I watched the Titanic rescue

The Carpathia was the first ship to reach the spot where the “unsinkable” Titanic went down in 1912. The author—later captain of both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth—was Carpathia’s second officer. He recalls the frantic rescue dash through icebergs and the grief of the survivors when it was learned fifteen hundred had drowned

SIR JAMES BISSET November 21 1959

I watched the Titanic rescue

The Carpathia was the first ship to reach the spot where the “unsinkable” Titanic went down in 1912. The author—later captain of both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth—was Carpathia’s second officer. He recalls the frantic rescue dash through icebergs and the grief of the survivors when it was learned fifteen hundred had drowned

SIR JAMES BISSET November 21 1959

The Carpathia was the first ship to reach the spot where the “unsinkable” Titanic went down in 1912. The author—later captain of both the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth—was Carpathia’s second officer. He recalls the frantic rescue dash through icebergs and the grief of the survivors when it was learned fifteen hundred had drowned.

ON THURSDAY, APRIL 11, 1912, the day the Titanic left Queenstown westward bound on her first—and last—voyage, the Carpathia left New York, eastward bound. I had joined the Carpathia, a comparatively modest Cunard passenger ship, two months before as second officer.

Three days later, a thousand miles out in the Atlantic, the Carpathia and the Titanic were within wireless range of each other. Our operator, Harold Cottam, reported that the Titanic was sending a large number of commercial marconigrams to Cape Race, Newfoundland, for transmission by cable to New York or to Europe.

“Busy traffic,” Cottam commented. “Stock exchange orders and that sort of thing for the multimillionaires on hoard.”

That night Cottam reported to Captain Arthur Rostron and myself on the Carpathia’s bridge that he had just been in touch with another ship not far from the Titanic, the Lamport and Holt line’s freighter Californian. She had stopped her engines for the night because she was surrounded by ice.

“It must be thick, then,” commented Captain Rostron quickly. “I suppose the Titanic will have to slow down or steer a more southerly course. She’ll be late in New York. It’s hard luck on her maiden voyage and I feel sorry for Captain Smith. She must be a wonderful ship, but all their newspaper boasting seems a kind of blasphemy, claiming that she's ‘unsinkable.’ Nothing human is perfect.”

Captain Rostron. known in the Cunard service as "the electric spark,” was a pious man and a firm believer in the power of prayer.

Cottam returned to his wireless shack abaft the bridge. He listened to the stream of marconigrams that were still being sent out by operator Jack Phillips of the Titanic. Cottam heard Cyril Evans, operator on the Californian, trying to cut in with an ice warning: "We are stopped, blocked by ice.” Cottam smiled as he heard the curt reply from Phillips: “Shut up—I'm busy.”

It was 11 p.m. The mammoth ship was driving on, at her utmost speed of twenty-two and a half knots, trying to make up time—and headed toward the icefield. Cottam hung up his earphones and got ready to retire. He had every right to do so. as had Evans on the Californian. The Titanic’s big-business marconigrams were not worth listening to.

At 11.40 p.m., the Titanic struck an iceberg, ten miles south of where the Californian lay at a standstill, and approximately fifty miles from the Carpathia. The collision had been a glancing blow on the starboard bow, and the big liner proceeded half a mile or more before she was stopped for investigations of the damage.

The wireless distress call was not sent out immediately. I had heard nothing new from Cottam at midnight, when I was relieved on the bridge by First Officer Dean.

At 12.15 a.m., the Titanic sent out her first distress call: “CQD CQD CQD (six times) MGY (Titanic’s call sign). Have struck an iceberg. We are badly damaged.”

Cottam was not listening at that moment. Ten minutes later he idly picked up the headphones. At that time nothing was being transmitted. Instead of switching off and going to bed. he decided to call up Phillips of the Titanic. He began affably tapping out "GMOM (Good morning, old man).”

To his utter amazement Phillips broke in: "CQD CQD SOS SOS CQD SOS. Come at once. We have struck a berg.”

This was the first time in history that the internationally agreed SOS signal of distress was sent out from a liner at sea.

Cottam, half dressed, sprang up to the bridge, told Dean of the message, and then woke the captain.

I was dozing off to sleep. Suddenly I heard the captain's voice, singing out orders. "Stop her. Send for the chief engineer. Send for the chief officer. Call all the officers. Call all hands on deck and get ready to swing out the boats.”

This last order particularly brought me out of my bunk on the jump. I sprang up the bridge ladder. Dean tersely informed me what had happened.

Already the Carpathia was being turned around. The captain was in the chart room, working out the course. He came out onto the bridge and said briskly to the helmsman, "North 52 west! Full ahead!”

The other officers were now on the bridge. The captain beckoned us into the chart room, and said, “The Titanic has struck a berg and is in distress fifty-eight miles from here. We will make our utmost speed in going to her rescue. Call out an extra watch in the engine room and raise every ounce of steam possible. We may reach her in four hours. All seamen on deck for sharp lookout and to swing out the boats. We may have to pick up two thousand or more people. All stewards on duty to prepare blankets, hot coffee, tea, and soup. The doctors to stand by in the dining rooms. All gangway doors to be opened. Boatswain's chairs slung at each gangway. Pilot ladders overside. Forward derricks to be rigged and steam on winches. Oil to be got ready to quiet the sea if needed. Rockets to be got ready. Everything must be done as quietly as possible so as not to alarm our own passengers.”

All this, quickly spoken in Captain Rostron's clear and steady tones within less than a minute, roused men still drowsy to a pitch of intense alertness.

Within minutes the engines increased the tempo of their thudding, and presently we were belting along at sixteen knots: the greatest speed that old lady, rated at fourteen knots, had ever done in her life. The captain called me to the starboard wing of the bridge. “Station yourself here, Mister, and keep a special lookout for lights or flares—and for ice! In this smooth sea it's no use looking for white surf around the base of the bergs, but you will look for the reflection of starshine in the ice pinnacles. Extra lookouts will be posted, but I count on you, with your good eyesight, and with God's help, to keep us from colliding with a berg. Give that all your attention!“

As the Carpathia thrust on into the night. Captain Rostron stood silently beside me for a minute, his cap raised a little from his brow, and his lips moving in silent prayer. Then, like an electric spark, he was hurtling around, galvanizing everybody to activity.

On the captain's instructions, our wireless operator signaled to the Titanic at 12.45 a.m.: "We are coming as quickly as possible and expect to be there within four hours.” This was acknowledged by Phillips: "TUOM (Thank you, old man ).”

After that Cottam did not send any more signals, so as not to interfere with the transmissions from the Titanic. He heard her signals answered by other ships—the Frankfort, the Mount Temple, and, from a great distance (400 to 500 miles to the westward) by the Olympic. But there was no signal from the Californian, which lay only ten miles from the Titanic. Her wireless operator had shut down for the night.

At 1.25 a.m. Cottam heard the Titanic signaling: “We are putting the women off in boats." At 1.45: "Come as quickly as possible. Engine room filling up to the boilers."

With those two messages, Captain Rostron envisaged for the first time the possibility that the Titanic might actually be foundering. It seemed incredible that the great “unsinkable” ship could actually sink.

A few days before, in awe and envy, I had visited the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, at her New York berth. A young White Star Line officer had showed me what made the two mammoth ships “unsinkable” — fifteen watertight bulkheads, the doors of which could be closed automatically by pressing a button on the bridge. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the bulkheads had not been carried completely up to the deckheads. A leak too big for the pumps to subdue could cause water to overflow from one compartment to another. It was incredible that the designers had overlooked this possibility. The publicity that these big ships were "unsinkable” was tragic optimism.

At 1.45 a.m. the Titanic’s wireless signals became faint. At 2.05 they ceased entirely. The Carpathia was still thirty-four miles away.

At 2.40, when we had twenty-five miles to go, we sighted a green light on the horizon ahead. For a moment this was disconcerting. It looked like the starboard navigation light of a steamer, perhaps of the Titanic herself, unaccountably nearer than we had thought; but then the light vanished, and we knew that it had been a rocket, flaring far above sea level, to appear to us to be on the horizon from our distance of twenty-five miles away.

At 2.45 I sighted the glimmer of a starbeam in an iceberg three quarters of a mile ahead of us on the port bow. I immediately reported it by singing out to the captain. He reacted promptly, altering course to starboard and reducing to half speed. He sighted the berg, saw that we had avoided it, and moved the engine telegraph again to full speed ahead.

The night was cloudless, stars were shining, but the greenish beams of the aurora borealis shimmered and confused the horizon ahead. My face was smarting in the frosty air as I stood on the wing of the bridge.

Within a few minutes we sighted another berg. We steered around it as before, and then sighted another, and another.

Captain Rostron later stated his earnest belief that the “hand of God was on the helm of the Carpathia” during that half hour when, in eight more miles at forced full speed, we zigzagged among the bergs.

We were longing for daylight. I glanced at the deck of the bridge, and to my joy could see the holes in the gratings. Daylight was coming in. A green flare was sighted low in the water and we steered toward it. Captain Rostron ordered the engines to be stopped. It was 4 a.m. We had arrived in three and a half hours.

Powerful is the force of routine. As eight bells sounded the lookout man in the crow’s nest sang out the long-drawn wailing cry, “A-a-all’s well and lights burning brightly . .

At that moment, In the dim gray light of dawn, we sighted a lifeboat a quarter of a mile away. She was rising and falling in the ocean swell, and now a breeze sprang up and whipped the surface of the water to choppy seas.

The boat was laboring toward us. In her stern sheets stood a man wearing officer’s cap and uniform, steering with the tiller. Only four other men were in the boat, each of them with an oar, but rowing feebly, as though they were inexperienced, and also utterly exhausted. Huddled in the boat were twenty-five women and ten children. As she drifted down toward us the officer sang out, “I can’t handle her very well. We have women and children and only one seaman.”

Captain Rostron gave me an order, “Go overside with two quartermasters, and board her as she comes alongside. Fend her off so that she doesn’t bump, and be careful that she doesn’t capsize.”

I hurried with two seamen to the rail of the foredeck, where rope ladders were hung overside. As the boat came alongside, we climbed quickly down and sprang onto her thwarts, and. by dint of much balancing and fending off, succeeded in steadying the boat and dropping her astern to an open side door.

“Where is the Titanic?”

Many of the women and children castaways were seasick from the choppy motion of the boat. All were numbed with cold, as most of them were lightly clad. Some were quietly weeping.

As they were in no fit condition to climb up the short Jacob’s ladder to the side door, bosun’s chairs were lowered, also canvas bags into which we placed the children, and, one at a time, they were all hauled to safety. They behaved well, waiting their turns to be hauled up to the door.

As we fastened one of the women into a bosun’s chair, I noticed that she was wearing a nightdress and slippers, with a fur coat. Beneath the coat she was nursing what I supposed was a baby, but it was a small pet dog! "Be careful of my doggie,” she pleaded, more worried about her pet’s safety than her own.

The officer in charge of the lifeboat was a young man. Joseph Boxhall. fourth officer of the Titanic. I took him up to the bridge.

Without preliminaries, Rostron burst out, excitedly, "Where is the Titanic?"

“Gone!" said Boxhall. “She sank at 2.20 a.m.”

In the moment of stunned silence that followed, every man on the bridge of the Carpathia could envisage the appalling reality, but not yet to its fullest extent.

Boxhall added, in a voice of desperation, “She was hoodoo’d from the beginning ...”

Captain Rostron took the young officer by the arm, and said quietly and kindly to him, “Never mind that, m’son. Tell me, were all her boats got away safely?”

“I believe so, sir. It was hard to see in the darkness. There were sixteen boats and four collapsibles. Women and children were ordered into the boats. She struck the berg at 11.40. The boats were launched from 12.45 onwards. My boat was cleared away at 1.45, one of the last to be lowered. Many of the boats were only half full. The people wouldn't go into them. They didn’t believe she would sink. Hundreds and hundreds were left on board. Perhaps a thousand—perhaps more!” Boxhall’s voice broke with emotion.

But even if every lifeboat and raft had cleared the doomed ship loaded to capacity, the sinking of the Titanic would still have been a major tragedy. The regulations for lifeboat accommodations, made in 1894 and hopelessly out of date, stipulated that “vessels over ten thousand tons” must carry sixteen lifeboats plus rafts with a capacity of seventy-five percent that of the boats. Thus the 46.000-ton Titanic was compelled by law to provide flotage for only 962 persons, although certified by the British board of trade to carry 3,547 persons. The Titanic actually had lifeboats and rafts for 1,178 persons — and carried 2,207.

As we took the first survivors aboard the Carpathia, the increasing daylight revealed dozens of icebergs within our horizon. Among them were four or five big bergs, towering two hundred feet above water level. One of these was the one that the Titanic had struck.

On all sides we could see lifeboats making laboriously toward us, some dangerously overcrowded, some half empty. A mile away was a mass of wreckage, like an island, marking the spot where the Titanic had gone down.

In four and a quarter hours we picked up 703 survivors. After 6 a.m. the Carpathian deck rails were lined with our own passengers, joined by increasing numbers of rescued people, anxiously watching each boat arrive. The rescue operations proceeded in a deathly silence. Except for an occasional working order, no one was capable of saying anything that would be adequate to the occasion.

The water had a sinister greenish crystal tinge. People lining the decks of the Carpathia stared overside in shocked fascination and horror; for here, a thousand miles from land, the elemental ocean was, in truth, a watery grave, in which, as a quick count and calculation indicated, the lives of fifteen hundred human beings had been extinguished almost without warning — plunged from warmth, light, and gaiety to icy doom.

There were bodies floating out there, but in the choppy seas it was almost impossible to sight them, as white life jackets would have an appearance similar to that of the thousands of small pieces of ice or white-painted wreckage.

At 8 a.m„ when eight bells were struck, the lookout man's wailing cry of "A-a-all's well!” resounded like a ghostly sardonic lamentation, mocking the truth.

I took over the watch on the bridge. It was of no importance that I had gone without sleep all night; like all the other officers and members of the crew. I was keyed up to the tension of action in which fatigue is unnoticed.

Now the morning sunlight rippled on the seas. The last of the Titanic’s lifeboats was laboring toward the Carpathia. She was crowded with seventy-five survivors. and her gunwales were within three inches of the water; but a good seaman was at her tiller. He was Charles Lightoller. second officer of the Titanic. He had gone down with the ship, and had been picked up by boat number twelve. He had taken command of her, and had picked up other survivors. We manoeuvred the Carpathia to windward, and drifted down to him, so that he was able to make fast alongside in our lee. and all the people in the boat were got safely on board.

The survivors w'ere given immediate care by our three doctors and by the stewards and passengers. Our first and second-class passengers, and all the officers in the Carpathia, gave up their cabins to women and children, and moved their belongings below to the third-class cabins.

In the meantime the Titanic’s boats were being hauled up to the Carpathia. Our own boats, which were swung out on davits, had not been lowered. They were now returned to the chocks. Six of the Titanic’s boats were hoisted up to the Carpathia’s foredeck, and seven were carried slung overside in davits. This was all that we could conveniently hoist and stow. The others were set adrift.

When Lightoller’s boat came alongside, the survivors previously taken on board knew finally the extent of their bereavements. If their loved ones were not in that boat, they had perished. At that moment seventy-five of the married women among the survivors, who had dared to cling to hope, had to face the fact that they were widowed, and that their children were orphaned. Others learned that a son or a father had gone. The extinction of hope came as a shock too terrible for the relief of weeping. The minds of the bereaved were numbed. There were no words that could comfort them. Anguish was silent. There was no hysteria. There was only a pall of unutterable grief, and a dazed staring from eyes of bewildered incredulity.

When the last castaways came on board, Captain Rostron had a difficult decision to make. Should he remain to pick up bodies? Should he proceed, through ice. to the nearest port, Halifax? Should he continue his voyage, and land the survivors at the Azores or Gibraltar? Or should he return to New York, a run of four days, to land them at their originally intended destination, delaying the Carpathia’s schedule by eight or nine days?

Or should he make a rendezvous by wireless with the Titanic’s sister ship. Olympic, and transfer the survivors to her ... at sea . . . with the lifeboats?

It did not take Captain Rostron very long to arrive at the decision to return to New York.

The survivors had suffered more than enough. To remain there to pick up bodies from the sea would have added to the anguish of the widows and orphans and others bereaved. To search for pick up, identify—and rebury in the sea— fifteen hundred corpses would be a long, agonizing, and ultimately futile procedure.

Among the Carpathia’s passengers was an Episcopalian minister. Captain Rostron asked him to conduct divine service in memory of the dead, and in thanksgiving for the rescue of the living. This service was held while the Carpathia slowly made a circuit of the island of wreckage which marked the spot where the Titanic had gone down.

The captain gave me an order, "Bear away from the wreckage southwesterly . . .” The Carpathia steamed away toward New York, her flag at half mast, a ship in mourning.

This is an excerpt from volume 11 of Sir James Bisset's memoirs, to be published later by Criterion Books, Inc., New York, under the title, Tramps and Ladies.