30 P.M. when we berthed at Pier 54, at the foot of West Fourteenth Street. Rain was still drizzling, but a crowd of 30,000 people had gathered to see the survivors of the Titanic disembark. The crowd was orderly, controlled by mounted police and foot police in glistening raincoats.

As the gangways were being lowered, I noticed that the Cunard Marine Superintendent, Captain Roberts, was waiting on the wharf, to be the first on board. "Will you come with me?" I said, firmly, to the big reporter of the Globe. "It's my duty to hand you over to the Marine Superintendent of the Cunard Line, to be dealt with for boarding this ship without the Captain's permission."

"Sure, I'll come with you! Lead on, I'll give no trouble," the big fellow chuckled.

I led him to the head of the gangway, and said to Captain Roberts, "Captain Rostron wants this reporter dealt with for getting on board without permission."

Before the words were out of my mouth, the Globe reporter had charged down the gangway like a bull moose and had disappeared into the crowd.

"Let him go," said Captain Roberts. 'We've plenty of other worries on our minds. Good riddance to him!"

The surviving passengers of the Titanic began going ashore immediately, many of them wearing clothes given to them by the Carpathia's passengers and crew. Hundreds of flashlight photographs were being taken. Customs formalities were waived, and soon the survivors were being welcomed with tears of joy by relatives and friends, or taken care of by kindly persons and charitable organizations. Many of them were interviewed by reporters at the exit from the customs shed.

The Carpathia's passengers and crew, and the survivors of the Titanic's crew, with some few exceptions, remained on board overnight. It was desirable that the Carpathia's voyage to the Mediterranean should be resumed as quickly as possible, after port formalities were completed. The White Star company wished to keep the Titanic's surviving crew members under their super­ vision, pending the official inquiry, and to find new employment for them, or to pay them off.

But swarms of reporters and photographers now came on board, and remained until after midnight, getting stories from the survivors and from our passengers and crew.

Many of these stories, obtained from irresponsible or shocked persons, were highly coloured by imagination. Next day, and for several days, the "Yellow Press" published these stories with "sensational" headlines. There seemed no limit to the absurdities which could be printed. "The Captain was drunk ... He committed suicide ... First Officer Murdoch shot himself as the ship went down ... Third-class passengers were locked below deck and left to drown like rats. "
But the responsible editors of serious newspapers showed sound judgment and insight in sifting the facts from the mass of rumours and fables. They handled one of the greatest news-stories ever known (until that time) with dignity and eloquence. New York was in mourning. Flags flew at half mast throughout the city. Memorial services were held in churches of all denominations. The obituary notices of the famous people who had perished occupied many columns of type. Leader-writers rose to great heights, analyzing the causes of the disaster and calling for preventive measures to make any further happening of this kind impossible.

Resolutions of sorrow were passed by innumerable organizations. Newspapers opened subscription funds for the relief of distressed survivors. The generous, emotional heart of America was touched, as seldom before or since. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle aptly summed up: "The heart of the nation throbs with grief for the bereft."

Britain, too, was in mourning. Flags flew at half mast in London, Southampton, Liverpool, and many other cities, and memorial services were held. There were tragic scenes at Southampton, where most of the widows, orphans, relatives, and friends of the Titanic's crew lived.

To put a stop to the fantastic rumours that were flying around, the United States Senate appointed an Investigation Committee to take evidence on oath without delay. This inquiry opened at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York on Friday morning, April 19 (the day after the Carpathia berthed).

The first witness examined was Bruce Ismay, who was in an invidious position, as already he had been bitterly attacked in the Yellow Press for having saved himself when so many others had perished. He was still suffering from shock, but told the Committee that when he stepped into a boat that was being lowered, only partly filled, there were no women, and in fact no passengers, on the deck nearby. He added that, in his opinion, the Titanic would not have sunk if she had struck the ice head on. He gave evidence of the ship's lifeboat capacity and other details.

Captain Rostron was the next witness examined. He was called at this early stage because the Carpathia was being got ready to clear out again from New York to resume her voyage. His evidence was seamanlike and forthright, as was only to be expected from him, and did much to refute senseless rumours.

Then the four surviving officers of the Titanic were examined. Their evidence gave a clear picture of the facts. One of the Senators on the Committee, who was from an inland State, asked Fourth Officer Boxhall, "What is an iceberg made of?"

After a moment's consideration, Boxhall answered, with perfect seriousness and truth, "Ice!"

Next day, Saturday, April 20, the Carpathia was cleared again out of New York, to resume her voyage, ten days behind schedule. The Cunard Company refused to accept any compensation from the White Star Line for this loss of schedule time and the expenses of the rescue.

At each port of call on our run to the Mediterranean and Adriatic, Captain Rostron was feted and hailed as the hero of the Titanic. The facts had by that time become known authentically, and it was recognized that his fine seamanship had been responsible for saving many lives.

A vigorous controversy raged for many months on the causes of the disaster. Literary big guns entered the fray when George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Conan Doyle had an acrimonious dispute, in which both showed their command of words and their ignorance of seamanship.

When we returned to New York, early in June, after a voyage of seven weeks, with a full ship of immigrants, there were a dozen bags of mail, including thousands of letters, and hundreds of parcels, waiting for Captain Rostron, personally addressed to him.

The Captain gave me the task of opening these letters, and sorting out those for immediate notice from those that could wait. This task took me several days. Many of the letters were of heart­ felt thanks from actual survivors or relatives and friends of survivors; others were from newspaper readers throughout America and Britain, who had felt moved to write to express their admiration of a hero; some were from cranks; some from autograph hunters; and some were hard-luck tales from professional writers of begging letters who pester all celebrities; and some were offers of marriage (too late, the Captain was already married).

The parcels contained gifts of books, bibles, jewellery, cigarette cases, pens, photographs, teapots, binoculars, and all kinds of things which the Captain already had, or did not need: but all the letters and gifts had to be answered in common courtesy—a task which occupied the Captain's spare time (when he had any) for many weeks thereafter.

Then followed a round of public functions, at which Captain Rostron was presented with testimonials and illuminated addresses, and with checks for substantial sums in dollars from funds raised by newspapers.

An artist was commissioned to make a plaque of his head, which was placed in the "Hall of Fame" in the New York City Hall-an honour, I believe, not previously accorded to any Britisher. Finally, he was summoned to Washington to receive from the hands of President Taft the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honour that the United States Government could bestow. He deserved all the rewards and honours that were showered upon him. As a shipmaster has to take the blame when things go wrong, it is also fair that he should be given the credit when there is credit to be given.

Captain Rostron and officers
Captain Rostron with the junior officers of the Carpathia, Bisset fourth from left.
(Library of Congress Bain Collection)

The officers and crew of the Carpathia were not forgotten. A testimonial fund was distributed in the form of a bonus of two months' extra pay, together with medals (gold for the officers and silver for the crew). I still have my gold medal. On one side it shows the Carpathia surrounded by bergs, with five lifeboats making for the ship. Above is King Neptune, with his beard flowing down on either side, and below dolphins and an anchor.

On the other side, the inscription on the medal is:


There were approximately 300 of the medals struck, of which fourteen were gold, and I sometimes wonder how many of those medals, and their recipients, are now extant, and where?

Carpathia Gold Medal
James Bisset's Gold Carpathia Medal was sold for £41,000 in 2012
Courtesy of Andrew Aldridge (Henry Aldridge & Son)

After this excitement, I made four more voyages in the Carpathia on the Adriatic service, and was paid off from her at Liverpool on January 1, 1913.

I was then called up for twelve months' training in warships, to qualify as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve. I was in my thirtieth year. May and I were married in London on June 28, 1913, while I was on leave from naval training.

When I was paid off from the Carpathia, with the rank of Second Officer in the Cunard service, I had been at sea for fourteen years—approximately six years in sail and eight in steamers.

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Excerpted from Tramps and Ladies By SIR JAMES BISSET K.B., C.B.E., R.D., R.N.R., LL.D. (Cantab.) Commander of the Legion of Merit (XI. S. A.) Commodore (retd.) of the Cunard White Star Line Wartime Captain of Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth

Newspaper Articles

Sir James Bisset (1959) Tramps & Ladies: My Early Years in Steamers, New York, Criterion Books


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Comment and discuss

  1. Jim Currie

    Are you sure Bisset wrote this... Rally?:D:D:D:D

  2. David Goodwin

    That's an interesting account. Very matter of fact and certain. He seems to cover most of the discussed and contentious issues, which shows they were just the same in 1959 (and probably 1912).

  3. Jim Currie

    It is simply an account - David, which contradicts some of the evidence and takes us no closer to the truth.

  4. David Goodwin

    He will have settled on his version of the truth by 1959, but as you say, that doesn't mean it was right.

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