The SS Californian and the Titanic Scandal
On April 14th, 1912 around 11:39 PM the infamous RMS Titanic struck in iceberg in the middle of the North Atlantic. As a result of large gashes torn into her hull, causing large amounts of water to rush into her lower compartments. As the Titanic slowly sank over the next two and a half hours, the crew haphazardly attempted to evacuate all women and children from the ship. Most modern depictions of the sinking, James Cameron’s film “Titanic” for example, depicting a forsaken ship all alone in the middle of the ocean. In reality, while the Titanic filled with water and dipped below the waves, off in the near distance a bright light was in view. That light was the British steamer SS Californian, which was located a mere ten miles from the sinking ocean liner. Over the next two and a half hours of tragedy the Californian watched as the Titanic slipped below the sea. The question that remains to this day is why didn’t the captain and crew of the Californian do anything to help the beleaguered passengers of the Titanic?
The SS Californian was a British merchant ship commanded by Captain Stanley Lord. Roughly a half hour before the Titanic struck an iceberg, Lord ordered the Californian to halt due to a large icepack and scattered icebergs ahead. Lord decided that the Californian would remain there for the rest of the night and make way again in the morning once conditions were safer. He also ordered the Californian’s wireless radio operator to broadcast a warning that icebergs were directly ahead. Wireless sets at the time had a greater signal the closer they were from the origin. Since the Titanic was only ten miles away, the warning message blasted the ears of Titanic’s wireless operator, Jack Philips, forcing him to throw off his headset as the unintelligible message blasted his ears. At the time Philips was clearing a backlog of wireless messages from Cape Race, Newfoundland, and greatly annoyed sent the message to the Californian, “Shut up, shut up, I’m working Cape Race."
The wireless operator of the Californian, most likely annoyed with the response, shut off his set and retired for the night. As a result the warning that a pack of icebergs were immediately ahead was never delivered to the bridge crew of the Titanic.
As history would have it, the Titanic would strike on of those icebergs. With water filling the ship, the Titanic’s crew began to evacuate the passengers, women and children first. A common myth that lifeboats were underfilled in order to increase passenger comfort. In reality they did this to increase patient safety, decrease the likelihood of the lifeboats capsizing, or overweighing the life boats. This did not seem like a big deal to the crew at the time because, hey, over there the SS Californian was just ten miles away and in no time she would arrive to ferry all the Titanic’s passengers aboard. The lifeboats were ordered to row toward the Californian and after offloading, return to pick up more passengers.
The Titanic constantly sent messages with a Morse lamp while also firing emergency rockets to signal the Californian for help. In addition, Jack Philips signaled the Californian with his wireless set. On the Californian the crew could not see the Titanic’s Morse lamps, however they were well aware of the rockets being fired. Captain Lord, who had turned in after 17 hours without rest, was awoken, but dismissed the rockets as being company rockets (rockets used to signal ships of the same company) or celebratory rockets. The fine points of Captain Lord’s reaction to the rockets are not truly known, as Lord often changed his story. In the meantime no one had the notion to awaken the Californian’s wireless operator in order to contact the Titanic. Thus the Californian never received Titanic’s radio distress signals. As the ship began to sink below the waves, it appeared to the Californian’s crew that the ship was steaming away. By 2:30 AM it appeared that Titanic had left the area. In reality the Titanic had sunk.
At 4:00 AM the RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene to rescue the survivors. The Californian didn’t arrive until 8:30 AM.
Shortly after the sinking, investigations were conducted by both the United States and British Governments. Incredibly no mention of Titanic’s sighting or the firing of rockets was entered into the Californian’s official log. Captain Lord especially came under scrutiny, and his story changed constantly when questioned about the incident. He often claimed that the rockets were not distress rockets or that no rockets were fired at all, his account on weather conditions constantly changed, he claimed the Californian was twenty miles away, not ten, and in some cases he testified that a third ship was present which was firing rockets. Both American and British inquiries into the sinking found that Captain Lord was negligent in his handling of the situation, however neither brought formal charges against Lord. However Lord was fired from his position with the Leyland Line, the owner of the Californian, but would be hired by another shipping company less than a year later.
The SS Californian would be sunk in 1915, however at the hands of a German submarine rather than an iceberg.