Earlier that evening, before Titanic struck the iceberg, wireless operator Phillips had been feverishly sending messages, trying to catch up on what had accumulated while his equipment was down. These were forwarded through the relay station at Cape Race on Newfoundland. Though the operators were also required to (and did) send shipping messages to the bridge, they worked for the Marconi company, not the White Star Line. Passengers’ messages were a priority since they were paying for them.
At 11:30 p.m. Phillips was suddenly interrupted by the voice of the Californian’s wireless operator. “Say, old man, we are surrounded by ice and stopped.”
It was considered rude to interrupt another ship’s messages without asking permission first, and Phillips--who had been working for almost twelve hours straight and had just spent a large part of that time repairing his system--snapped back, “Shut up! Shut up! I’m busy. I am working Cape Race.”
The Californian’s operator fell silent, sent no more messages about ice, shut down his equipment and retired for the night. Did this confrontation have anything to do with the later refusal of the ship to come to Titanic’s rescue?
More than twice as many people perished in the Titanic sinking compared to those who survived, but it needn’t have been as bad as it was. My research turned up a few things that may have contributed to the death toll.
First, everyone agrees there weren’t enough lifeboats. That was obviously the fault of the White Star Line which should have provided more. However, Titanic actually held more than were required by law. Unfortunately, the law was written before shipping companies began building ever larger vessels to accommodate the surge of immigrants to the new world, as well as the desire of wealthy people to travel back and forth to Europe. Titanic had davits installed for forty-eight lifeboats to be stored on the Boat Deck, but providing that many actual boats was vetoed by J, Bruce Ismay, among others, who felt they would “clutter up the deck” and obscure passengers’ views.
Besides, with the newspapers calling the ship “virtually unsinkable” (The White Star line advertising never said that.), more seemed unnecessary. The sixteen required standard lifeboats, plus the four collapsibles could have saved 1178 lives if they’d all been filled to capacity. But many--especially the earliest ones to be launched from Titanic--were not. For instance, Boat Number One left the ship with twelve people instead of forty.
Why the reluctance of passengers to get into the lifeboats and save themselves? There are several reasons. Due to the sound of the impact and the stopping of the engines, most passengers knew fairly soon that something had happened. Parties had been held that Sunday evening, so many partygoers were still dressed in their finery. They took to the decks to see whatever they could and to discuss the situation with one another. Participants at two tables of Bridge in the smoking room barely looked up from their game.
Some stewards, not wanting people to panic, made light of the problem. Many passengers were told it was merely a drill and they could soon return to their staterooms. The band was encouraged to keep playing (the new ragtime music), and lights blazed all over the ship. Furthermore, it was so cold on deck that many chose to retreat to warm rooms instead of get into a relatively tiny lifeboat which (in the beginning at least) would lower them some sixty-five feet into the icy, black Atlantic.
Since more third class than first class passengers perished, many believed at the time that it was deliberate discrimination. True, it wasn’t easy to get from third class to the boat deck, but that was a requirement of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1907. (see Sparks’s Titanic FAQs for details). Not only were there several ways up, stewards were supposed to help passengers find those routes. However, it was a new ship, many stewards were just as new, and--with the sudden necessity of lowering and manning lifeboats, those extra duties were easily overlooked.
Even Cameron’s film shows locked gates that kept steerage passengers below. but everything I’ve read disputes that. The London Independent, in an article published April 11, 1998, states that the Public Records Office carries a report that “third class passengers were not prevented from getting to upper decks by locked doors or anything else.”
There are at least two other reasons for third class passengers’ higher death rate. Many immigrants did not speak or understand English. Then, when finally convinced they must abandon the ship, they wanted to carry all their possessions (literally all their worldly goods) with them. Some narrow stairways leading to upper decks couldn’t accommodate the luggage and, in other cases, the material created bottlenecks.
When it became obvious there weren’t enough lifeboats for everyone, the call went out for “women and children first.” Many wealthy men, including John Jacob Astor, watched their wives leave the ship and stood resolutely at the railing assuring them they’d meet up with them “later.” Mrs. Ida Strauss, however, wife of Macy’s department store owner, deliberately stayed behind with her husband.
Those were the scenes--while writing COLD APRIL--that always brought tears to my eyes. I had to ask a man in our critique group to read that chapter aloud, because I couldn’t trust myself to do so without breaking down. Yet, I must add, unlike Cameron’s film, my hero and heroine--although sorely tested--survive. At least one reviewer admitted she shed tears while reading the book. If you did, I’d love to know.