April 5, 2012
Posted in: Forever Cunard
As we approach 15 April, we will all read and hear much about the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. It was a sad and terrible tragedy and I hope that in all the excitement to remember the story people apply a sense of dignity and respect for those who lost their lives.
At Cunard we have chosen not to take part in any of the major events surrounding the 100th Anniversary. On 15 April on each of our ships, we will have a remembrance service and a remembrance dinner – with a specially prepared menu that will tell the story of the little Carpathia. The Carpathia was the first ship to arrive at the site of the sinking of the Titanic and rescued more than 700 survivors, taking them safely back to New York.
The story of the Carpathia is a fascinating one and one for Cunard Line to be proud of. I would like to tell you the story;
Carpathia was a workhorse; she wasn’t one of the glamorous express transatlantic liners built to compete for the Blue Riband and designed to resemble Versailles. Only once was she met by hordes of photographers with flashbulbs popping when she arrived in New York.
Built by C S Swan and Hunter at Wallsend, and launched with little fuss on 6 August 1902, the 13,603 tonne Carpathia – capable of just 14 knots – was intended to carry Hungarian emigrants from the Mediterranean ports of Trieste and Fiume to New York and a new life in the United States. Her Maiden Voyage was from Liverpool to Boston in 1903. In November of that year she took up her Mediterranean duties, plodding backwards and forwards year in, year out, without incident, carrying emigrants westbound at a fare of £5.10 shillings and American tourists or returning émigrés eastbound.
On Thursday 11 April 1912, Carpathia left New York almost unnoticed just after noon bound for Trieste as usual on a journey which, for momentous reasons, she would never complete. A journey which would take her from insignificance to celebrity. At about the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, a hugely celebrated ocean greyhound was leaving Queenstown and heading west on her Maiden Voyage to New York; she was Titanic, brand-new pride of the White Star fleet commanded by Captain Edward Smith on his last voyage before retirement. Titanic had on board many rich and famous socialites, the celebrities of the day, and her departure from Southampton had been as feted as Carpathia’s had been unnoticed.
In command of the little Carpathia was 42-year-old Arthur Rostron, an officer with Cunard since 1895 and master of Carpathia for just three months. With him were 700 passengers, 150 of them elderly American tourists and most of the rest former emigrants making a visit home.
At 12:15 A.M on the morning of 15 April Carpathia’s wireless operator Harold Cottam was in the process of untying his shoes in readiness for bed. He was ten minutes later than he normally would be in turning in, and providentially his ear phones were still clamped to his head; had he not been, and had they had not been, there would have been no Titanic survivors. On receiving the first SOS from Titanic at 12:15. Cottam raised Captain Rostron who had already retired for the night, and Rostron in turn rose to the challenge of his first maritime emergency with impeccable practical thoroughness.
After a brief moment of disbelief in which he quizzed Cottam about the certainty of his seemingly preposterous claim that Titanic was in distress, Rostron immediately ordered a change of course. Carpathia was 58 miles from Titanic; at 14 knots it would take her over four hours to get there.
The Chief Engineer was ordered to turn off all the heat and hot water so that every ounce of steam could be used to drive the engines. All off duty stokers were raised from their beds to shovel coal into the furnaces as fast as they were able. Next, Rostron ordered his First Officer to begin specific preparations – the lifeboats were to be slung out, lighting rigged along the ship’s sides, all shell doors were opened in readiness, and slings made to haul up the children and the infirm, ladders and rigging lowered, and the ship’s forward cargo cranes made ready to lift aboard luggage, belongings and lifeboats. Meanwhile, all remaining crew were summoned to duty and preparations were made to receive 2,000 Titanic passengers in the public rooms; blankets and warm clothing were gathered to distribute, tea, coffee and soup prepared.
First aid points were established in the three dining rooms, with a doctor in charge of each. When all was ready, the ever-thoughtful Rostron ordered his crew to take hot coffee in preparation for the long night ahead. The ship, meanwhile, strained and shuddered as she edged past her maximum speed as every stoker shovelled coal into the furnaces; fifteen, sixteen and finally seventeen knots were achieved as the ship surged through the dark, without radar, past glistening icebergs visible to the lookouts only by the reflection of the stars.
At 4 A.M Carpathia reached Titanic’s position and Carpathia’s engines were stopped as the crew, together with many passengers now on deck having been alerted both by the hustle of preparations and the increasing cold in their quarters, strained to see some sign of the ship. Suddenly, they saw a green flare fired by Titanic’s lifeboat number 2 – and the first survivors came aboard at 4:10 A.M; by 8:30 A.M Charles Lightoller, the final person of the 706 to be rescued stepped aboard Carpathia. Now carrying double her original complement of passengers, Carpathia steamed slowly among wreckage and icebergs seeking more survivors – but none was found.
Rostron’s next decision was where to go: Halifax was nearest, but the passage would involve travelling through much ice and he felt the Titanic’s survivors had had enough of that; the Azores would have been the best destination to keep Carpathia on course and incur the least cost to Cunard, but the ship had insufficient supplies for such a journey with such greater numbers; so Rostron headed back whence he had come – New York.
Carpathia’s passengers and crew did what they could, giving up beds and clothing to those who had survived near-freezing temperatures often inadequately dressed; but for many inconsolable widows nothing could be done save allow them to cry themselves out.
Carpathia was besieged by calls from the press, which Rostron ordered were to be ignored, and when she finally arrived in New York on the morning of 18 April she was accompanied up river by reporters in hired tugboats shouting questions through megaphones; never had Carpathia been the centre of so much attention.
Eventually she berthed at 9:30 A.M at Pier 54, from which she had set out just seven days earlier.
Though much praised and decorated for his calm and exemplary actions Rostron was reluctant to speak publicly about the Titanic disaster, and the references in his autobiography ‘Home from the Sea’ published after retirement were self-effacing and devoid of sensation. But in response to a journalist querying many years later how the little ship could have been coerced to travel at a speed greater than the maximum of which she was supposedly capable, and how she had progressed safely at such speed through ice in the dark, the deeply religious Rostron simply replied “A hand other than mine was on the wheel that night”.
We have recently been in touch with Captain Rostron’s granddaughter – Rosemary Pettet. We invited her down to Queen Elizabeth and met with her in the Rostron Suite – it was really nice to meet with her and fascinating to hear her tell stories of her grandfather and to show us some of her prized possessions passed down from her grandfather. What came across was just how modest Captain Rostron was and it was lovely to be able to meet his granddaughter who told us just how proud all of her family were of the role her grandfather played on Carpathia and in saving so many lives.
If anything positive can come out of such a tragedy – then that positive would be the introduction of SOLAS – Safety Of Lives At Sea. That is something that we focus on relentlessly today and it is worthy of note that 100 years later Cunard Line still safely carry many thousands of passengers across the Atlantic on Queen Mary 2 – the only Ocean Liner now to do so. I thought you might be interested in a graphic that shows the relative size and scale of our little Carpathia, The Titanic and today’s Queen Mary 2.
So as we head towards 15 April our thoughts are quietly and respectfully with those who perished in 1912. And at the same time we remember with pride the role that Captain Rostron and the magnificent crew of Carpathia played in saving so many lives.
I trust you are keeping well and have a peaceful Easter break wherever you may be.