By Robert Morrison
More than 1500 people lost their lives when that magnificent vessel struck an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912 and sank within hours. But 712 persons were rescued from the sinking of the luxury liner. Their survival is a story of courage, competence and faith.
” SOS Titanic calling. We have struck ice and require immediate assistance.” That startling message was received on board the RMS Carpathia. The ship’s only radio operator, Harold Cottam, had been working well past the end of his normal shift.
Carpathia’s first officer barged into the captain’s quarters. “Who is this cheeky beggar coming into my cabin without knocking,” thought Captain Arthur Rostron, who had just retired.
Titanic, the pride of the White Star Line, had been racing from Britain to New York. Now, she was 60 miles away. In seconds, Captain Rostron was in the chart room, plotting a course to race to the side of the stricken vessel. Normally, Carpathia could make 14 knots. By diverting “every particle of steam” to her screws, she might reach 17 knots. Even so, it would take hours to come alongside.
Poring over his charts, the captain issued a stream of orders. The ship’s doctors, pursers and chief steward were ordered to receive passengers from Titanic, readying supplies of blankets, stimulants and other restoratives. Get lists of survivors’ names to be sent by wireless. Maintain strict silence. Avoid panic among Carpathia’s own passengers. They would be left to shiver in their cabins, the steam heat having been diverted to drive the ship’s propellers. Once he had finished his mental list of a hundred tasks, Captain Rostron was observed, head bowed, praying.
He had good reason to pray. There would be no other ship to do what Carpathia had to do that night. The Olympic, sister ship to Titanic, was hundreds of miles away. And the California, heartbreakingly close to Titanic, may have mistaken the sinking liner’s emergency flares for fireworks of celebration. This was Titanic’s well-publicized maiden voyage and her passenger manifest was a who’s who of the rich and famous of two continents.
Captain Rostron could not forget his first duty – to his own ship and her passengers and crew. “Icebergs loomed up” on this still, moonless night, Arthur Rostron would write in his memoir, “Home from the Sea.” “It was an anxious time with the Titanic’s fateful experience very close in our minds. There were seven hundred souls on the Carpathia; these lives, as well as the survivors of the Titanic herself, depended on a sudden turn of the wheel.”
If Captain Rostron or his crew had neglected any one of the vital tasks required on that night to remember, the Titanic disaster could have ended even more tragically. They didn’t.
During World War II, the fate of Britain and the allied cause depended on the Battle of the Atlantic . All too often, men stranded in boats following a U-boat attack were left behind the convoys racing to bring critical supplies to the embattled nation. They flashed their little lights but the convoy had orders not to stop. Richard Snow’s “A Measureless Peril” tells of a newly commissioned destroyer escort that raced to rescue the freezing men in a cluster of twelve lifeboats. “Don’t waste too much time,” the convoy commodore had radioed. The destroyer escort’s unblooded crew members were shocked at this callousness, until they reached the little boats bobbing on the swells. All the life-jacketed seamen were dead. Their stiff-armed waves were caused by the movement of the waves.
Such would have been the fate of the 712 Titanic passengers who made it into the lifeboats. Exposed a few more hours and they would all have died. Most of those in the freezing waters died. One woman watched Titanic’s massive hull slip beneath the waters. She lost hope for her husband. Suddenly awakened, she begged others in her lifeboat not to push off an oil-covered figure desperately thrashing about in the water. They feared he might capsize them. Her piteous pleas finally touched their hearts. When the swimmer got on board, the pleading woman recognized her own husband.
Captain Rostron received the Congressional Medal of Honor from a grateful America . Home in England , he was knighted. The day after Titanic sank, President Taft ordered the Coast Guard to commence iceberg patrols. For those who have been in peril on the sea, the captain’s noble courage will always inspire gratitude and reverence. It’s not too late to make a movie about Sir Arthur Rostron and the Carpathia crew.
Robert Morrison, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, made an iceberg patrol with the Coast Guard sixty years after Titanic’s loss. He keeps his seaman father’s brass whistle, a remembrance of Leslie Morrison’s survival of a U-boat attack in WWII.
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