Home

Alfred White: Death in the Engine Rooms and the Stubborn Persistence of Light

 

ALFRED WHITE worked closely with an engineer named Archie Frost ' who, according to papers of shipbuilder Thomas Andrews' family, had once been saved from a fatal accident by Mr. Andrews, during Titanic's construction. Mr. Frost had tried to remain near Andrews ever since, 'hoping to one day make him proud of the life he had saved."

 

White and Frost were part of the team that kept the lights and winches working up to the moment the ship broke in two. The men in the engine rooms never left their posts, even after Thomas Andrews had suggested, early in the crisis, that if they stayed too long, there would be no chance for any of them to reach the lifeboats or even to reach the top decks and have some small possibility of swimming away to floating debris. According to the Andrews family's oral history (as presented, in part, by A Night to Remember Producer Bill MacQuitty), the men replied, 'We'll stay as long as we can."

 

Men like Frost and White ' and their friends Parr, Sloan, and Bell, appear to have heralded an engineer's tradition still in effect eighty-nine years later, during the fires of September, 2001. Port Authority police officers Aaron Greenstein and Robert Vargas were helping people to evacuate New York's World Trade Center complex, on that day; and because escalators and lighting systems continued to work, Vargas and Greenstein would never be able to forget the engineers who chose to stay beneath the fires, in the World Trade Center generator rooms. Officially, the half-mile-wide city within New York City was being abandoned; but Frank DeMartini and his team remained below with their machines, and doubtless saved many lives. Many thousands of lives. Robert Vargas would always remember, with a measure of reverence, how on a day of horrors when monsters took wing, men such as those behind the stubborn persistence of the lights and power grids could also be found, on that same day. He would never forget DeMartini's team, who perished, every one of them, below ground.

 

In like manner, none of Titanic's engineers ever returned home. None of them, according to accepted historical reasoning ' until, quite by surprise some forty-four years later, film-maker Bill MacQuitty (who as a child watched the Titanic being built and launched - and who, when he grew up, sank her a second time for his film studio) received a letter from a survivor's nephew, and made an acquaintance with him:

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

November 20, 1956.

 

Dear Sir: Following the appeal in the Belfast Newsletter I enclose a copy of a letter from the greaser Alfred White to the brother-in-law of Mr. Parr who was lost on the 'Titanic." I have no doubt but that partly owing to Mr. Parr's presence below, the lights were kept going and also the power to enable the boat winches to be available. The lights were actually going as the ship went down. Please pass this information to your brother in case it is of any use to him in the production of his film. Yours Truly, Frank Johnston.

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Until 1956, historians overlooked Alfred White. Indeed, aside from providing some background for brief engine room scenes in the film version of A Night to Remember the White account never made the final cut ' primarily because historians universally doubted, until it was discovered in 1985, that the Titanic actually broke in two (as Alfred White insisted she had), and because even if believed, scenes of White's remarkable escape as the ship's spine disintegrated beneath him and he rode the fourth smokestack into the sea would have been a prohibitively expensive special effect in 1956. Alfred White's story was thus filed away and largely forgotten until Walter Lord and I (Pellegrino) began, about 1991, preparing to join the Tulloch expeditions to the Titanic. The following passages, which in our original notes preface, as annotations, the June 21, 1912 Alfred White letter, are (with grammatical alterations and [bracketed definitions] where necessary) notes made during discussions of the White letter, between MacQuitty, Lord, and Pellegrino, in the summer of 1994:

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Alfred White was rescued from Boat A. This was the flooded collapsible lifeboat ' 'A" [and it] was literally pulled under with the Titanic's starboard bow, in the last minutes. [Before submergence,] 'A" was filled with women [at Murdoch's back] and all passengers were washed out as the boat was pulled under. It broke loose and floated to the surface. Alfred White, passenger George Rheims, and passenger Rosa Abbott ended up in Boat A. Everyone who was rescued from this boat had been aboard Titanic when she sank, and swam to 'A." George Rheims wrote that there were many people in the water, struggling to climb into 'A" ' and he hinted that they had beat people away with oars. Significantly, White and Abbott suffered severe head injuries ' probably from the sinking and final breakup of Titanic, but possibly from initial attempts [by people already inside 'A" with Rheims] to keep them away from a flooded, damaged, and threatening-to-sink lifeboat in the immediate vicinity of Titanic's sinking, and surrounded by hundreds of desperate people in the water. Alfred White suffered a retrograde amnesia and could not remember any events between the fissure that opened beneath his perch, halfway up Titanic's fourth smokestack, and his first awareness of being in a damaged and water-filled lifeboat.

 

Walter Lord, on why Alfred White was overlooked as an engine room survivor: White was rescued from a lifeboat known to have been launched from the starboard side forward and because, aboard the rescue ship Carpathia, he was quoted as evidently repeating something he had heard from Steward Ed Brown (also in Boat A), [he must easily have been mistaken as being with Boat A from the moment of its launch near Titanic's bridge]. White was quoted in the press as having heard Captain Smith say, just before the forward starboard part of the ship dunked under, 'Well, boys, I guess it's every man for himself." Ed Brown testified (at the British Inquiry) that as he was attempting to free Boat A, he noticed Captain Smith standing behind him with an aluminum megaphone at his side: 'Well, boys, do your best for the women and children and look out for yourselves," Smith said. This was very much as White had quoted Smith saying ' a story that must have been told very early-on by Brown, either in the lifeboat or to other Boat A survivors aboard the Carpathia. (Smith turned away and walked onto the bridge, according to Brown, and 'a very few seconds after that," the bridge disappeared under the water.) White's retelling of Smith's last moments seems to have been misunderstood, as White was relating a story told to him about Smith (during the last seconds of the starboard bow). In reality, the bridge and the Marconi Shack were already [deep] under water when White [climbed the forward ladder] up the fourth smokestack. Thus, a story told by Alfred White to a writer aboard the Carpathia during the voyage home wrongly described White as a' standard 'greaser" (not an engine room electrician) and wrongly credited, to White, an eyewitness account on the forward Boat Deck, starboard side, near Collapsible A, near the beginning of the final plunge [about 2:10AM, some ten minutes before the broken stern's kerosene flagstaff lantern disappeared]. History removed him from the generator room [and from his friends Parr, Sloan, and Frost] and placed him in a part of the ship from which the British and American Inquiry directors already had more than a half dozen eyewitness accounts. Alfred White, in reality, had an amazing below-deck story to tell:

 

Reproduced below - June 21, 1912 letter from (Electric) 'Light Room" Greaser Alfred White to the Reverend M. Langley, brother-in-law of Mr. Parr, the Assistant Manager of the Electrical Department of Harland and Wolff, RMS Titanic [with bracketed annotations by Pellegrino and Lord, 1994]:

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Dear Sir: I am truly sorry that I could not answer your letter before as I have been very ill and have been unable to do anything at all. I knew Mr. Parr very well for the short time we were together. I was with him nearly till the last[;] that was at twenty-to-two [AM] on the 15th of April in the main light room of the 'Titanic." [At 1:40AM, Alfred White was with Mr. Parr in the main light switching center, located on the lowest deck, behind the 4th smokestack.] You are asking me if he was on the [upper] deck when the ship went down and I honestly say that he was not and all the rest of the engineers were below. That was the last I saw of them. At one O'clock [1hr, 20 minutes after the impact; however, a discrepancy in Alfred White's timing suggests that this might actually have occurred a half-hour later, at 1:30 AM], Mr. Parr and Mr. Sloan came below. I was on watch at that time and he said to me, 'We are going to start one more engine." [According to this plan, remaining steam pressure stored in the aft boilers could be used to run the turbine for electrical generation; the light room and the Marconi Shack's Sound Room also had acid batteries for supplemental emergency power.] I generally did that [job; the starting of the generators]. They went to the main switch board to change over.

 

[NOTE: A portion of this switching system was jetted out through the stern section's starboard side after its 2.5 mile free-fall to the ocean floor; and pieces of a switching panel were recovered in 1993 ' 1994, during the Tulloch era of Titanic exploration.]

 

We knew that the ship had struck something but took no notice. Work was going on as if nothing had happened. When at twenty-to-two the ship seemed as if she had started [up] again and flung us off our feet ' Mr. Sloan and Mr. Parr said to me, 'Go up and see how things are going and come and tell us." [The only event matching a lurch forward, as described here, about this time, was the implosion of Boiler Room #4, some 300 feet forward, under the second smokestack. It is possible that, like several fellow crewmen ' among them Fireman George Kemish ' Alfred White had not been keeping up that day with the periodic fifteen minute and half hour resettings of watches, if indeed he possessed a watch at all. It seems likely that White was running a half hour out-of-synch in his reporting. The boiler room implosion was felt on the top deck, and the critical loss of buoyancy under the second smokestack instantly shifted the Titanic's center of mass and triggered the final plunge; this was manifested as a tidal wave on the starboard bow ' which washed more than twenty women out of Boat A and which was actually body-surfed by Colonel Archibald Gracie. This event, time-stamped by such evidence as the moment Gracie's properly reset watch stopped, occurred between 2:10 and 2:12AM. The interval between the lurch described by White and the breakaway of the stern section would therefore have been between five and seven minutes ' with the journey to the top deck, as ordered by Sloan and Parr, becoming more difficult with each sweep of the second hand, while the slant toward the bow angled down from 10 degrees to 45 degrees.

 

Telling you the truth, Sir, I had a job to get up the engine room ladder. I had to go up the dummy funnel [the name given to the fourth smokestack, because save for venting generator steam and smoke piped out from coal-fired kitchen stoves, the 'dummy funnel" was built merely to give Titanic an added appearance of power and speed]. There was a doorway [and a ledge] there [on the forward side of the dummy funnel, about half way up]. The sight I saw ' I can hardly realize it. The second funnel [or smoke stack] was under the water and all the boats had left the ship. I could not get back [to the engine rooms] as the boat was sinking fast. We did not know ' they were [,my friends,] all at boat stations [at emergency stations, at the engines]. I am sure that was where Mr. Parr was and so should I have been if they had not sent me up. That is all I can tell you. I must close this letter and I am truly sorry for Mr. Parr's wife and all his friends. I remain yours truly, Alfred White.

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Through further contacts with the owner of the Alfred White letter, Bill MacQuitty obtained more details ' but he took subsequent descriptions ' 'or likely embellishments" ' of the Titanic's decks yawning open beneath White's 'Cinemascope vantage point," and of the ship itself appearing to break in half below him, 'with more than a fair degree of skepticism" in 1956. Survivors Lawrence Beesley and Joseph Boxhall, who were advising MacQuitty on the film, had told him that they saw the Titanic go under gently and in one piece. No one really believed that the ship could have torn apart at the surface until thirty-nine years after the details of White's story began arriving on MacQuitty's desk ' thirty nine years later, when the first robot reconnaissance of the wreck, more than two miles below the Atlantic, revealed the bow and stern sections to be separated by a debris field more than a third of a mile wide.

 

The annotations below are from notes, referring specifically to the Alfred White letter, and dating from 1991 and 1994 [bracketed annotations were added later by Pellegrino, based on further discussions after Bill MacQuitty and Pellegrino joined George Tulloch at the Titanic in 1996]:

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

C. Pellegrino: The raw footage [from the 1991 Keldysh/MIR Imax expedition] shows the Mir submersible[s] trying to move toward the giant reciprocating engines, through wires, and in the direction of the main light room, the turbine engine, and the generators. [During Titanic Expedition XIII in 2001, the robots Jake and Elwood probed behind the 4 story tall reciprocating engines, to the watertight compartment that once towered like a dam above the tops of the engines. The door at the bottom of the dam was closed, though forensic archaeologists would be unable to tell whether the door had been cranked down before water reached the turbine room, or whether it had slammed down upon impact on the seabed, at upward of 60 miles per hour.] The light room and the electric engines had been lifted completely out of the sea [along with the entire after portion of the keel, between 2:15 and 2:17AM], just before the stern broke away.

 

Bill MacQuitty: White and Kemish both said they heard what they believed to be the engines and boilers breaking away as the ship stood on end.

 

C. Pellegrino: Long standing myth had it that these engines and turbines had broken loose and rattled down through (and out through the hull of) the bow. But now [in a forensic archaeological sense] we can see that that's not what happened at all. The engines [at least where the decks are intact, outside the sites of the break-up], the boilers, and all the heavy pieces of equipment are still there, bolted to the floor, tangled in wires, ladders, and smashed catwalks. Testimony to their solid construction. Alfred White ('electrician" ' oiler of electrical equipment ' and not a 'greaser" proper) was the only known survivor from the generator and engine rooms. He was certain that his companions were still in there.

 

Walter Lord: Alfred White was also a friend of Archie Frost, who is mentioned in the Andrews family records. A descendant of a friend of Frost has said that he was planning to immigrate to America after the maiden voyage, but this does not seem likely. Frost probably intended to stay with the Titanic. Seventeen-year-old Jack Thayer became friends with Archie Frost, and in his memoir he mentioned Frost's [then] recent promotion to 'Chief Engineer."

 

Bill MacQuitty: [In any event], Frost has one of my favorite lines from that incredible night ' 'Okay, pals. It looks like we're going to be putting in a little overtime on this one." Grim. He said this to Alfred White, about 2:10 AM, right after the ship made its forward lurch. [They must have known that they did not have a chance and would soon die, down there in the engine rooms.] Gallows humor; not unlike the exchanges between Phillips and Bride in the Marconi Shack that night, or their exchanges with other ships [To the Olympic: 'Looks like it will be fish for breakfast for us tomorrow ' or vice-versa."] Mr. Parr knew that the turbines would continue running for the [remainder] of their mechanical life-spans without [need of] any further oiling from Alfred White, so he sent White topside. And [Mr. White] ended up in the swamped Collapsible A ' the only [reasonably intact] boat to rescue a substantial number of swimmers near Titanic, apparently because it was floated off as the ship went down and had no choice but to be right there.

 

Mr. White was on the fourth smokestack. Then the smokestack fell [and rolled over the break-away stern section's port side]. Mr. White did not remember the fall, or how he ended up in the water, or how he got picked up by Boat A. From atop the stack[, before the break-away, he saw a man in white clinging to an empty lifeboat davit: saw him still clinging even after the davit glided under and his hat floated off' And he saw a crowd of people running over the top of a huge skylight between two smokestacks. And when the breakup began - ] he saw the ship begin to yawn open ' 'a clean cut" ' just ahead of [White's] memory loss' [just ahead of the fourth smokestack, this cut through the decks ' and then, for a moment all the lights winked out'] The ship [was being] cut in half below him' 'as if by a butcher's blade." The deck opened up. The lights snapped on after this ' and he had the lasting impression that the bow had been, in that instant, cut away ' cut loose' In the flashes of [electrical] light as the ship broke beneath him ' a flashing back to life that told Alfred White his friends below had been pulling the right switches with their last seconds of life ' in those flashes of [briefly resurgent] light, Alfred White thought he had seen the ship splitting open near the skylight above the after first class stairway, behind the vents between the [third] and fourth smokestacks' He saw people below ' shadows surging and running over the tops of deck structures. Clinging to wires and davits even as they [sank below] the surface. This [flash-view] lasted only seconds ' seemed to him, though, that [it lasted] hours, [when he relived it] later. And then the stern tilted aft and even before others in the sea [including crewman Frank Osman] saw the fourth smokestack begin to fall with a man still on it, Alfred White's memory cut-off [and ceased recording].

 

'Walter Lord: One other Alfred White observation, Bill [MacQuitty] has referred to' He says that his climb from the engine rooms was a difficult job. The family history that comes to us mentions why it was so difficult and why he had to take a hard path ' had to go ' up through the ladder inside the dummy funnel. The Third Class quarters (mostly women's steerage, [in that part of the ship,] with the men quartered in the forward bow) were [located] directly above the noisy engines and generators. The gates were locked; the paths to the top, to the Boat Deck, were locked.

 

'Bill MacQuitty: The slant of the deck made it difficult to stand at that time without holding onto a gate, or rail, or ladder rung. White had mentioned in one or two sentences a group of men huddled [or piled] in a corner, far below the Boat Deck in the Third Class, praying. [The electrician had to climb through the Third Class to get to the top deck.] A closed gate separated him from [the huddled men] and they took no notice of his own cries for help, but just continued praying. So, White returned to the engine room ladder that led up through the fourth smokestack.

 

Walter Lord: Up to this point, Thomas Andrews appears to have been one of the very few in charge who gave any thought to rescuing people from the Third Class regions of the ship, and the only one who worried about them even before the extent of the damage became clear. According to testimony in the British Inquiry, during the first fifteen to thirty minutes after the [11:40PM] impact (and closer to the first fifteen minutes), Andrews went below decks in the bow and led the people he found there (mostly men but there were reportedly women amongst this group) to the forward well deck and pointed the way to the lifeboats. Most of this first group reached the lifeboats and survived. Everywhere I have searched, I have found the same sorts of accounts about Mr. Andrews' character, and his genuine caring for the needs of his fellows, above his own.

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

After this rescue, Thomas Andrews spent the next two hours making sure lifeboats were safely away, breaking down E-Deck stateroom doors and closing open portholes while passing the broken doors to assistants, so they could be cast overboard as potential rescue floats. He gave everything he could, to sealing potential new leaks (generated by problems with overheating in staterooms ' which had caused many passengers to sleep with their portholes open), hoping to keep the Titanic afloat a while longer, so the maximum number of lifeboats could get away.

 

As Walter Lord has pointed out, many of the Third Class families led by Andrews onto the forward well deck, and up the steel stairway connecting the well deck to First Class and the starboard Boat Deck, survived in some of the first boats launched under William Murdoch's command.

 

By 1:30AM, someone had closed the gate at the top of the well deck stairs, so that no more brigades of the sort led by Andrews could get through. About this time, a young Irish steerage passenger named Daniel Buckley found a group of men trying to force their way up the stairs and over the closed gate. Like other gates described by a handful of survivors from the lower decks, this one was guarded and locked. As Walter Lord records the Buckley account, the man ahead of him was beaten and thrown down the stairs by a seaman standing guard: 'Furious, the [beaten] passenger jumped to his feet and raced up the steps again." The seaman (and his fellow guards) fled, with the passenger evidently leaping over the barrier, with others following as he 'howled what he would do if he caught the sailor." The gate was either temporarily opened by the passengers (and re-locked by crew), or the passengers simply swarmed over it. In any case, Buckley estimated that he and dozens of others escaped into First Class. And in any case, the gate was certainly locked when the sea covered it.

 

At the British Inquiry, Mr. W.D. Harbinson, who was officially the Court Appointed Guardian

 

for Third Class, raised no objection whatsoever when it was decided that not a single third Class Survivor should be called as a witness. Then, at the investigation's conclusion, Harbinson used the in-chambers' silence of his own muzzled protectorates as a weapon against their credibility: 'No evidence has been given, in the course of this case, that would substantiate a charge that any attempt was made to keep back the third class passengers." He addressed 'rumors" of death behind locked gates with a vehement denial: 'There is not an atom or a tittle of evidence upon which any such allegation could be based."

 

And yet, on September 10, 2001, we saw the well-deck gate still securely drawn and locked. Eighty-nine years earlier, deep-diving submersibles were pure fiction, beyond Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. It seemed impossible, in 1912, that such a future had any chance of becoming history. It was possible for Harbinson to believe, 'The ship is nearly three miles down. Who will ever see it again? Who will ever know?" And he must have believed with equal ease that in only a few decades, people would forget the Titanic. Harbinson could not have believed or even guessed, with the First World War looming on the horizon, that in another century anyone would care one way or the other what Alfred White or Daniel Buckley had to say about the fate of Third Class, or whether the Titanic's well deck gate was open or locked. Much as he had addressed the court with his conclusion, he must have satisfied himself with smugness: In another century who will even remember Alfred White's or Daniel Buckley's names ' or even the name, Titanic?

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Posted April 23, 2004, during the Queen Mary II's maiden voyage to New York. Intentionally, her builders have painted her in the Titanic's colors, and they have sent her here during the 92nd anniversary of Titanic's maiden voyage. On the news today they have called her the largest and most luxurious ship afloat, and the safest ship ever built: 'As safe as the aircraft carrier Nimitz' Only an atomic bomb can sink this ship."

 

#

 

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

'

 

REMINDER: If you enjoy this E-Book and would like us to continue adding chapters, please donate to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Disease Research, 'In Honor of Walter Lord." We recommend $5 per year, during which you can download and/or print as many chapters as you wish. Payment (or subscription) is strictly by an honor system; if you can do more, please give generously. As you may know, Walter beat this disease back for nearly forty years, until it took him away in May of 2002. We support the Foundation in its goal 'to find a cure as soon as humanly possible." We will be tracking donations tagged, 'In Honor of Walter Lord," and we will continue to add chapters so long as the percentage of donations remains at acceptable levels.

 

'Call the Foundation at the following number to donate by phone:

 

(800) 708-7644

 

'Or donate by mail:

 

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Disease Research

 

Grand Central Station,

 

P.O. Box 4777

 

New York, New York 10163

 

'The Foundation is a 501(c) (3) non-profit, tax-exempt organization designated by an IRS Code; Tax Identification number is 13-4141945.