Buried in this abridged pocket-dictionary-size edition of the official transcripts of the 1912 Senate investigation into the Titanic disaster is as clear-headed an account of history’s greatest catastrophe at sea as there is. Although it is at times repetitive, the firsthand evidence, side by side with contemporaneous expert testimony, provides the unvarnished truth of that now legendary maiden voyage, which ended abruptly on Sunday, April 14, 1912, after the steamer, built with J. Pierpont Morgan’s millions, collided with an iceberg in the vicinity of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Eighty-six years after the fact, the words of the survivors remain fresh, and retain the power to startle, to amaze, to upset and to amuse — even in the wake of James Cameron’s $200 million transformation of this unscripted drama into a cloying romance.
Two days after the sinking, on Wednesday, April 17, Senator William Alden Smith, a white-haired, grandiloquent populist from Michigan, was authorized by a unanimous vote to “investigate the causes leading to the wreck of the White Star liner Titanic, with its attendant loss of life so shocking to the civilized world.” Of the 2,223 passengers and crew, 1,517 had perished. Smith’s hearings began Friday, April 19, scarcely 24 hours after the 706 survivors, rescued by the Cunard Line’s Carpathia, disembarked in New York. The remarks before Senator Smith’s committee, first convened at the Waldorf-Astoria and later moved to Washington, D.C., have an immediacy that could come only from the testimony of those who just days earlier had escaped with their lives.
In these hearings, the world learned that the Titanic had received warnings of ice nearly 10 hours before the fateful “black mass . . . appeared right ahead.” The lookout, Frederick Fleet, revealed that he’d been sent up into the crow’s-nest without binoculars, which would have allowed him to see the berg “a bit sooner . . . enough to get out of the way.” Charles Herbert Lightoller, the second officer, described the passengers’ uncanny calm during the loading of the lifeboats. “They could not have stood quieter if they had been in church,” he said.
One of the more astonishing revelations was that although there were only 20 lifeboats — enough for half the passengers and crew — the Titanic was in fact carrying the exact number required under British maritime law. And not one was filled to capacity; most were lowered from the davits half empty. Contrary to current opinion, salted by Cameron’s blockbuster, the 1912 testimony shows that as the ship foundered, plutocrats and plebeians were treated equally on their way to the lifeboats.
Much of the testimony was of course agonizing, and it came only from men, as women were chivalrously spared the anguish of recounting their ordeal. Olaus Abelseth, a 26-year-old Norwegian immigrant and steerage passenger, told of holding hands with his brother-in-law and jumping overboard when the deck was within five feet of the water. Tangled in a rope and pinned beneath the surface, Abelseth had to “let loose of my brother-in-law’s hand to get away from the rope.” He never saw him again. Hundreds, perhaps, were left to perish bobbing in cork life belts in the icy water. Herbert Pitman, the third officer, spoke of “a continual moan for about an hour” while those in the lifeboats lay on their oars, refusing to pluck anyone out of the water for fear of being overwhelmed by too many for the lifeboats to carry. By daylight, said Joseph Boxhall, the fourth officer, he saw only one body in the water, and “This body looked as if the man was lying as if he had fallen asleep with his face over his arm.” The dead had not drowned, as able seaman Edward Buley told the committee; “They looked as though they were frozen.” That morning, only scattered debris and four or five bodies were seen. In its final report, the investigating committee reasoned that during the night an ice floe swept over the scene of the disaster and covered the floating bodies.
These details ignited the public imagination, and the disaster became legend. The hearings secured the Titanic’s rightful place as a bleak and needless tragedy, all too common, all too human.
The story of the sinking of the Titanic began with the warnings of ice, received via the Marconi wireless — the earliest form of radio. Captain Edward Smith, the Senate investigation reported, barely heeded the reports. He was, it seems, blithely confident, foolishly believing the rhetoric of his steamship employers, J. Bruce Ismay and Philip A.S. Franklin, that he commanded an unsinkable “lifeboat.” The ice warnings, when later plotted out by Captain John J. Knapp, a hydrographer for the U.S. Navy, placed icebergs “within five miles of the track which the Titanic was following, and near the place where the accident occurred.” An hour before its bilge was ripped open, a Marconi message arrived, warning, in effect, that the Titanic was steaming straight for those very icebergs.
This last warning came from the Californian, which was no more than 19 and a half miles away from the Titanic, and might have been as close as seven miles to the site of the disaster. “We are stopped and surrounded by ice,” the Californian said. The Titanic’s Marconi man replied, “Shut up. I am busy. I am working Cape Race [the wireless station in Newfoundland].” The Marconi operator on the Californian kept the “telephones” on his head, and heard the Titanic talking to Cape Race up to within a few minutes of the time of the accident, when, according to the testimony, he “put the phones down, took off his clothes, and turned in.”
Senator Smith’s final report, issued May 28, 1912, stated, “No general discussion took place among the [Titanic’s] officers; no conference was called to consider these warnings; no heed was given to them. The speed was not relaxed, the lookout was not increased, the only vigilance displayed by the officer of the watch was by instructions to the lookouts to keep ‘a sharp lookout for ice.’” It was, in other words, an avoidable tragedy.
The maritime testimony also suggests that the unsinkable steamer was easily sunk. The iceberg was like a knife’s edge drawn along the palm of one’s hand; the steel plates of the ship’s bilge hardly offered resistance. What’s more, Senator Smith’s investigation concluded, “The supposedly water-tight compartments were NOT water-tight, and the sinking of the vessel followed.” In fact, water was free to pass right over one of the lower decks and inundate other, higher decks.
Perhaps the most dramatic testimony concerned the soulless cowardice of Captain Stanley Lord of the Californian, a ship owned by the Titanic’s parent, the International Mercantile Marine Co. The officers and crew of the Californian saw distress rockets being fired off the Titanic and “failed to respond to them in accordance with the dictates of humanity, international usage, and the requirements of law.” Captain Lord dismissed the rockets as fireworks, set off for the pleasure of passengers aboard an unidentified steamer. He dallied indifferently for four or five hours while his officers and crew debated whether these were distress signals, before deciding to rouse his wireless operator to see if there was anything the matter, “as a ship had been firing rockets during the night.” Only then was it disclosed to the idle Californian that the Titanic had already sunk. There is no question that Captain Lord could “have had the proud distinction of rescuing the lives of the passengers and crew of the Titanic,” Senator Smith reported.
Such was the enormity of the news that reached the public through 17 days of the hearings. The sinking of the Titanic was, of course, more than a horrifying story. It marked the end of the Gilded Age, though some of the class distinctions lingered.
Sixty percent of first class passengers survived (their cabins were closer to the deck); barely 25 percent of the steerage passengers and crew made it out alive. The prerogatives of the aristocracy were intact, even aboard the lifeboats. Andrew Cun ning ham, a 38-year-old stateroom steward from Southampton, England, told the committee that after helping passengers into lifeboats on both port and starboard sides, he threw himself overboard and swam in the darkness as far from the sinking ship as possible. After what seemed to him half an hour or 45 minutes in the freezing water, he heard a lifeboat paddling nearby. Those aboard did not row toward him; he had to swim toward them. After he managed to clamber aboard, he encountered one of his passengers, Mrs. Cummings, who promptly put him back to work — “to find out who was in the boat.”
For those who find the more popular version of the disaster wanting, these official transcripts speak with an undiluted urgency.