THE NORTH ATLANTIC! APRIL 15, 1912
Harold Thomas Cottam’s watch was long over, but the wireless operator of the Cunard liner Carpathia was still at his post, listening to the dot-dit-dot-dit Morse transmissions of other ships and the shore. Cottam’s late-night wakefulness was unusual, but he wanted to catch the latest news flashes from the station at Cape Race. As he reached down to unlace his boots, he suddenly stopped, stunned by the message coming in over the airwaves.
The news he heard changed his life—and probably saved those of more than 700 others. The White Star liner Titanic, bound to New York on her maiden voyage with 2,224 persons aboard, was calling for help.
As Cottam acknowledged the signal, Titanic’s wireless operator, John George “Jack” Phillips called back: “CQD—CQD—SOS—SOS—CQD—MGY. Come at once. We have struck a berg. It’s a CQD, old man. Position 41.46 N, 50.14 W” CQD was the wireless distress call, and SOS was the new call just introduced to replace it. MGY was Titanic’s call sign. There was no mistaking the news, as much as Cottam could scarcely believe his ears. The new and “practically unsinkable” Titanic was going down.
“Shall I tell my captain?” Cottam wired back.
“Yes, quick,” came the reply.
Racing to Carpathia’s bridge, Cottam blurted the news to First Officer Dean, who, without knocking, went straight into the cabin of Captain Arthur Rostron. In the 1958 classic movie A Night to Remember, the scene, as re-created, has Rostron yelling out, “What the devil!” and sitting up angrily in his bed, but Cottani’s quick explanation stops him from taking the wireless operator to task. In his memoirs, Rostron wrote: “I had but recently turned in and was not asleep, and drowsily I said to myself: ‘Who the dickens is this cheeky beggar coming into my cabin without knocking?’ Then the First Officer was blurting out the facts and you may be sure I was very soon doing all that was in the ship’s power to render the aid called for.”
Rostron, a seasoned master known to his peers as “the Electric Spark,” was both decisive and energetic. He did not hesitate now. Again, as A Night to Remember reconstructs the scene, he ordered: “Mr. Dean, turn the ship around—steer northwest. I’ll work out the course for you in a minute.” The film’s script matches the decisiveness of the captain’s published memoirs. Rostron recalled that he asked Cottam if he was sure it was Titanic calling. “Yes, sir.” “You are absolutely certain?” “Quite certain, sir.” “All right, tell him we are coming along as fast as we can.”
Carpathia was not the only ship to receive Titanic’s distress call, but she was the closest of them all. Still, she was 58 miles away. The 13,564-ton, 558-foot Carpathia was a ten-year-old veteran of Cunard’s fleet, three days out of New York with 750 passengers bound to Gibraltar and the Mediterranean. As Rostron worked out his position in relation to Titanic’s, he realized that at Carpathia’s top speed of 14 knots, it would take four hours to reach Titanic. That just wasn’t good enough. He knew that many people would not survive in the icy waters unless help arrived soon.
Rostron called for more speed. Every off-duty stoker was roused and sent into the boiler rooms to shovel coal into the furnaces. To squeeze every bit of steam out of the boilers and into the engines, Chief Engineer Johnston cut off the heat and hot water throughout the ship, and pushed his men and machines to the limit. Carpathia surged forward at 15, 16 and finally 17 knots, faster than she had ever gone.
RMS Carpathia, the ship that rushed to save the survivors of Titanic. Vancouver Maritime Museum
As Carpathia raced northwest towards Titanic, Rostron was well aware that he was steaming into danger. Numerous warnings of ice from other ships and Titanic’s own collision with an iceberg made him wary. But he couldn’t slow down. Rostron posted extra lookouts, including Second Officer James Bisset, who stood in the open, the frigid wind blasting his face as he stared into the darkness. When Bisset looked back at the bridge, he saw his deeply religious captain, hat lifted, lips moving quietly in silent prayer.
Carpathia’s crew was at hard at work, clearing the ship’s dining saloons to receive Titanic’s passengers, gathering blankets, uncovering the lifeboats and running them out. Stewards manned each passageway to calm Carpathia’s passengers and keep them in their rooms, out of the way. The galley staff brewed coffee and made hot soup, while the ship’s doctors readied emergency supplies and stimulants in makeshift wards. The deck crew rigged lines, ladders and slings to bring survivors aboard.
Aboard Titanic, the end was fast approaching. At 1:45 a.m., Phillips called Cottam to plead, “Come as quickly as possible, old man; engine room filling up to the boilers.” The last boats had pulled away—many only half full—as a crowd of some fifteen hundred people raced towards the stern, which was rising out of the sea as Titanic’s bow went under.
Cottam kept trying to raise Phillips, but Titanic’s faint signals showed that power was failing aboard the sinking liner. At 2:17 a.m., Cottam heard the beginning of a call from Titanic, then nothing but silence.
On Titanic, Phillips and assistant wireless operator Harold Bride stayed at their posts nearly to the very end, frantically working the radio to urge the ships racing to Titanic to hurry. As Titanic’s stern rose higher in the air, the engineers—all of whom had remained at their posts, knowing that they would die, but who nonetheless kept the dynamos running to keep the lights burning and to give “Sparks” every remaining bit of electricity to call for help—lost their battle as the machinery tore free of its mounts. The lights blinked out, surged on briefly, then went out forever. Once the power was gone, Phillips and Bride joined the crowd of people on the sloping decks. Titanic, straining in the water, half submerged, tore apart. The stern bobbed free for a minute, then joined the bow in a 2¼ mile fall to the ocean floor.
It was 2:20 a.m., and Carpathia was still nowhere in sight. Hundreds of people huddled in twenty lifeboats, while in the water more than fifteen hundred people thrashed, struggled and screamed for help until the icy water took their lives. “The cries, which were loud and numerous at first, died away gradually one by one… I think the last of them must have been heard nearly forty minutes after the Titanic sank,” reported survivor Lawrence Beesley, floating in the distance in the relative safety of a lifeboat.
Two of those struggling in the water were Phillips and Bride. They made their way to one of the ship’s collapsible boats that had been washed off the deck when Titanic sank. Floating half submerged on the overturned boat through the night, they suffered from the cold with a handful of passengers and crew. As the long night wore on into early morning, Phillips died. Second Officer Charles H. Lightoller, washed into the sea as the ship sank, had also struggled onto the overturned lifeboat and took command of the precarious perch. “We were painfully conscious of that icy water, slowly but surely creeping up our legs. Some quietly lost consciousness, subsided into the water, and slipped overboard… No one was in a condition to help, and the fact that a slight but distinct swell had started to roll up, rendered help from the still living an impossibility.”
Lightoller hoped that help would come soon. “We knew that ships were racing to our rescue, though the chances of our keeping up our efforts of balancing until one came along seemed very, very remote.”
Rostron kept a careful lookout as Carpathia rushed into the darkness. “Into that zone of danger we raced… every nerve strained watching for the ice. Once I saw one huge fellow towering into the sky quite near— saw it because a star was reflected on its surface—a tiny beam of warning which guided us safely past.” At 2:40 a.m., he spotted a green flare on the horizon, just as the first icebergs came into view, but he did not slacken speed. Firing rockets and flares to signal his arrival, Rostron dodged the ice and he pressed on. He knew that the Titanic was probably gone, but he also knew that every minute counted for the survivors on—or in—the frigid sea. “It was an anxious time,” he later recalled. “There were seven hundred souls on the Carpathia; these lives, as well as all the survivors of the Titanic herself, depended on a sudden turn of the wheel.”
At 3:50 a.m., Carpathia slowed, and at 4:00 stopped. She was at Titanic’s position, but the ship was gone. Then, ahead, just a few miles off, a green flare blazed up from the water, and the dim outline of first one, then several lifeboats, came into view. In the boats, the survivors, many of them sitting in stunned silence, watched as Carpathia slowly approached, picking her way through the ice. As the profile of the ship, portholes filled with light, came into sight of the survivors in the boats, Titanic passenger Lawrence Beesley recalled: “The way those lights came into view was one of the most wonderful things we shall ever see. It meant deliverance at once… everyone’s eyes filled with tears … and ‘Thank God’ was murmured in heartfelt tones round the boat.”
As Titanic’s lifeboats rowed towards Carpathia, the sun rose to reveal that rescuer and rescued were in the midst of a field of ice—it lay everywhere, from bergs 200 feet high to chunks “as big as a man’s fist” bobbing in the swell. Beesley said that when his boat rowed past a berg and alongside their rescuer, “We could read the Cunarder’s name— CARPATHIA—a name we are not likely ever to forget.” Another passenger, Colonel Archibald Gracie, reported that when he climbed up a ladder and into an open companionway hatch, he “felt like falling down on my knees and kissing the deck in gratitude for the preservation of my life.”
As No. 2 lifeboat came alongside, the first to reach Carpathia, Titanic’s fourth officer, Joseph G. Boxhall, went to the bridge to report to Captain Rostron. Rostron knew the answer, but he asked Boxhall a “heartrending inquiry.” Had Titanic sunk? “Yes,” answered Boxhall, “she went down around 2:30.” His composure broke when Rostron asked how many people had been left aboard. “Hundreds and hundreds! Perhaps a thousand! Perhaps more! My God, sir, they’ve gone down with her. They couldn’t live in this icy water.” Rostron thanked the distraught officer and sent him below to get some coffee and warm up.
By 8:00 a.m., Carpathia had taken aboard more than seven hundred of Titanic’s crew and passengers, many of them stunned by shock.
As Carpathia stood by, Titanic’s survivors waited at the rails, looking out at the water. Husbands, fathers, sons—as well as women and children—would never return. Rostron held a service of thanksgiving for the saved and a memorial service for the lost, then left the scene of the disaster at 9:00 a.m., just as the Leyland Line’s Californian arrived to offer assistance. Ironically, Californian had been closer than Carpathia to Titanic, and her deck officers had seen the sinking liner’s distress signals—but the wireless operator had gone to bed so they had not received Titanic’sfrantic calls for help.
Carpathia headed for New York, her passengers divided by the gulf of the tragedy. Many of Titanic’s survivors kept to themselves. J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, sequestered himself in Carpathia’s doctor’s cabin, refusing contact. His actions on Carpathia— and his survival when so many others had died—only reinforced the criticisms leveled against him in the aftermath of Titanic’s loss. Sadder yet, and perhaps more typical, was the reaction of two women who sat wrapped in blankets on Carpathia’s deck chairs, staring at the sea as a steward approached to ask if they wanted coffee. “Go away,” they answered. “We’ve just seen our husbands drown.”
After running through a storm at sea, Carpathia arrived at New York, reaching Pier 54 at 8:00 p.m. A crowd of thirty thousand had gathered. The news of Titanic’s sinking was the focus of world attention. Wireless operators ashore had intercepted the distress calls, and Rostron had broadcast a brief message to the Associated Press, informing the world Titanic was gone, along with two-thirds of the people who had sailed in her.
At the Cunard Pier, a clutch of anxious families and eager reporters stood by. After Carpathia’s own passengers disembarked, Titanic’s survivors filed off, many of them wearing clothes donated by Carpathia’s passengers and crew, some of the children dressed in makeshift smocks sewn from steamer blankets.
The daring dash through the dark and ice-filled seas to rescue the survivors of Titanic earned world fame for Carpathia and her captain. Both received a number of awards—plaques, engraved silver cups and plate, and medals, many of them displayed in a special case aboard Carpathia.The ship returned to her regular run between New York and the Mediterranean, sailing again on April 20 to resume her interrupted voyage.
CELTIC SEA: JULY 17, 1918
The coming of war in 1914 disrupted Carpathia’s usual routes, and in 1915 she began running from Liverpool to New York and Boston. After leaving Liverpool with just fifty-seven passengers as part of a convoy on July 15, 1918, Carpathia’s luck finally ran out in the Celtic Sea as she left the British Isles. Just after midnight, in the early moments of July 17, the German submarine U-55 intercepted Carpathia with two torpedoes. The first ripped into the port side and the second went into the engine room. The blasts killed five of the ship’s firemen and injured two engineers. Dead in the water, Carpathia began to sink by the bow as the sea poured in. Captain William Prothero gave the order to “abandon ship” and fired distress rockets to warn the other ships in the convoy that a submarine was nearby.
Carpathia’s passengers and the 218 surviving crew members climbed into the lifeboats as the ship sank. The U-boat surfaced and fired another torpedo into the ship to hurry the end, and Carpathia finally went under. The submarine was approaching the lifeboats when the armed sloop HMSSnowdrop hove into view and fired her deck guns to drive away U-55, then came about to pick up Carpathia’s survivors.
At 12:40 a.m., Carpathia sank at a position that Snowdrop recorded as 49.25 N 10.25 W, off the southern coast of Ireland about 120 miles west of the famous Fastnet. The loss of the famous ship was one of many during the war and was overshadowed by the sinking of other liners, such as the well-known tragedy of Lusitania and the loss of Titanic’s sister ship Britannic in the Mediterranean. But the memory of the gallant liner never faded. Her former captain, Arthur Rostron, eulogized Carpathia in 1931: “It was a sorry end to a fine ship … She had done her bit both in peace and war, and she lies in her natural element, resting her long rest on a bed of sand.”
THE SEARCH FOR CARPATHIA
Exactly where Carpathia rested spurred the efforts of many shipwreck hunters, particularly Clive Cussler, the famous author whose bestseller Raise the Titanic had launched not only the fictional career of Dirk Pitt of the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), but also fueled Clive’s real-life NUMA and its quest, funded largely by his book royalties, to search for famous shipwrecks. Carpathia was high on Clive’s list of ships to find, and in 1999, when John Davis of Eco-Nova Productions proposed a television series based on Clive’s book The Sea Hunters, they chose Carpathia as the first wreck to look for. When The Sea Hunters crew was assembled, I had the good fortune to be selected as Clive’s co-host for the show and as the team’s archeologist, joining veteran diver Mike Fletcher.
The search for Carpathia was more daunting than it sounds, because the general location of Carpathia’s loss was a U-boat killing ground during two world wars, and hundreds of sunken vessels lay on the seabed. It would take systematic searching and as comprehensive a survey as possible to try to find Carpathia.
Under NUMA’S sponsorship, British explorer Graham Jessop mounted a search for Carpathia. In September 1999, he thought that he had discovered the wreck in 600 feet of water, 185 miles west of Land’s End, England, but bad weather drove off his ship before he could verify the discovery by sending down underwater cameras. When Jessop later returned to the site, he found that it was not Carpathia. A dinner plate lying on the sand, marked with the crest of the Hamburg-America Line, was one of several clues that finally identified the wreck as Hamburg-America’s Isis, lost in a storm in November 1936. Only one of the crew, a cabin boy, survived the sinking.
Mike Fletcher headed out to sea in May 2000 for another try at finding Carpathia. He watched the side-scan sonar pen trace black-and-white images of the ocean floor. At the same time, he also checked a magnetometer as it scanned the seabed for a large metallic object—like a sunken ship. After a month of surveying, slowly running straight lanes in what ocean searchers call “mowing the lawn,” he felt that at last the survey was narrowing down where Carpathia should be.
Finally, on May 22, 2000, as Mike watched the side-scan sonar and magnetometer, he was rewarded by the ghostly outline of a sunken ship in profile, rising clear of the bottom, and by the shadowy image of it from reflected sound waves. But the weather was getting bad, and again there was no opportunity to drop in a camera to take a look at the wreck up close. The wreck was the right size for Carpathia and was in the right spot, just a few miles from where Snowdrop had placed it. However, The Sea Hunters kept the news under wraps until we could mount a second expedition to confirm the facts. “You don’t know till you go” is tried and true wisdom in the difficult task of shipwreck identification.
In September, John Davis of Eco-Nova headed for England to visit the wreck we all hoped was that of Carpathia. Nine days later, John and his team set out in the teeth of a storm. Working under difficult conditions, they were able to deploy a remotely operated vehicle with a camera to dive down to the wreck and capture four hours of video. With the precious footage in hand, John flew to Halifax, to meet with the rest of the team.
John, Mike, Clive and I all gather in the theater of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, after hours, as the guests of its director, Michael Moore. The large-screen television in front of us the center of attention as John Davis takes the videotape out of his bag (he has already made a copy in case something goes wrong) and pops it into the machine. I’m ready, leaning forward, with photos of Carpathia and the ship’s plans spread out before me. After more than two decades of shipwreck hunting, diving and research, I’m still as excited as a child at Christmas by a new discovery. So is everyone else.
We watch as the ROV moves across a mottled sand and gravel bottom. Then, suddenly, coming out of the dark gloom, we see a propeller. It is covered with encrustations of marine life, but the outline is clear: three blades, one buried in the sand, attached to a shaft that is braced by a strut that comes out of the hull. So far so good—it’s the right shape, has the right number of blades and is off-center, showing that it is one of two propellers that should be on either side of the rudder.
The ROV swings around, looking up at the hull that curves out from the keel. Then it turns, and we see the rudder, still attached to the sternpost. As John freezes the video frame, we study the ship’s plans and match the rudder—its shape, fastenings and size—to them. Just beyond the rudder, we spot the second propeller. As I watch the screen, I think of how fast those propellers were spinning in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912—faster than they ever had either before or after—on that heroic dash to aid Titanic. Carpathia’s engineers and captain pushed her so hard that the hull rattled and shook—“she was excited as we were,” said one engine-room hand.
The ROV climbs the stern, which has a very distinctive shape. There is no mistaking it, and the curving lines before us match what until now we had seen only on black-and-white photos taken in a bygone age. Moments like this remind all of us how privileged we are to relive history, as stories and faded photographs come to life. The ROV is on the deck now, and a pair of davits for a lifeboat comes into view. They are in the right place to help confirm that this is Carpathia, but even as I note that technical fact, my mind is back at Titanic, looking at her empty davits.
Our first disappointment comes when the ROV encounters a mass of wreckage where the superstructure once was. We were hoping the superstructure was not damaged, but it is gone. The ROV passes over an intact bronze porthole lying on the deck, its glass unbroken. After marine organisms consumed the wood that held this porthole in place, then it fell free to lie where we see it. We go back and forth as the robot traverses the deck, revealing fallen bulkheads and electrical wire, broken glass and ship’s hardware. Carpathia’s deckhouses and bridge have collapsed, and I think of those plaques and awards, now buried beneath tons of rusting steel.
The ROV moves off the deck and follows the hull, whose steel plates are torn and mangled, but it is hard to say if the damage came from the torpedoes that struck the ship or from the red-hot boilers exploding as the cold sea flooded them. Gradually, it becomes clear that we’re looking at damage from a torpedo that struck Carpathia on the starboard side. The ROV does not completely survey the port side, but another hole, perhaps from the first torpedo hit, shows up near the area of the vanished bridge. It’s a sad moment as we inspect these wounds of a long-ago war.
When the ROV’S lights pick out a row of portholes along the hull, I am struck again by a voice from the past, recalling Lawrence Beesley’s description of watching from one of Titanic’s lifeboats as the lights blazing from Carpathia’s portholes signaled that help had at last arrived. The ROVclimbs back to the deck and passes the steam winches of Carpathia’s forward cargo cranes—there is no doubt now, as we look at their position next to the No. 1 cargo hold, that this is Carpathia. But forward of the hold, the bow is in bad shape, and it is clear that the liner’s final plunge was bow first—like Titanic’s. But instead of falling thousands of feet into the depths, Carpathia sank in water shallower than her own length: the 558-foot ship went down in 514 feet of water. Her bow hit the bottom—hard—before her stern left the surface. It is ironic to see that Carpathia, while not torn in two like Titanic, is in worse shape than the liner she had once rushed to help.
The videotape is nearing the end now, and as we gaze into the murk, John Davis points out the most interesting discovery of all. There, lying on the bottom near the hull, half buried in the sand, is the ship’s bell. It is a riveting sight. We strain our eyes to see if we can make out if the name is there, but marine growth has covered the bell’s surface. More details are filled in: Carpathia’s fallen stack lies off her starboard side, with the ship’s brass whistles lying flat in the sand nearby, and debris blown out of the hull by the blasts is scattered over the seabed. Later, a group of British technical divers descend to the wreck and find some of the ship’s dishes, which they say have the Cunard crest on them.
To confirm that this is Carpathia, I look for ten exact matches between the wreck and the ship’s plans. Not only is this ship the right size but her decks are laid out exactly like those on Carpathia’s plans. The position of the deck gear, the single stack, the twin screws at the stern, are also identical—and then there’s the torpedo damage and the fact that the ship sank bow first. The excitement of the discovery and confirmation that this other important part of Titanic’s story has come to light is on all our minds as the tape ends.
In the morning, we will announce the news of the discovery, and once again Carpathia’s name will flash through the airwaves and appear on the front page. My hope, as I look at the fleeting images from the bottom of the sea, is that people in the modern, fast-paced world we now live in will remember the tragedy that led to Carpathia’s fame and the special mettle of her officers and crew who, despite the dangers, acted in the best traditions of the sea. In the days that follow, we are not disappointed. Carpathia again dominates the world’s stage, if only briefly, as we prepare for more sea hunting.