One of the Many Small Facets of the Titanic Tragedy—one Boat was Close but Didn’t Discern Distress

Posted by Kendall Harmon

The other was the Californian, a small steamer that had stopped about ten miles from the Titanic—unlike the doomed ship, it had heeded the ice warnings—and sat there all through that terrible night, disregarding the Titanic’s frantic signalling, by wireless, Morse lamp, and, finally, rockets. Not all of this was as inexplicable as it seems: the Californian didn’t have a nighttime wireless operator. (All passenger ships were subsequently required by law to have round-the-clock wireless.) But no one has ever sufficiently explained why the Californian’s captain, officers, and crew failed to respond to what seemed like obvious signs of distress. The second officer merely thought it strange that a ship would be firing rockets at night. If Lord had been given to large interpretations, he might have seen in the one ship a symbol of the urgent force of human striving and, in the other, the immovable resistance of sheer stupidity.
Read it all (especially if you missed it last time).

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Posted April 14, 2012 at 5:28 pm

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1. sophy0075 wrote:

The Smithsonian Channel recently showed a two-hour special in which a historian researched the iceberg, the sinking, and the local ships in the area. His conclusions included the following: (1) due to a temperature inversion in the atmosphere not uncommon in those latitudes, fog hid the iceberg, so that the Titanic’s lookouts could not possibly have seen the berg until it was too late to avoid it. (2) contrary to myth, the captain was not drinking on duty (3) contrary to myth, the Titanic’s construction was not responsible for her sinking. At the angle at which the Titanic was hit, even a modern US Navy vessel would have ruptured and sunk (4) the temperature inversion caused the stars in the sky to appear to shimmer - it also would have caused the SOS flashes of the Titanic to have shimmered. Any ship scanning the horizon would have had great difficulty in reading these cries for help, if at all. In the summing words of the historian-announcer, Titanic was the victim of a “perfect storm” of bad events.

April 14, 7:02 pm | [comment link]
2. Catholic Mom wrote:

There is no good reason why the Californian didn’t respond to the rocket signals.  True, the atmospheric distortion made it seem that the ship they were coming from was much smaller than it was.  Thus the officers who observed it were not able to identify by sight what ship that was known to be in those waters it might be—it was an “unknown” ship giving off rocket signals.  Still—they sat there for hours watching some ship shoot off distress rockets until the rockets stopped and the ship seemed to “disappear” (uh…how did that happen?)  It wasn’t until another ship appeared hours later also shooting off rockets (the Carpethia, trying to alert survivors that she was coming) that an officer on the Californian thought maybe it would be a good idea to wake up the wireless operator and have him check what might be going on.  Just as there was a universally understood response to SOS (namely—immediately make for the ship requiring assistance) what was the point of equipping ships with rockets if there was no universally understood meaning to their use?  The fact is that a ship sat there 10 miles away from the Titanic and spent the night watching her sink.

As far as the “moral”—I think it’s much more basic than all those that the author of this article reviews.  It is simply that nature is much much more powerful and dangerous than most people normally experience it—although mariners certainly never forget this for even a moment.  In James Cameron’s Titanic (which I generally dislike, by the way) there is one great shot that expresses it all.  Throughout the beginning of the movie all the shots are intended to establish how enormous, how totally overpowering in scale, the ship is.  Then, when the ship is sinking and shooting off rockets into the sky, there is a shot from far far away, in which we see that the Titanic is just really a tiny drop of human life in a vast, enormous, and indifferent ocean.

April 15, 12:36 pm | [comment link]
3. Ad Orientem wrote:

Re # 2
I concur with your points (including your dislike of Cameron’s film).  The simple truth is that the captain of the Californian was negligent in his duty.  He was advised of a nearby ship sending up rockets while his own ship was stopped due to dangerous ice conditions.  And he made no more than a passing attempt to investigate.  He made no effort to close with the other vessel.  Nor did he consider waking the ship’s wireless radio operator to try and contact the other ship.

I don’t know with certainty that it was the Californian that was on the scene though certainly the weight of evidence would seem damning.  Nor do I know if he would have been able to even get to the Titanic if he had found out what was going on.  There was an ice field in his vicinity.  But we will never know because he made no serious effort to find out what was going on.

If he were a naval officer, his conduct would be grounds for a possible courts martial.

April 15, 12:58 pm | [comment link]
4. Catholic Mom wrote:

I don’t know with certainty that it was the Californian that was on the scene though certainly the weight of evidence would seem damning.

Not sure what you meant by this.  The Californian was dead in the water 10 miles from the Titanic, having telegraphed the Titanic that they were in an ice field and stopping for the night.  (This is the message that the Titanic’s wireless operator set aside and never delivered to anyone as he had just been able to reach land (Cape Race in Newfoundland) and he had a huge stack of passenger messengers he had to relay. He was under tremendous time pressure to get those messages through.)

The officers on the Californian testified that they saw an “unknown” ship sending up rockets.  They brought this to the attention of the Captain at least once.  Later they told the captain that the ship had seemed to turn and then disappear.  Later they told the captain that what appeared to be a different ship was now on the scene and also shooting rockets.  That’s when (after the Carpethia was already there picking up survivors) the Captain ordered his wireless operator woken up to check on things.  A minute later the wireless operator raced up to tell him that the Titanic had sunk.  The captain then immediately ordered the Californian to head for the site—but three hours too late to be of any help in saving lives.

It has never been explained how a bunch of marine officers could stand around on watch for hours during the night watching a ship shoot off rockets and not think it was worth waking up the wireless operator to check if help was needed.  (They didn’t even have to move in the ice—just wake up one man.  He would have heard the huge number of messages shooting through the air to and from the Titanic as she sought to make contact with the closest ship.)

April 15, 1:32 pm | [comment link]
5. Catholic Mom wrote:

And since the Carpethia steamed towards the Titanic in the dark at her top speed of 15 knots from 58 miles away, presumably the Californian could have travelled reasonably safely at less than that speed from only 10 miles away. 

The fact that the Titanic was travelling at 22 knots is just crazy.  The captain actually knew there was ice ahead and deviated his route slightly to the south to avoid it.  But the fact is that it was a known ice area (people make a big deal of how it was “unusual” for an iceberg to be that far south, but in actually the Titanic was on what was called “the northern route” which a lot of ships, even in those days, avoided because of the danger of icebergs.)

One might argue that if Captain Smith repeatedly travelled those waters at night at top speed he was almost bound to hit an iceberg eventually.  The Carpethia reported the area covered with ihuge chunks of ice when she arrived at dawn.  It was far from a “one in a million” accident—more like an accident waiting to happen.

April 15, 1:47 pm | [comment link]
6. Pageantmaster ن wrote:

I watched the 1958 ‘A Night to Remember’ this afternoon.  Filmed only 46 years after the event and using many survivors’ accounts it was remarkable for its special effects and depictions of the ship.  Being closer to the events, those filming it, may well have understood the mindset and culture in which it took place - the Edwardians still being very much alive as grandparents then.

I wonder if it is not a more realistic and telling depiction, than the expensive, romantic, technically accomplished and glossy Cameron version with its latent Anglophobia.  Perhaps even some of the stiff upper lip displays run true to life, given the attitudes and mores of the time.

Oddly enough a few nights before I had watched a remarkable program which had pieced together some of the survivor videos of the Costa Concordia capsize.  What a contrast with a ship with plenty of lifeboats, but fatal delay caused by a captain who panicked, failed to take action and abandoned his ship and passengers to an awful and unnecessary fate so close to safety.

Watching ‘A Night to Remember’ and thinking of the films of the wreck remains which showed that the Titanic’s death was far from a gentle sinking but one where she was rent apart on her descent by massive forces, I was left with a sense of sadness, but also with a renewed feeling that as a mass grave, that she should have been left as we wanted, undisturbed, and unmarked on the public charts.

Some days I sit and think. Other days I just sit!!

April 15, 2:11 pm | [comment link]
7. Catholic Mom wrote:

The captain of the Titanic, although he didn’t panic and continued to give orders up unti the end 1) allowed half (or less than half) full lightboats to be launched, knowing that there were not enough seats for everybody even when the lifteboats were full and knowing(as only a few did at the beginning) that the ship would certainly sink within 2-3 hours and 2) made no effort to get the third class passengers out of their section of the ship and up onto the boat deck (where they were normally not allowed and which required traversing a labyrinth of hallways and dead-ends that they had never been through before).  He also did not enforce a strict ‘women and children first” order of entering the lifeboats.  Officers on one side of the ship did, but officers on the other were letting men on the boats.  This is why a higher percentage of first class men survived then the percentage of third class children.  He did redeem himself by going down with the ship, unlike the despicable captain of the Costa Concordia who “tripped” into a lifeboat early on and then refused to return to the ship when ordered to do so by the Coast Guard.  But the Costa Concordia certainly should demonstrate that sea is (still) unforgiving of error and stupidity.

April 15, 2:24 pm | [comment link]
8. Sarah wrote:

One reason why it’s been postulated that the Californian did not respond to the rockets is that the rockets for some reason did not follow the mandated distress protocol, which was supposed to be one every minute or so.  Instead, the rockets apparently went off randomly—and only 8 total.

If only the wireless operator had been awake/working.

April 16, 12:11 am | [comment link]
9. Catholic Mom wrote:

Well, that explains why they didn’t know what the rockets meant but it doesn’t explain why they wouldn’t want to find out what they did mean.  They’re sitting there watching these rockets go off—it’s not the fourth of July.  There are no naval exercises scheduled.  It’s the middle of the night.  If I saw rockets going off near my *house* in the middle of the night I would make some effort to find out what was going on.  Maybe they thought this was some kind of shipboard entertainment? At 1 in the morning?  Also—I would guess the Titanic didn’t want to shoot off all their rockets within a short time frame (as would be the case if they went off every minute) because that would preclude anybody who got within sighting distance later from seeing them.  I assume they would want to stretch them out—like one every 15 minutes or so.

April 16, 9:10 am | [comment link]
10. Sarah wrote:

Re: “I assume they would want to stretch them out—like one every 15 minutes or so.”

That’s fine but then you wouldn’t be signaling distress and folks 10 miles away would be saying “it’s night, we’re surrounded by icebergs, we’ve wisely stopped moving, and those guys over there are shooting off periodic rockets—rich people celebrating no doubt.”

I mean—if you’re in distress, you communicate distress using the approved language of distress, it seems to me. 

There’s an interesting comment over at the Guelzo article on the Titanic that fleshes this out a bit more:

Dr. Guelzo is correct––presumption. Stories about Titanic were often written with an underlying theme of class and Progressive politics and still are. Titanic did not carry enough lifeboats but other steamships at that time did not either. Few carried enough boats for all on board. In hindsight we know it was a bad decision or presumption but at the time, lifeboats were a means to transport passengers from one ship to another because the Atlantic was a highway and another ship would be along soon. Gates were on all immigrant ships coming to New York, a US Immigration regulation and Titanic was listed as an immigrant ship. Gates were not usually locked, it was a means to separate 1st and 2nd Class from 3rd.
Another overlooked detail was Titanic did not fire her rockets in the proper sequence to tell other ships that might have been in the vicinity that she was sinking. International distress signals for firing rockets or shells, throwing stars of any color or description, fired one at a time, at short intervals. Titanic fired 8 rockets out of a stock of 36. The rockets were not fired at the correct intervals (about one minute apart as laid down by international agreement) instead taking just over an hour to fire them at intervals ranging from 4 to 6 minutes as reported by those on board. This is a complicated subject, hardly touched on in the US Senate and British Inquiries. No adequate explanation was ever given to both Inquiries why Titanic failed to follow the correct procedures regarding the firing of signals of distress and why so few rockets were fired.
Errors were made in the confusion and pandemonium during the sinking and, with the hindsight of many years it is very human and very understandable. But, any blame to be placed has to be the person who is at the top in the chain of command, Captain Smith, who also did not see to it that all the lifeboats were filled to capacity.
Karen Kamuda, Vice President
Titanic HIstorical Society, Inc. and Titanic Museum
Indian Orchard, MA

April 16, 11:56 am | [comment link]
11. Catholic Mom wrote:

Well, the Californian officers testified that they were “puzzled” by the rockets—so they did not automatically assume that they were just entertainment but they didn’t know WHAT to make of them.    The whole thing sounds like something one of my kids would do.  You know—wake up in the middle of a violent thunderstorm and hear somebody pounding madly on the door and the pounding goes on and on and on and they think (if you can call it thinking) to themselves:  “Gosh, who would be out pounding on the door in a violent thunderstorm?” and then they turn over and go back to sleep.  And my husband who has gone out in the storm to perform some function such as take down an outdoor umbrella before it gets launched in the wind and has gotten locked out of the house, finally gets a ladder and crawls up onto the lower roof and thence to the higher roof and into the bedroom, risking his life and getting drenched.  Then in the morning he asks “didn’t anybody hear me pounding on the door for a half hour at 2 am last night?” and one of the little geniuses says “Oh, was that you?  I wondered who it could be.” 

Re: Captain Smith.  He made many errors, chief of which was going 22 knots at night with no searchlight in a known ice field.  However, the British Board of Trade which investigated the disaster did not blame him as that was not a deviation from permitted practice (notwithstanding that nobody else was doing it).  They might have better blamed themselves for not having changed a Board of Trade regulation that was 22 years old that said that a ship “over 10,000 tons” had to have 16 lifeboats—written when the heaviest ships were then around 15,000 tons.  (The Titanic was over 40,000 tons.)  It might have made a lot more sense to require lifeboats in proportion to passengers (or in proportion to tons without having an open top number).  Even if you consider lifeboats as primarily vehicles to ferry passengers from a stricken ship to a rescue ship, it very often happens that all the lifeboats on one side of a ship cannot be used at all if the ship is listing heavily (like the Cosa Concordia).  The Costa Concordia shows that a ship does not have to sink for people to die.  In an accident you need proper safety equipment and a well-thought out emergency plan, neither of which the Titanic had.

April 16, 1:09 pm | [comment link]
12. Pageantmaster ن wrote:

#11 Catholic Mom
You put your finger on it when you correctly state that regulations required a minimum number of lifeboats based on tonnage rather than passenger numbers.  It has to be remembered that in 1912, Titanic was one of the first superliners.  She and her two sisterships, and the number of people they carried were something not conceivable a few years before when the regulations were made and when tonnage might well have been a good indicator of the likely capacity for crew and passengers.

That said, blame must to some extent go to the owners.  The pressure placed on the vessel to keep up speed with the aim of a fast, if not Riband-breaking first crossing, coupled with the decision to keep the lifeboats to the regulation minimum, have to be placed at the door of the owners as well as the Captain, although ultimately speed was a matter for him and he would have been within his authority to deny the speed requests of the American owners [White Star line at that time ultimately came under the control of J. Pierpont Morgan] and Ismay their representative.  The lifeboat capacity, however was out of his hands and the owners could have put more boats and other lifesaving devices aboard; and given the crush of people it is unlikely that Smith could exercise direct control over embarkation on either side of the vessel where different things seem to have happened, even if he receive the information and did issue orders, particularly in the latter stages of the embarkation.

I have to say some of the things going on at the moment with the trade in Titanic memorabilia and the number of expeditions collecting materials from the wreck are deeply worrying.  Most of the items on the wreck are unlikely to be special to Titanic and many from that still recent era can be picked up in bric-a-brac shops or maritime dealers.  Even the plate and crockery is probably marked with the generic shipping company logo and interchangeable with the Olympic and Brittanic.  There have been reports of plunder of the vessel with mechanical grabs and just on general principles, had she been a war grave this plunder would have been outlawed.  There is no information which can be gained on the items on the vessel which would not have been listed on the manifests back in the company’s offices.  Perhaps remembering the faces of those who went down is a reminder that Titanic is a grave-site, and that collecting items from her is tomb-robbing.

It is really very sad seeing what is going on.

Some days I sit and think. Other days I just sit!!

April 16, 3:11 pm | [comment link]
13. Catholic Mom wrote:

Just got the follow-up book written by Walter Lord 31 years after he wrote “A Night To Remember.”  It’s called “The Night Lives On.”  This guy has to be the definitive source for thoroughly researched Titanic information.  It’s amazing how much argument, counterargument, and data he’s waded through.  Anyway, it turns out he has an entire chapter devoted to the Californian.  The Californian arrived after the Carpethian had already picked up all the survivors and it was requested to stay behind to see if anybody had been missed while the Carpethian headed to New York.  No additional survivors were found and the Californian arrived in NY on April 19.  When asked by reporters, the captain refused to give his exact position in latitude and longitude on the night the Titanic sank.  He also stated that absolutely nothing was seen or heard that would have given them (the Californian) any hint of what was happening to the Titanic. 

Two days after this, a seamen who worked in the engine room approached a newspaper reporter to say that he had come up on deck that night for a smoke and seen distress rockets.  He had not reported them to the officers or captain because he said they were perfectly clear and apparent and there was no doubt that everyone on watch could have seen them.  The management of the Leyland Line which owned the Californian responded to this story with the comment that it “was perfectly absurd.” 

A day later a carpenter on the ship revealed that he had seen the rockets as well.  Following which the officers of the ship who had been on watch finally gave their stories in which they told how they had seen the rockets and had informed the captain.  According to them, one of them had said to the captain “a ship does not fire rockets at sea for nothing.”  The captain told them to keep watching and report whatever else they saw. 

When told what the officers had said, the captin responded that it had been reported to him that “flares” (not rockets) had been seen.  One of the officers stated, however, that you could clearly see the the details of the rockets and no one had ever suggested they were “flares.”  To the end of his days, the captain denied that anyone had ever told him that “rockets” were fired. 

Sir Isaac Rufus, Attorney General in charge of the British Inquiry wrote:

  I am unable to find any possible explanation of what happened, except it may be that the Captain of the vessel was in ice for the first time and would not take the risk of going to the rescue of another vessel which might have got into trouble, as he thought, from proceeding through the ice when he himself had stopped. 

Bear in mind the the captain of the Carpethian stated that he had to steer around 4 icebergs on his way to the Titanic.  So refusing to move at night under those conditions was certainly extremely prudent.  What else it was remains open to interpretation.

The captain was dismissed by the Leyland Line later that year.  The Californian was torpedoed by the Germans in the WWI and sunk.

April 21, 6:51 pm | [comment link]

© 2014 Kendall S. Harmon. All rights reserved.

For original material from Titusonenine (such as articles and commentary by Dr. Harmon) permission to copy and distribute free of charge is granted, provided this notice, the logo, and the web site address are visible on all copies. For permission for use in for-profit publications, please email KSHarmon[at]mindspring[dot]com

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