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“Truth Touched by Emotion”: The Carpathia’s Arrival in New York City

"Truth Touched by Emotion": The Carpathia's Arrival in New York City

The news of the Titanic disaster had reached shore and spread even while its lifeboats were still being rescued by the Carpathia.

All thanks to the wireless telegraph.

Guglielmo Marconi's wireless "telegraphy" technology was truly a wonder of the modern age.

But beyond its dazzle, it functioned as an entirely public line of communication between operators--and anyone else who might care to know.

And so, as Titanic sank, its urgent, unbroken distress calls had been dispersed in real-time. Until around 2:00 a.m., when Titanic's voice quite suddenly went silent, and was not heard again.

At the New York Times office, editor Carr Van Anda was incredulous at first. "It can’t be true," he reportedly said. "The Titanic’s equipped with extra safety compartments."

But in the end, Van Anda was the sole editor to deduce the substance of Titanic's abrupt radio silence: she must have gone down.

The news sent New York City into havoc.

Some of the most prominent, celebrated, and famous New Yorkers, such as Colonel John Jacob Astor and Isidor Straus, had been on board Titanic. People swarmed the offices of the White Star Line in Manhattan, demanding the unknown fates of their family members and friends. Contradictory headlines mounted as they were barked from street corners and pinned to walls. Even still at sea, the rescue ship Carpathia was besieged by journalistic intrusion as it sailed toward the city with Titanic’s survivors.

It was plainly impossible to exist in New York City without knowing of the Titanic disaster.

Details, however, were sparse and often hypothetical.

The White Star Line, unsurprisingly, promoted only the most optimistic of reports: that everyone had been saved, and that Titanic was being towed into port.

The rescue ship Carpathia, still at sea with Titanic's 700-plus survivors, was on a mandatory media blackout. All wireless transmissions were restricted to personal messages, and conducted solely for passengers on board. The volume was so overwhelming that Titanic's junior operator Harold Bride, wheelchair-bound from frostbite to his feet, sat in to assist the Carpathia's operator in sending them all. Solicitations from journalists were ignored.

Carpathia was due to arrive in New York City on the evening of April 18th, shortly after 9:00 p.m. It had been three days since the disaster.

That night, people amassed by the dozens of thousands in a chilly, driving rain.

Anxious family and desperate press awaited the arrival of the passengers on board the rescue vessel. Two hundred police officers, some on horseback, surveilled the crowd. Medical staff were on standby, with stretchers waiting to be brought aboard. Traffic mounted; automobiles hydroplaned into curbs as they neared the pier.

The forty thousand people in the throng waited at the Cunard Line's usual docking spot: Pier 54.

Captain Arthur Rostron and the crew of the Carpathia had braced for the mania ahead. And so, the first stop on that rainy evening was to the White Star Line's Pier 59, where they quietly and diligently unloaded the Titanic's thirteen recovered lifeboats. The crew of the Carpathia had been unable to fit any more than that on board, and so seven of Titanic's lifeboats still floated on the open sea.

Then, Carpathia moved a few blocks onward, to Pier 54.

The media had made no effort to restrain itself, despite edicts from the mayor.

The New York Times had rented an entire floor in the Strand Hotel, which was located about a block from the pier. The Times had orchestrated the installation of telephone lines, so journalists at the scene could run to the Strand and dictate their stories to the newsroom in Times Square. They wanted to interview as many survivors as possible, and they had only three hours--until 12:30 a.m.--to do so.

Additionally, over 50 tugboats clotted up the harbor; they hounded the rescue ship as soon as it was in sight. Journalists on the tugboats' decks hollered into megaphones and over one another, offering the passengers above them cash for eyewitness accounts. Cameras popped in rapid sequence, their clouds of magnesium powder wilting in the rain. Each flashing bulb illuminated the Carpathia's weary passengers, standing dazed against the railings in the dark.

And on board the rescue ship, a journalist named Carlos Hurd anxiously waited for his chance.

He worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and had been on holiday on the Carpathia. And he had spent the past three days of the voyage transcribing a clandestine witness account against Captain Rostron's orders.

When the correct tug steamed up alongside Carpathia, Hurd appeared over the railing of an upper deck and dropped a manuscript wrapped up in canvas overboard. Afraid it would fall in the water and sink, he had created a makeshift flotation device for the dictionary-sized bundle, using a cigar box and champagne corks he had acquired from the ship's bar.

The manuscript was rushed to shore and printed for a next-day 'Extra" feature.

The headline read, "Titanic Boilers Blew Up, Breaking Her In Two After Striking Berg."

The ship finally docked at Pier 54, moving slowly due to the darkness and rainfall. Under Captain Rostron's orders, the Carpathia's passengers were the first to disembark, as he was concerned that madness would follow if the Titanic survivors were to precede them.

When the survivors began to appear, the scene fell still.

As the survivors came into the street dead silence fell over the crowd that was assembled, and even the flashlight batteries of the Press photographers ceased for the moment their bombardment.

When an unnamed female passenger stumbled off the gangway and fell weeping into the arms of a police officer, the spell was broken.

Journalist competition for one particular interview eclipsed all others that night: everyone wanted Harold Bride. They were to "get the Titanic wireless man’s story, if he’s alive,” the city editor of the New York Times demanded. And they wanted the Carpathia's wireless man, Harold Cottam, second-most.

The New York Times succeeded in scooping Bride and Cottam both, when their reporter Isaac Russell, accompanied by Guglielmo Marconi himself, was permitted on board Carpathia.

Bride was paid $1,000 for his interview, a fact to which he testified at the American Senate Inquiry to follow. He was later hauled off Carpathia, unable to walk due to the injuries he sustained on Collapsible B. Harold Cottam received $750 for his own interview.

Isaac Russell rushed back to the Times office to complete his exclusive story. He said he wept as he wrote.

“I turned back to my typewriter. They say literature is truth touched by emotion. I have written steadily for 20 years or more. If ever I wrote literature, that was the night.”

The Carpathia was set to depart at 4:00 p.m. the following day, an effort by the Cunard Line to remove the vessel from the debacle.

In that single day of rest, the ship became a tourist attraction, overrun with New Yorkers eager to gawk at the wireless shack that had, only days prior, heard the dots and dashes of Titanic's last words.

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“It’s a CQD, Old Man”: Distress Signals

"It's a CQD, Old Man": Distress Signals

It's been my experience that those who aren't obsessed feel like Titanic sank passively, in spite of logically understanding that they were, of course, calling for help.

Titanic, like any vessel, was equipped with emergency gear. According to the report issued following the sinking, Titanic carried 36 distress rockets. Second-Class passenger Lawrence Beesley wrote of them in his account of the sinking.

"Up it went, higher and higher, with a sea of faces upturned to watch it, and then an explosion that seemed to split the silent night in two, and a shower of stars sank slowly down and went out one by one. And with a gasping sigh one word escaped the lips of the crowd: 'Rockets!'"

Except from "The Loss of the S.S. Titanic" by Lawrence Beesley.

Rockets meant disaster. As one man testified: "A ship isn't going to fire rockets at sea for nothing." The passengers waiting for lifeboats began to panic.

Although, just for fun, here's Lightoller correcting the British Inquiry (and us).

INQUIRY: Now, then, about signals from your boat. You have rockets on board, have you not? Were they fired?
LIGHTOLLER: You quite understand they are termed rockets, but they are actually distress signals; they do not leave a trail of fire.
INQUIRY: Distress signals?
LIGHTOLLER: Yes. I just mention that, not to confuse them with the old rockets, which leave a trail of fire.

Whatever, Lights.

The color of these DISTRESS SIGNALS is sometimes debated--most say white, some say multicolors. I think the latter is probably just a mis-perception from the falling starburst.

Fourth Officer Boxhall set off the distress signals, at intervals of a few minutes each, next to Lifeboat 1 on the starboard side. He said he didn't count how many--most historians accept eight to ten, maybe a dozen. Fifth Officer Lowe said he was "nearly deafened by them" and though he didn't know at the time who was watching alongside him, he was standing next to White Star Chairman Bruce Ismay.

Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall, who fired Titanic's distress signals.


No one answered the distress signals. But someone saw them.

James Gibson, apprentice on the Californian, testified to the following.

 I then got the binoculars and had just got them focused on the vessel when I observed a white flash apparently on her deck, followed by a faint streak towards the sky which then burst into white stars.

Yes. There was a ship within miles of Titanic--so close that Captain Smith ordered some lifeboats to row for its lights. And it did nothing.

The Californian should and one day might be its own post, but suffice it to say that everything from hypothetical cold-air mirages to the Californian's passive, overly cautious captain prevented it from rescuing Titanic.

The ships each used Morse lights to try to communicate with each other as the sinking progressed, but results on each end were unclear. The captain's reaction to the aforementioned distress signals was that they were probably frivolous "company signals," and to continue trying to reach the ship with the Morse lights. Because of the aforementioned conditions, each message flickered out by one, appeared un-replied to by the other.

But one rescue component is absent from the Californian's efforts to reach Titanic as she sank: the wireless.

And that was because a) the Californian's captain never ordered that it reach out to the mysterious "large liner" via wireless and b) the wireless operator, Cyril Evans, TURNED HIS FREAKING RADIO OFF and went to bed only minutes before Titanic struck the iceberg.

And yet, the Californian crew was aware Titanic was nearby, because earlier in the night (pre-iceberg), the captain had ordered Evans to send a warning to Titanic, once the Californian itself was stopped by ice for the night.

So Evans did send that warning, his second to Titanic over the course of the evening. But he sent it rather unprofessionally, using language that was reserved for casual chats between operators. Meanwhile, the Senior Marconi Operator on Titanic, Jack Phillips, was overtired and working through an enormous backlog of messages that all had to be sent now that the ship was in range of Newfoundland.

Because of this, Evans was "famously rebuked" by Phillips--a moment that I consider to be chronically misrepresented in a sensationalist attempt to assign blame. But I digress.

So after Jack told Cyril to stop interrupting his work, he just listened in on Titanic's transmissions until about 11:25pm. And then he went to sleep until approximately 3:30 a.m.

Titanic, meanwhile, had struck the iceberg at 11:40 p.m.

Junior Marconi Operator Harold Bride, circa 1912.


Jack and Junior Marconi Operator Harold Bride were desperately calling to any ship in proverbial earshot, using the universal distress call "CQD", as well as "SOS". The latter, which was brand new and is so familiar to us today, was not first used by Titanic, despite many rumors. Harold Bride did, however, advised Jack Phillips to use it, joking that it might be their only opportunity to use the newfangled call.

The ships that received and replied to the distress signals included Titanic's sister, Olympic, the Mount Temple, the Frankfurt, the Baltic, the Asian, the Celtic, the Caronia, the Virginian, the Cincinnati, and, of course, the Carpathia.

Illustration of Titanic's wireless and the ships that responded. Originally published on April 17, 1912. Image courtesy of The Atlantic, from The Day Books of Chicago.

PUBLIC DOMAIN (published prior to 1923)

The following are a mere selection of the distress messages sent by Jack Phillips, assisted by Harold Bride. Even in clipped Morse, you can feel the mounting desperation and frustration. As one article recently put it, "It was like trying to organize a rescue by Twitter."

12:17 a.m. CQD CQD SOS Titanic Position 41.44 N 50.24 W. Require immediate assistance. Come at once. We struck an iceberg. Sinking

12:20 a.m. Come at once. We have struck a berg. It's a CQD, old man. Position 41.46 N 50.14 W

12:26 a.m. Yes, come quick!

12:40 a.m. SOS Titanic sinking by the head. We are about all down. Sinking. . .

1:10 a.m. We are in collision with berg. Sinking Head down. 41.46 N. 50.14 W. Come soon as possible

1:10 a.m. Captain says, “Get your boats ready. What is your position?”

1:27 a.m., when Olympic asked, "Are you steering southerly to meet us?" We are putting the women off in the boats

1:30 a.m. We are putting passengers off in small boats

1:30 a.m. Women and children in boats, can not last much longer

1:35 a.m Engine room getting flooded

1:45 a.m. Come as quickly as possible old man: our engine-room is filling up to the boilers

1:50 a.m., when Frankfurt asked, "What is the matter with u?" You are a fool, stdbi - stdbi - stdbi and keep out

Sometime between 2:15 a.m. and 2:20 a.m., this last message is caught SOS SOS CQD CQD Titanic. We are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats. Titanic

© Caption.

Calls from Titanic were crackled and broken as power was diminished and inevitably lost, but Phillips kept at it. Phillips and Bride remained at their posts until water was flooding the wheelhouse nearby--yes, the last possible second, and well after Captain Smith had ordered them to abandon their posts.

Distress signal to S.S. Birma.


Even when the two Marconi operators knew--better than anyone else--that there was NO hope of a ship reaching Titanic in time, it was reported by a station officer that there was "never a tremor" in Phillips' Morse transmissions as Titanic went down.

Harold Bride survived the sinking. Jack Phillips did not.

Jack Phillips, Senior Marconi Operator on Titanic.


It was the sudden silence of Titanic's wireless radio that clued in New York Times editor Carr Van Anda that something was gravely wrong. While other papers hedged, the New York Times headline on April 15, 1912, announced what no one wanted to: Titanic was gone.

New York Times dated April 15, 1912.


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