Decisions Led to Disaster
One hundred years ago on tomorrow’s date, April 19, at nine in the morning the SS Californian arrived with little attention in Boston’s busy harbor. Just another passenger cargo freighter arriving from a port overseas. This passage, the ship carried only crew and cargo with no passengers. A new arrival was a normal day’s occurrence in the harbor; no one took notice of another ship in port.
A few days later a New England newspaper, the Daily Item, ran a story that would forever immortalize that unnoticed ship in history. The story reported that a nearby ship refused to respond to distress signals from a sinking RMS Titanic on the night of April 15. That ship was identified as the SS Californian.
On April 23 the story also broke in a Boston paper. Both stories’ sources were crew members on the Californian during that voyage. Her captain had a few days before spoken with newspapers about the ill-fated Titanic. In one story, he reportedly told reporters his ship was 30 miles away from the stricken vessel. In another he reportedly said they were only 12 miles away.
Later, he was asked why he didn’t use the wireless to try and communicate with the ship on the horizon firing flares. He claimed that since his ship was stopped for the night the wireless would not work. In reality the wireless had been turned off. Power and heating were maintained throughout the night from the ship’s boilers.
The stories told by the ship’s captain were conflicting with accounts told by his own crew members and officers on the Titanic’s bridge. The Carpathia came to Titanic’s rescue, but too late for over 1,500 souls. Its crew also reported seeing the ship’s lights in the distance. They believed the lights to be the SS Californian.
Facts in this case have been reviewed and challenged many times over the hundred years since Titanic sank that cold April night. But a couple of things still remain that point toward the Californian possibly being able to help save the lives of the fated passengers. When crew members questioned the ship on the horizon firing flares, why didn’t they turn the wireless back on? Could a message received over the communications device have answered the question? And why did they not respond to the flares fired in sequence from the distant ship? It was well understood by all seamen those aerial signals meant a ship in distress.
History has retold the story of Titanic in books and other writings many times. It also has played out on the big screen in at least a dozen movies since it sank in 1912. Yet the ships that played a supporting role in that tragedy have for the most part only received footnotes in history.
The Carpathia is remembered for its rescues from the sea of over 700 passengers. From Halifax, Nova Scotia, the CS Mackay-Bennett was dispatched to site by the White Star Line. Also from Canadian ports the Minia, Montmagny and the Algerine sailed toward the area of sinking. The ships carried supplies to recover bodies. They had on board undertakers and members of the clergy for the solemn voyage. Three hundred and thirty- three bodies were found and recovered from the icy ocean. A few weeks later the RMS Oceanic recovered three more bodies hundreds of miles away from the accident site.
The recovery ships quickly depleted the supplies used for embalming bodies. It was decided to preserve only the first-class passengers. Those bodies not believed to be first-class, along with crew members’ bodies, were buried at sea. Later on shore just 200 bodies were identified by family members. Those who remained unnamed were laid to rest in Halifax cemeteries. The living know them by numbers on their graves. Their true identities are known but to God.
This event has lived on in our lives because of the profound tragedy of what happened. But it is also because of the many errors that were made, even as the RMS Titanic left port the first time. What if Captain Smith slowed for ice warnings when they were received by wireless? If the calm sea had a little chop to its surface, could the lookout have seen the iceberg sooner? Some have said that if Titanic had run dead onto the iceberg her design could have survived the impact and remained afloat. Most believe if the lifeboats that left Titanic had been fully loaded more lives could have been saved. What if the original designs included enough boats to save all passengers in the event the unsinkable ship would not live up to that claim? And what if the SS Californian had steamed toward the ship when one of her crew described the appearance of the distant ship as sitting “queer” in the water? That crewman’s question along with the mystery ship shooting flares into the cold night sky went unanswered by the Californian.
Throughout history stories of the sea have fascinated us with their telling. The story of the Titanic is no different. But in many ways the stories of ships are about the men who command those vessels upon the great seas. The sea’s vastness has many moods and claims those who do not listen when she speaks. And when she comes for them they are covered by her waves, most to never be seen again, only to be remembered in our telling.
A ship’s master has to make many choices in his career. The captains of the ships from Halifax chose to bury at sea those whom they had no way of preserving. The captain of the Carpathia chose to run in dangerous water to answer a call for help in the night. The captain of the SS Californian chose to turn off the radio and wait for daylight to find answers to his crew’s questions. As for Captain Smith, if he had chosen to heed ice warnings, stop for the night and had given no concern to breaking records on Titanic’s maiden voyage, would have things been different? Perhaps if he had, the name Titanic would be lost in time as her sister ships were. Just another ocean liner that came and went in the history of the sea. But, due to decisions by men, Titanic’s legend will live on as we also remember the other ships of that April in the North Atlantic 100 years ago.
Clegg has been a resident of New Martinsville for the last 56 years. His writings are often of things he sees through his camera’s lens and his mind’s eye. A love of history and the everyday world gives him an endless source for his writings.