It was a few minutes past midnight on the Carpathia when her wireless operator, Harold Cottam, remembered some traffic he’d been listening to earlier that night, including a number of messages for the new White Star liner Titanic. He thought he would remind Jack Phillips, the new ship’s senior operator whom he knew professionally, about those waiting messages. After the Carpathia’s wireless set warmed up, he politely tapped out a call to the Titanic, quickly receiving a curt “Go ahead.”
“Good morning, old man [GM OM]. Do you know there are messages for you at Cape Race?”
What Cottam heard next made his blood run cold. Instead of the expected jaunty reply came the dreaded “CQD…CQD…MGY. Come at once. We have struck a berg. It’s a CQD, old man [CQD OM]. Position 41.46 N, 50.14 W.”
Stunned, Cottam did nothing for a moment, then asked Phillips if he should tell his captain. The reply was immediate: “Yes, quick.” Cottam raced to the bridge and breathlessly told First Officer Dean. Dean didn’t hesitate–he bolted down the ladder, through the chartroom and into the captain’s cabin, Cottam hard on his heels. When a clearly anxious Dean told Captain Rostron about the Titanic, the captain swung his legs out of bed and then seemed lost in thought for a few seconds as he digested the news.
“Mr. Dean, turn the ship around–steer northwest, I’ll work out the course for you in a minute.” As Dean sped back to the bridge, Rostron turned his attention to Cottam. “Are you sure it’s the Titanic and she requires immediate assistance?” he asked.
“You are absolutely certain?”
“Quite certain, sir.”
“All right, tell him we are coming along as fast as we can.” Cottam dashed back to his wireless set, and quickly began tapping out a message to the Titanic.
As soon as Cottam and Dean left his cabin, Rostron began donning his uniform, and as he dressed his mind was racing. This would be his first real test as a captain, as he had never faced this sort of emergency before. Exactly how should he prepare his ship for a rescue? And did the Carpathia even have room for as many as possibly three thousand extra people? Making his way to the Carpathia’s chartroom, his mind was clear. There was no hesitation, no second guessing–-without perhaps even realizing it, he had gone into action the moment he had heard the news from First Officer Dean. To Rostron, the Titanic’s CQD was a clear call to duty-–he had no choice but to answer. Standing over the chart table before him, he began working out the Carpathia’s new course. Then he stepped out of the chartroom, climbed the ladder to the bridge, and strode over to the quartermaster, and gave the helmsman the new course–North 52 West–then called down to the engine room to order “Full Speed Ahead.” At the Carpathia’s top speed of 14 knots she would cover the distance between herself and the Titanic in four hours, which was not good enough for Rostron. Now he really swung into action.
Returning to the chartroom he called for Chief Engineer Johnston, and explained the situation to the dour Scot. Speed, he told Johnston, he wanted more speed than the old Carpathia had ever mustered. Call out the off-duty watch to the engine room, he said, and get every available stoker roused to feed the furnaces. Cut off the heat and hot water to passenger and crew accommodations, put every ounce of steam the boilers made into the engines.
Next he spoke to First Officer Dean, gave him a list of things to be done: all routine work was to cease as the ship prepared for a rescue operation; swing out the ship’s lifeboats, to have them ready if they were needed; have clusters of electric lights rigged along the ship’s sides; all gangway doors to be opened, with block and tackle slung at each gangway; slings ready for hoisting injured aboard, canvas bags for lifting small children; ladders prepared for dropping at each gangway, along with cargo nets; forward derricks to be rigged and topped, with steam in the winches, for bringing luggage and cargo aboard; oil bags readied in the lavatories to pour on rough seas if needed.
Dean set to immediately and Rostron turned to the ship’s surgeon, Dr. McGhee: the three surgeons aboard, McGhee, and two passengers, an Italian physician and one who was Hungarian. All three were to be assigned to specific stations–McGhee himself in First Class, the Italian doctor in Second, and the Hungarian doctor in Third. They would be supplied with stimulants and restoratives and first aid stations to be set up in each dining saloon.
To Purser Brown: see that the Chief Steward, the Assistant Purser and the Purser himself each covered a different gangway to receive the Titanic’s passengers and crew; get their names and classes and see to it that each one went to the correct dining saloon for a medical check.
Chief Steward Henry Hughes received an additional set of instructions: every crewman was to be called out; coffee was to be available for all hands. Also, soup, coffee, tea, brandy and whiskey should be ready for those rescued; the smoking room, lounge, and library were to be converted into dormitories for survivors. All the Carpathia’s Third Class passengers were to be grouped together; the extra space would be given over to the Titanic‘s steerage passengers.
Finally Rostron urged everyone to keep quiet: the last thing they needed was the Carpathia’s passengers lurking about while there was work to be done. To help keep the passengers where they belonged, stewards were stationed along every corridor to shepherd the curious back into their cabins. An inspector, a master-at-arms, and several stewards were sent down to keep the steerage passengers in order–no one was sure if they would take too kindly to being herded about in the wee hours of the morning.
His instructions issued, Rostron quickly reviewed everything he had ordered, trying to think of what he had overlooked in his preparations. There didn’t seem to be anything, so he quickly strode to the bridge and began posting extra lookouts. He was determined that the Carpathia was not about to meet the same fate as the ship she was rushing to aid. Rostron had an extra man posted in the crow’s nest, two lookouts in the bow, extra hands posted on both bridge wings, and Second Officer James Bisset, who had especially keen eyesight, posted on the starboard bridge wing.
Now having done all he could do, Rostron faced the toughest task–waiting. But there was one last detail Rostron did not overlook. Second Officer Bisset noticed it first, then so did the others on the bridge–the Captain standing toward the back of the bridge holding his cap an inch or two off his head, eyes closed, lips moving in silent prayer.
A sort of quiet, controlled frenzy swept over the Carpathia as her speed increased and her bow swung around to the northwest. The first order of business was to swing out the lifeboats and have them readied for lowering. If the Titanic’s boats should prove to be insufficient for the number of people aboard her, the Carpathia’s would have to ready to assist them: the time spent clearing and swinging a boat out might be the difference between life and death for some poor souls struggling in the freezing water. So the crew swarmed across the Carpathia’s sixteen lifeboats, rolling up the canvas covers, undoing the lines lashing them to their deck cradles, checking the oars and oarlocks, making certain the drainplugs were in place and secure. With a series of creaks and groans from the block-and-tackle sets suspending the boats from the davit arms, each lifeboat was lifted free of its cradles, the blocks holding it place knocked free, and then in a carefully orchestrated series of movements, first the bow then the stern of each boat was swung over the side, and snubbing chains attached to keep them from swinging back and forth.
Down in the boiler room of the Carpathia, as word of the ship’s mission spread, it soon seemed as if the entire “black gang” had been infused with Rostron’s energy: the extra hands began shoveling coal into the furnaces of the boilers like they had never shoveled coal before. First the safety valves were closed off, then under Chief Engineer Johnston’s careful guidance, the engineers began to systematically shut off steam to the rest of the ship, ducting it instead into the reciprocating engines. It was a scene straight out of Dante’s Inferno, the sweating, grimy stokers, some wearing little more than their unionsuits and boots, shoveling coal into the glowing maws of the fireboxes, their faces and hands gleaming copper and bronze in the light of the fires. Wisps of smoke drifted through the gloom, while trimmers lugged their wheelbarrows back and forth between the bunkers and the fireboxes, determined that the stokers would never lack for coal.
Back in the engine room the massive engines whirled, spun, and stroked as the Carpathia’s engines pounded, pushing her, driving her forward with an urgency no steamship had ever known before, or would ever know again. Up, down, up, down, up, down, the pistons pounded, the crankshafts spun, the governors whirled, the valves hissed and spit, as Chief Engineer Johnston watched the revolutions steadily increasing. The gauges showed the ship going faster and faster as she drove ahead–14½ knots …15½…16…16½…17 knots…. The old Carpathia had never gone so fast.
(Decades later purists with a revisionist bent, citing a multitude of technical and technological details, among them the Carpathia’s size, hull form, engine design, and age, would claim–-quite possibly correctly–-that the ship was never capable of a speed of 17 knots, and in all probability barely reached 16. It’s a debating point certain to delight the most avid rivet-counter and technophile, but what remains unchallenged and unchallengeable is that in the early hours of April 15, 1912, the Carpathia was driven faster than her designers and builders would have ever believed possible.)
This was the sort of situation for which a man like Alexander Johnston was born. Fifty-nine years old, a burly man with a fine white moustache, he hailed from Scotland’s Western Coast, a prototypical Scots “artifex”–engineer–who tended his boilers and engines with the same sort of devotion many men reserved for their children, knowing the strengths, weaknesses, quirks and eccentricities of each piece of machinery in his charge. Yet it was his lavish care and attention to the details of their operations over the years that caused the Carpathia’s twelve-year old boilers and engines to be equal to such an ordeal. Whatever claims might be made or denied about the speeds the Carpathia attained that night, what could never denied was that her engines never missed a beat.
Once the Carpathia’s boats were readied, her officers divided the crew into work gangs, each assigned to a particular task. Once the lounges were readied, the next job was preparing the gangways along the side of the ship. The first task in doing this was to rig the electric lights. Rostron had calculated that the Carpathia would reach the Titanic’s position by 4:00 AM, still complete darkness at those latitudes at that time of year. He was determined that there be no accidents due to passengers or crewmen from the Titanic trying to grope their way into the Carpathia in the darkness, so Dean’s men hurriedly strung cables and affixed clusters of bright lamps to brackets on the liner’s hull above each of the four gangways on each side of the ship. While this was being done, other seamen were busily rigging block-and-tackle at each of the gangways, with slings and heavy canvas bags at hand for use in lifting survivors aboard. Rostron was trying to cover every eventuality, and he realized that the people rescued from the Titanic might well be so physically and emotionally exhausted that they would be unable to climb any sort of ladder up the side of the ship from the bottom of a lifeboat. At the same time, he realized that some of them might be able to do just that, hence the presence of the rope ladders and cargo nets at the gangway doors.
The optimist and the pessimist existed side-by-side in the work the Carpathia’s crew was finishing. The ship’s forward derricks were rigged and topped, with steam in the winches-–the only steam generated by the ship’s boilers that was not going to the engines, for in the event that the Titanic was still afloat when the Carpathia arrived, Rostron intended to do his best to bring as much of her luggage and cargo aboard as he could, particularly the Royal Mail. At the same time, gash-bags of oil were prepared, ready to be cut open and their contents pumped over the ship’s side, in case the seas became rough. Rostron knew the North Atlantic well enough to know that it could be two entirely different oceans just sixty miles apart.
Now that the officers all had their assigned tasks and the crew was set to work, the navigation worked out, and perhaps most important of all for Rostron, prayers offered up to the Almighty, the most difficult part of this morning’s sudden challenge began–-the waiting. He was confident of his crew and his ship, confident of the course he had laid out, confident of his skills as a navigator and ship handler. Yet there were still so many things that could go wrong! Rostron was determined that no detail would go overlooked that might delay the Carpathia, or cost some poor victim their life once the ship reached the Titanic’s side, yet there was always the element of chance, the unknown, that could mean peril for the Carpathia.
For Rostron was under no illusion as to the fact that he was taking his ship, his crew, and his passengers into the unknown. The greatest threat was, of course, ice: had the Titanic, by the most evil mischance, struck a solitary iceberg adrift in mid-ocean, or had she run deep into an icefield before coming to grief? When the Carpathia arrived at the Titanic’s position, would she be able to get close enough to help the sinking ship and her passengers and crew, or would the icefield intervene, forcing the Carpathia to stand off in the distance, impotent to do nothing more than watch the Titanic’s last moments?
Around 2:40, while talking to Dr. McGhee, Rostron had caught a glimpse of green light–clearly a flare of some sort–on the horizon just off the port bow. “There’s his light!” Rostron exclaimed. “He must still be afloat!” It would prove to be an optical illusion, however, as the light-–actually a flare being set off in one of the Titanic’s lifeboats-–was much farther away than Rostron surmised. The exceptional conditions of the night, the remarkable visibility coupled with near total darkness, had deceived him, as it caused any light to carry farther than it would have normally. On the other hand, the unusually good visibility was also now working to Rostron’s advantage, as the Carpathia was now entering the edge of the icefield where the Titanic had come to grief.
A few minutes after Rostron saw the green flare, Second Officer Bisset spotted the first iceberg, dimly lit by the reflected light of a star; moments later a second berg was sighted close by, then a third. The precautions Rostron had taken in posting his extra lookouts were paying remarkable dividends, as the men in the bow and on the bridge were able to spot the bergs and growlers before the Carpathia approached dangerously near to them, allowing the ship to be maneuvered around them without any slackening of speed.
It was just one more irony on a night filled with them, as had Captain Smith posted extra lookouts in the same positions on the Titanic that Rostron placed his on the Carpathia, the little Cunarder’s mission of mercy would have been unnecessary. Seamen had long known that at night, the closer a lookout was posted to the level of the sea, the better he could spot approaching objects–the occlusion of stars and sky by an object against the horizon was usually all that was needed to give away its position. Thus a man at deck level in the bow stood a much better chance of seeing danger ahead of the ship than lookouts posted high above the deck in the crows’ nest. From that elevated position, a watcher would be looking down toward the sea as much as out toward the horizon, hoping to spot a black object against equally black water in time to warn the bridge of approaching danger. It had happened to the Titanic–-Rostron, though he didn’t know it yet, had taken precisely the precaution that would prevent such an accident from overtaking the Carpathia.
Carefully timing his helm orders, Rostron began working the Carpathia through the fringes of the ice field–but he never slowed down. Occasionally another flare would be seen, but no sign of the Titanic herself. A little after 3:00, hoping to give some hope to those aboard the sinking ship, Rostron gave orders to begin firing colored rockets, interspersed with Cunard Roman candles, every fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, word that the sinking ship’s lights had been seen quickly filtered through the crew. Down below in the boiler room, the stokers and firemen worked with renewed vigor; pressure gauges were pegged on every boiler. In the engine room, the big pistons of the Carpathia’s reciprocating engines still pounded up and down in a blur, crankshaft-throws spun in a flash of polished steel, linkheads rocked to and fro, and eccentric rods flicked back and forth, steam belching from the cylinder heads with every stroke of the pistons. Every plate, frame, and rivet in the ship shook with the exertion as the Carpathia thundered on. As one crewman later quipped, “The old boat was as excited as any of us.”
According to the ship’s clock on the Carpathia’s bridge, it was almost 3:30 and she was drawing close to the Titanic‘s position. Captain Rostron was proud of his ship, and particularly proud of his officers and crew, his heart filled beyond words at their performance and dedication in bringing the Carpathia this far this quickly. Yet at the same moment his spirits were sinking: try as he might to keep his hopes up, he knew he was too late. Rostron was certain that the Titanic was gone. It had been nearly two hours since Cottam had last heard from her. The last message he received had been at 1:50 and had pleaded, “Come as quickly as possible, old man; the engine room is filling up to the boilers.” Cottam had told Rostron that the Titanic‘s signals had been getting weaker; with that last message and the ominous silence afterwards, Rostron feared the worst. Those flares, he decided, couldn’t have come from the Titanic herself after all. At 3:50 he rang down to the engine room to “Stand By;” at 4:00 he rang for “All Stop.” The Carpathia was at 41.46 N, 50.14 W. There was nothing to be seen but darkness: the Titanic was gone.