Wednesday, April 1, 2015
AFTER THE ICEBERG
Although those on board the Titanic didn’t realize how badly the ship was damaged, was there anything they could have done to prevent the disaster that unfolded? Was it inevitable that over 1500 lives would be lost that night? Just as there were a combination of reasons for striking the iceberg in the first place, several more contributed to the horrendous loss of life.
After Titanic was found some seventy years later, inspections revealed the steel used in ship construction those days did not deform, but fractured. Especially under extremely cold conditions. And the water temperature that night was 28 degrees Fahrenheit.
Furthermore, the sixteen watertight compartments were actually not watertight. The bulkheads dividing them rose only partway up, like partitions separating cubicles in office buildings. Some bulkheads rose to “D” Deck, others to “E” Deck, barely fifteen feet above the waterline. As sea water filled a compartment, it flowed over the top of the bulkhead and entered the next compartment. And so on.
The Captain ordered lifeboats to be lowered, and the Marconi operators sent out the distress signal, CQD. That old Morse code was sent at first, but later they used the “new” code - SOS - which was easier and faster to transmit. The Titanic’s use was the first in history. The Cunard liner, Carpathia, 58 miles away, responded and began its four-hour journey to the site.
In addition, white rockets were fired from the ship at regular intervals between 12:45 and 1:30. No response. During the official inquiry afterward, surviving passengers reported seeing lights from what they assumed was another ship between 11 to 20 miles away and expected it to rescue them, but it never moved.
However, there was a ship, Californian, at about that position, which stopped because of ice. Later, their officers testified they had seen the rockets, but their captain gave no orders to do anything. Years later, there was still controversy about the ship not going to Titanic’s aid.
Before Titanic struck the iceberg, wireless operator Phillips had been catching up on sending messages accumulated while his equipment was down. These were forwarded through the relay station at Cape Race on Newfoundland. Though the officers were also required to (and did) send messages to the bridge, they worked for the Marconi Company, not the ship. Passengers paid to send messages, so those were a priority.
At 11:30 p.m. Phillips was interrupted by 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, much of that time repairing his system, snapped back, “Shut up! Shut up! I’m busy. I am working Cape Race.”
The Californian’s operator shut down his equipment and retired for the night. Did this confrontation have anything to do with the refusal of the ship to come to Titanic’s rescue?