Charles Lightoller: Flooding Scotland Road and Tilting at Smokestacks
CHARLES H. LIGHTOLLER called himself ‘Commander” Lightoller, up to his death in 1952 at the age of seventy-eight. However, the Titanic’s Second Officer never did attain command of his own ship, aside from his private sixty-foot yacht, with which he rescued 130 men at Dunkirk during World War II. Unarmed, bombed, and machine-gunned practically to splinters, the boat landed safely in England only by virtue of Lightoller’s superior skill and seamanship. Historian Walter Lord wrote about him in The Miracle of Dunkirk, and a personal friend of Lightoller’s (from the night the Titanic sank) delivered to Lord the whistle Lightoller had used to summon hers and Samuel Hemming’s lifeboat to the overturned Collapsible B, on the morning of April 15, 1912. The friend never forgave Lord for failing to resist the urge to blow the whistle. (The whistle is now in the British Maritime Museum collection, and except for that one time, it has not been blown since 1912.)
The Titanic’s hero of Dunkirk behaved in a less stellar fashion during the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. Like Winston Churchill, at that same time, and near the same point in his career, the blunders and misadventures of his youth had led him to consider ending his life altogether. Arguably, Charles Lightoller was the only force on or near the Titanic that night capable of inflicting greater damage than the iceberg itself.
Lightoller’s misinterpretation of Captain Smith’s instructions (‘women and children first”) as meaning ‘women and children only,” and the inevitable long good-byes and heartbreaking delays this caused in the loading of the boats under his command ‘ combined with his misconception that the wooden boats would break in their davits if fully loaded and should therefore be sent away half empty for a later, fuller loading when the upper decks sank nearer the water ” proved to be the least of his errors.
While Thomas Andrews and a small team toiled throughout the bow section, seeking out open portholes and closing them against the rising waters (for each porthole potentially opened an additional square foot to the ocean, whereas the total surface area of the bullet-hole-sized splits and punctures along a 300-foot length of the starboard bow, inflicted by the iceberg, added up to approximately twelve square feet), Lightoller believed that half-empty lifeboats would be easier to fill if he had crewmen lead passengers’ down to an E Deck gangway door, with instructions to enter the boats after they were floating in the sea and theoretically free of his non-existent danger of breaking in half. The E Deck door he ordered to be opened was located near the front of a long, port side corridor (commonly called ‘Scotland Road”) ‘ which ran virtually the entire length of the ship. Water reached the gangway door about 12:40AM and Lightoller later noted that, about this time, the Titanic’s bow began settling into the sea more quickly and took an ‘inexplicable” list to port. He learned later that the men he sent downstairs, to open the door (shortly before 12:40AM) were never seen or heard from again. He also discovered, to his growing horror, that the stairway leading down to Scotland Road began filling with water’ above E Deck.(NOTE: The decks below the Boat Deck, down to the Orlop or Engineering Deck, were labeled A-G, from the A Deck down.) The water in the stairwell was as high as D or C Deck when Lightoller first noticed it, sometime between 12:40 and 1:00AM. Afterward, every time he glanced down the stairwell, the unnatural tide had continued to creep steadily toward him, step by sequential step.
At the British Inquiry into the loss of the Titanic, Lightoller explained that he never did consider the danger of opening the gangway door because even after Captain Smith had ordered him to start lowering women and children away in lifeboats, even after learning that water was flooding rooms on F Deck, only one deck below his E Deck gangway door, he did not believe that the ship could possibly be in serious trouble ‘ for he was, as far as he knew at that time, standing on the unsinkable Titanic. And so it did not occur to him, when he ordered his crew to open a gangway door in the port bow (of a ship that was sinking by the bow), that he might, in effect, be opening a newer and even larger hole in Titanic’s side. During the inquiry, the solicitor general pointed out to Lightoller: ‘If the boat was down by the head, the opening of the doors on E Deck in the forward part of the ship would open her very close to the water’ of course you know now the water was rising up to E deck. It appears to me that you would be very unlikely to order the forward gangway door to be opened. You might get the head so deep in the water that she might ship water through that gangway door?”
Lightoller replied, ‘Of course, my Lord, I did not take [it] into consideration at that time; there was not time to take all these particulars into mind. In the first place, at that time, I did not think the ship was going down.”
Three Charles Lightoller-related documents are reproduced in this chapter, transcribed from recordings and handwritten letters. All are from the Lord file. In the third document, Lightoller hints that his mistakes, that night, were not complete with the gangway door. In his 1936 TELEDIPHONE recording (transcribed by Walter Lord on March 23, 1956), Charles Lightoller described the location and condition of the collapsible Boat B, which he launched from the roof of Titanic’s bridge just before the bridge itself began to slip under the Atlantic: ‘Then came the very last boat of all, and it was a sort of raft with collapsible canvas sides, stowed upside-down on top of the Officers’ Quarters, and that’s above the Boat Deck.”
James Cameron, an engineer-scientist (who, with his two equally polymathic brothers essentially makes movies on the side) can be understated as having an obsessive compulsion for scientific and historical detail. During his filming of Titanic, in 1995 and into 1997, he replicated a substantial portion of the ocean-liner to original Harland and Wolff specifications, at 90% scale. The bow section was actually sinkable on demand, in the world’s largest special effects pool. When standing under the forward smokestack, on the port side roof of the bridge and Officers’ Quarters, with Boat B, Cameron happened upon a puzzle that defied simple resolution. It became difficult for him to imagine how Lightoller had managed to push the longboat down to the deck, through a web of steel cables (or guy wires) that rimmed the upper reaches of the smokestack (or funnel) and anchored it to the thick metal coamings on the roof edge, along the very edge over which Lightoller had told the British investigators he pushed the boat: ‘The after end of the boat was underneath the funnel guy [wire(s)]. I told them to swing the after-end up. There was no time to open her up and cut the lashings adrift.”
How, Cameron wondered, had Boats A and B been pushed over the sides and onto the Boat Deck, through fences of guy wires?
The British Inquiry gave no clues. Indeed, Ligtoller was self-contradictory and seemingly evasive about whether he had cut anything under the first smokestack, including Boat B’s lashings. Eighty-four years later, standing atop the reconstructed Officer’s Quarters, under his reconstructed forward smokestack, James Cameron noted that the steel guy wires, in accordance with Harland and Wolff specifications, were fastened to the steel bulkhead of the Officers’ Quarters with ordinary ropes. He wondered if Lightoller, in a desperate, time-critical moment, might have cut the hemp fasteners’ ‘There was no time to open [Boat B] up and cut the lashings adrift,” Lightoller had told Lord Mersey. ‘Can you tell us,” Mersey pressed, ‘was there time to open her; was she ever really cast clear of the ship?” Lightoller replied, ‘She would be lashed, of course, to something or other’ Hemming was the man with me there, and they then swung her round over the edge of the coaming [over the raised boarder above the Officers’ Quarters bulkhead, strengthened to support the smokestack’s guy wires] ‘ and then [they] let her down to the Boat Deck. That is the last I saw of her for a little while ‘ ” The examiner, seemingly puzzled over Lightoller’s statement that there had been no time to cut Boat B away, asked, ‘Were her lashings cut away?” And Lightoller said, ‘Her lashings would be cut away before we could get her off the side of the [Officer’s Quarters deck]house and put her [down] on the [Boat] Deck.” Mersey said, ‘We have to piece it out. We have some evidence about one collapsible boat [‘A,” on the starboard side], that the after-fall was cut [from the lifeboat davit head], and it was doubtful whether the other one [Boat B] was cut. This Boat [B], I understand, was never put on the falls [the davits] at all? The one I am speaking of?” Lightoller replied, ‘No. It was not put on the falls at all.” Mersey: ‘Then there would be no occasion to cut that away?” Lightoller said, ‘None whatsoever.” Mersey said, ‘You say it was pushed onto the Boat Deck and the Boat Deck was awash?” Lightoller said, again, ‘Yes.”
And the question that refused to go away, more than eighty-five years later, was how, exactly, had the lifeboat been pushed around or through the line of coaming-mounted guy wires that kept the first smokestack firmly anchored in place, on the roof?
According to Alfred White and Eugene Daly, the second smokestack stood in place even after water rose to its top and covered it. The third and fourth smokestacks held steady even as Titanic raised her stern into the air at a 45 degree tilt. The aft stacks never broke away and left the deck-houses ‘ not until the decks below disintegrated and left them. Only the first smokestack was observed to buckle and fall, of its own accord.
By most accounts, from witnesses in nearby lifeboats (including Lady Cosmo Duff Gordon in Boat 1, apparently near enough to distinguish Eugene Daly’s cries), the forward-most stack shifted and collapsed almost as soon as the first swirls of water reached its feet ‘ and while the slant of the deck was still less than 15 degrees. (Harold Bride had said that, about the time water came flowing into the Marconi Shack, forcing him and Phillips to abandon their post, a heavy metallic sound communicated down through the roof; Bride thought it might have been the first smokestack, groaning and shifting overhead.) Shortly after Lightoller dove off the flooding roof and began swimming toward Boat B, the first stack canted forward and toppled toward the starboard side ‘ and, according to Eugene Daly, Harold Bride, and Charles Lightoller, the stack crushed dozens of swimmers trying to reach the retreating lifeboats.
According to Marconi Operator Harold Bride, the stack crashed down only a few feet from his head, as he clung to Boat B ‘ which had been swept by a current from the port side into the stack’s path. The splash-down created a wave that nudged ‘B” away from Titanic; and for no reason that Bride was ever able to articulate, he hid himself in an air pocket underneath the overturned lifeboat.
In his 1935 published account (Titanic and Other Ships), Charles Lightoller was less self-contradictory than he had been at the British Inquiry, about the launch of Boat B and the cutting of its lashings. He also devoted considerable attention and detail to explaining the fall of the first smokestack ‘ as if affirming a denial, perhaps too strongly, that he cut any guy wire ropes or that he had anything to do with the forward funnel’s collapse (which in fact he might not have, for even if not weakened by a Lightoller slashing on the port side, the buoyancy of the Grand Stairway ” all five stories of solid oak and walnut ” could have severed the stack’s aft guy wires above the stairway’s forward bulkhead, making a forward collapse possible, if not sooner or later inevitable): ‘With one other seaman [Hemming]I started to cast adrift the one remaining Engelhardt [Boat B] on top of the Officers’ Quarters. We cut and threw off the lashings, jumped round to the inboard side ready to pick up the gunwale together and throw her bodily down on to the Boat Deck’ We had just time to tip the boat over, and let her drop into the water that was now [on the port side] above the Boat Deck, in the hope that some few would be able to scramble onto her as she floated off.”
Given this description, with Lightoller and Hemming tipping and pushing ‘B” from the inboard side (directly under the first stack, and dead center inboard of its gate of port side guy wires), there is no way the boat could have been pushed off the roof onto the port side Boat Deck without passing broadside directly through the vertical array of wires ‘ meaning that the wires must no longer have been an obstacle. After tipping Boat B over the edge, Lightoller wrote that he then ran to the starboard side of the roof, and observed that the list to port had left the starboard Boat Deck still above the sea: ‘There were still crowds of people [below,] on the [starboard] deck. Just then [2:10AM] the ship took a slight but definite plunge ‘ probably a bulkhead went ‘ and the sea came rolling up in a wave, over the steel-fronted bridge, along the deck below us, washing the people back in a dreadful huddled mass’ turning to the forepart of the bridge, I took a header’ Ahead of me the lookout cage on the foremast was visible just above the water’ I struck out blindly for this, but only for a short while’ For a time I wondered what was making it so difficult for me to keep my head above the water. Time and again I went under, until it dawned on me that it was the great Webley revolver, still in my pocket, that was dragging me down. I soon sent that on its downward journey’ apart from that I was drowning’ drawn down against a wire grating’ The pressure of the water [pouring into a submerged ventilator shaft] glued me there whilst the ship sank slowly below the surface – – every instant [I was] expecting the wire [grating] to go, and to find myself shot down into the bowels of the ship’ just how I got clear of that I don’t know’ but I eventually came to the surface again, this time alongside that last Engelhardt boat which Hemming and I had launched from on top of the Officers’ Quarters on the opposite side ‘ for I was now on the starboard side, near the forward funnel’ The bow of the ship was now rapidly going down and the stern rising higher and higher out of the water, piling the people into helpless heaps around the steep decks, and by the score into the icy water ‘ an utter nightmare of both sight and sound’ The terrific strain of bringing the after-end of that huge hull clear out of the water, caused the expansion joint abaft [behind] Number 1 funnel to open up. (These expansion joints were found necessary in big ships to allow the ship to ‘work” in a [rolling] sea-way.) The fact that the two wire stays to this [first] funnel, on the after-part, led over and abaft the expansion joint, threw on them an extraordinary strain, eventually carrying away the port wire guy, to be followed almost immediately by the starboard one. Instantly the port one parted, the funnel began to fall, but the fact that the starboard one held a moment or two longer, gave this huge structure a pull over to that side of the ship, causing it to fall, with its scores of tons, right amongst the struggling mass of humanity already in the water. It struck the water between the Engelhardt [Boat B] and the ship, actually missing me by inches.
Boat B, by Lightoller’s less guarded, 1936 audio account, was (just as clearly as in his 1935 written account) never hooked by ropes to davits and therefore never needed to have a tangled line slashed ‘ as, for example, during the disastrous launch of Boat A. Unfastening the two upside-down, roof-top collapsible boats (one on each side of the forward smokestack) should have been a simple matter, not likely to have required any cutting at all, especially if, as Lightoller told Mersey in 1912, a team of several seamen were available, on the roof, to pull the appropriate cords and unlash Boats A and B.
And yet, in Charles Lightoller’s 1936 audio account, he said: ‘A seaman named Hemming ‘ he’d been with me on many of the mail boats ‘ he and I cut this one [Boat B] adrift and threw it down on the water, which was now two feet above the Boat Deck.”
What, exactly, were Lightoller and Hemming cutting, under the guy wires of the stack that fell?
The first of three documents is a window on the mood of some key crew members during the interval between 12:40AM (when it became clear to Lightoller that the Titanic really wasn’t unsinkable after all) and the approximately 2:10AM launch of Boat B. The document is a letter dated May 1, 1912, from Charles Lightoller to Mr. R.W. Graham. The letter was photographically copied in Belfast by the mother of Dr. Simpson, one of the Titanic’s surgeons, and was addressed by Lightoller aboard the S.S. Adriatic. [Bracketed annotations are by Lord and Pellegrino, 1991]:
Dear Sir: In reply to yours of 30th [April] I am sorry to say that Surgeon John E. Simpson was on the ‘Titanic.”
I deeply regret your loss, which is also mine. I may say that I was practically the last man to speak to Dr. Simpson, and on this occasion he was walking along the boat deck in the company of Messrs. McElroy, Barker, Dr. O.Loughlin and four assistant pursers [among them, apparently, Frank Prentice].
They were all perfectly calm in the knowledge that they had done their duty and were still assisting by showing a calm and cool exterior to the passengers. Each one individually came up to me and shook hands. We merely exchanged the words ‘Goodbye old man.” This occurred shortly before the end and I am not aware that he [Dr. Simpson] was seen by anyone after. With deepest sympathy with you in the loss of your friend, believe me. Yours sincerely, – C.H. Lightoller
Following up on the Lightoller letter, historian Walter Lord obtained another account of Dr. Simpson’s activities. Both surgeons stayed behind on the Boat Deck, one of them even refusing a seat in a lifeboat when told to enter and assist the passengers. Walter Lord had a keen interest in the ship’s hospitals, and in its surgeons. Fortunately, he lived to see Titanic explorer Ken Marschall’s first digitally frame-morphed enhancement of the crew’s infirmary, in E Deck forward under the forepeak, ahead of Lightoller’s gangway door (known to deep-ocean scientific crews as ‘Lightoller’s boo-boo”). In 2001, the built-in work desk was still in place, its drawer handles perfectly intact and still shiny. The metal bunks were still mounted to the wall, as were racks and medicine bottles. Red rusticle dust and deep ocean bacterial consortia were everywhere, looking often like the same stalactite formations that render Lurey Caverns so hauntingly beautiful. To those who had eyes to look beyond the ‘rust” ‘ and Lord was an example of this ‘ the combination of natural and man-made lines was as blessed a deterioration as it was mysterious. Still standing in rows in their racks, glass medicine bottles, with their contents still inside, had somehow survived the bow standing on end, breaking away from the stern, free-falling 2.5 miles, then crashing into the bottom at upward of thirty-five miles per hour. Mike Cameron’s robot Jake videotaped a large white-and-blue-patterned medicine urn, mounted high in a prominent corner of the medicine shelves. Lord was as awed and surprised as any of us (during one of his rare ‘good days” in the last phase of Parkinson’s Disease) to learn that, at least in this region of the ship, Chinese herbal medicine appeared to be amongst the treatments of choice.
The second (albeit tangentially related) document in this set is a note, in Walter Lord’s handwriting, with the heading, ‘Extract from part of letter to her mother from Lizette Simpson, sister of Dr. Simpson.” Lord recorded that Lizette Simpson was in Australia at the time the letter was written. This is the account, told to Lizette Simpson, of a crewman named Lowe who boarded a lifeboat, and who was helped by Dr. Simpson. The letter is dated October 8, 1912; and the bracketed identifications are Lord’s:
‘I came round by the ‘Medic” [a White Star boat on the Australian run] and saw Mr. Lowe [presumably an officer or crew-member of ‘Titanic”] after I got aboard. He was speaking to Jack [Dr. Simpson; “Jack” and ‘John” being interchangeable names] after the collision. It was dark and he could not see very well when getting a boat lowered. Jack came to him and said, ‘Here is something that will be useful to you,” bringing him an electric torch. He never saw him after that.
The crewman ‘Lowe” was almost certainly Fifth Officer Harold Godfrey Lowe. Twenty-eight-year-old Lowe led boat number 14 into the floating wreckage, about 3:00AM, some forty minutes after the sinking. It was a moonless night, and without the ‘electric torch,” or flashlight, Lowe would never have been able to maneuver through the debris, or to describe for historians of the future what lay ahead of him that night. And his companions in Number 14, it is said, wished they had not seen: ‘When we got where the cries were,” fellow Boat 14 crewman Joseph Scarrott told Lord Mersey’s commission, ‘we were amongst hundreds, I should say, of dead bodies floating in lifebelts, and the wreckage and the bodies seemed to be all hanging in a cluster’ and as we got towards the center we saw one man there ‘ I have since found out he was a [ship’s] storekeeper. He was on top of a staircase’ a large piece of wreckage’ it was wood anyhow. It looked like a staircase. He was kneeling there as if he were praying’ I’m sorry to say there were more bodies than there was wreckage’ We could not row the boat, we had to push them out of the way and force our boat up to this man.”
Afterward, when day began to approach on the horizon, a breeze came up, and Lowe erected a sail. He arrived on the scene of the overturned Collapsible B, with Boats 4 and 12 already coming alongside, taking the soaked and half-frozen aboard. The last to leave Boat B was the Titanic’s Second Officer, Charles Lightoller. His 1936 audio account, told twenty-four years after the sinking, less than five years before his mission to Dunkirk, one year after his written account, was recorded when he was sixty-two years old:
ON THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC’ Altogether I’ve had four shipwrecks and a fire during my thirty odd years at sea, but by far and away the worst of them all is the one I’m going to tell you about now ‘ the loss of the TITANIC.
I joined her in Belfast while she was still in the builder’s hands, the biggest and finest ship in the world. On April 10th ‘ that’s 1912 ‘ she sailed on her maiden and only voyage for New York. From the moment we left Belfast we had marvelous weather, and even when we got out on the western ocean, or Atlantic, as you probably know it, it was as smooth as the proverbial millpond, not a breath of wind and the sea like a sheet of glass. In any other circumstances those conditions would have been ideal, but anyone with experience of ice at sea knows that those very conditions, and a moonless night, only rendered the detection of icebergs all the more difficult and call[ed] for additional alertness on the part of both officers and men.
Speaking for myself, I knew too well that there were chances, if long ones, of sighting an iceberg, but, as I reckoned, in ample time to clear it with a turn of the wheel. On that night of April 14th, we all ‘ that is the captain and officers ‘ knew perfectly well that we were just about entering the region where ice might be sighted at that particular time of the year, and had taken all necessary precautions.
Now, throughout the day there had been wireless messages from different ships reporting the weather. Odd icebergs and so forth, but as none of these bergs reported lay on our course, well, they didn’t directly concern us. But when the evidence came to be sifted out at the inquiry held in London afterwards it then came out that one very vital message received in the Titanic’s wireless room that night had never been delivered to the bridge. That message came from a ship called the MESABA warning all ships of heavy pack-ice, icebergs and field ice in the area then lying right ahead of the Titanic, and, what was still worse, not far away. Those immense quantities of ice were abnormal for almost any time of the year, and the significance we should have attached to that report can hardly be exaggerated. In my opinion it was a warning of the most vital importance.
You see, I was Officer of the Watch and in charge of the ship when that MESABA message came over, and I know perfectly well what I should have done if it had come to my hands. Without a shadow of doubt I should have slowed her down at once ‘ that would have been imperative ‘ and sent for the Captain. More than likely ‘ in fact, almost certainly ‘ he would have stopped the ship altogether and waited for daylight to feel his way through. Anyhow, the long and short of it is neither he nor I nor any other officer of the ship got that message.
How to go on? We were steaming that night at a good 22 knots. At 10 o’clock I was relieved as Officer of the Watch by Murdoch ‘ W.M. Murdoch. Of course, he knew nothing of the death trap lying ahead of us anymore than I did, and so five bells, six bells and seven bells went by. But barely ten minutes had passed after the sound of the last bell when there were three sharp clangs on the crow’s nest bell, followed by a cry from the lookout cage ‘ ‘Ice right ahead, sir.” Murdoch evidently saw the mass of ice practically at the same time as the lookout man and shouted: ‘Hard a’starboard; full speed astern.” His idea was to swing her bow clear and then put the helm hard over the other way and so swing her stern clear, and given half a chance I believe he’d have done it, but going at that speed it was too late. As it was her bow swung a bit, but not enough, and she struck. She took the blow along her starboard side, masses of ice actually falling onto her foredeck. But what was worse, though we didn’t know then, until it came out at the inquiry, she was pierced below the waterline in no less than six compartments, and from that moment nothing could have saved her.
I was lying in my bunk when I felt the slight jar ‘ not any sense of collision, but more a kind of shiver that ran through the ship. Anyway, it was enough to bring me out of my bunk in one jump. It wasn’t long before Boxhall, the Fourth Officer, poked his head round my door and said, ‘Do you know we’ve struck an iceberg?” I know you’ve struck something, I told him, not thinking of anything serious and feeling none too pleased. Then he said, ‘The water’s up to F Deck in the Mail Room.” There was no need for him to say anything more; I was into a pair of pants, sweater and bridge coat and out on deck almost as soon as he was.
Now, we’d been running under a big head of steam, and the sudden stopping of the engines lifted every safety valve, and as a result the steam roared off at all exhausts. The roar was absolutely deafening. Added to that the engineers started to blow the boilers down. Shout as loud as you liked; no one could hear a word. At the same time that Boxhall had called me the order had been given ‘All hands on deck,” and I met my watch [my previous shift of crew] stumbling up on the Boat Deck just as I got there ‘ and the Boat Deck, just in case you don’t know, is the top deck of all. I got hold of the Bo’s’un’s mate and sort of showed him with my hands that I wanted him to start the men stripping off the boat covers. When the boats were stripped and cleared they were swung out and lowered to the level of the Boat Deck. Just about now, thank goodness, the roar of escaping steam stopped, and passengers ” now they could hear themselves think ‘ started asking me, ‘Why are you getting the boats out?” and ‘Why are you putting women and children in them?” I told them it was merely a precaution and that very likely they’d all be taken on board again at daylight, or, at worst, taken on board the ship everyone could clearly see only a few miles away ‘ we could see all her lights quite plainly. But here again we were up against it. That ship was the Californian, and though her lights were plain to everyone on board the Titanic, she seemed to pay not the slightest heed either to our wireless calls or to the distress [rocket] signals we were firing every [ten] minute[s]. The reason why she didn’t answer our wireless calls, which other ships heard half way around the earth, was because she only carried one wireless operator, and when we’d struck the iceberg he’d just gone off watch. So it was no fault of his. But why no notice was taken of our distress signals ‘ shells that were fired hundreds of feet up into the air to explode with a cascade of stars ‘ heaven only knows. What a chance her captain missed. He could have laid his ship right alongside the Titanic and taken practically every soul on board.
However, he didn’t, and the two ships gradually drifted further and further apart, and, according to the Officer of the Watch of the Californian, the Titanic’s lights disappeared at [or by] 2:40AM. They did; and with his own eyes he personally witnessed one of the greatest tragedies of the sea.
But to go back again: As time went on I could see the bows of the ship getting steadily lower and lower in the water. Now, between lowering one boat and another, I frequently took a run forward and a quick look down a long stairway [on the port side] that led from the Boat Deck three or four decks down [from Boat Deck, just forward of Boat D, down through A Deck to F]. Frankly, I’m never likely to forget the sight of that cold, greenish water creeping, step by step up that stairway. Some of the lights were shining down on the water, and others, already submerged, were giving it a sort of ghastly transparency. But, for my purpose, I could tell by that staircase measurement exactly what was happening; how far down she’d gone and how quickly she was going.
Just when I first realized how desperately serious things were, I don’t know, but I do know that before many boats were away I got to piling more and more people into them, partly because I now knew she was going and partly because the boats were not remaining by the ship to be filled to their full capacity when waterborne ‘ a far easier job than lowering them with their full compliment from that tremendous height. Then came the very last boat of all, and it was a sort of raft with collapsible canvas sides, stowed upside-down on top of the Officers’ Quarters, and that’s above the Boat Deck. A seaman named Hemming ‘ he’d been with me on many of the mail boats ‘ he and I cut this one adrift and threw it down on the water, which was now about two feet above the Boat Deck. Having dumped this collapsible there was not a thing further we could do on that side, so both of us went [across the roof] over to the starboard side, but we found all the boats were away from there too. For my part I turned for’ard and took a header from the top of the wheelhouse. I started to swim away but got sucked down two or three times [with collapsible Boat B evidently being swept in a forward and starboard direction by these same powerful drag currents]. In fact, I got mightily near the edge of things [near dying] before I finally came up alongside the collapsible we’d hove into the water from the top of the Officers’ Quarters, and it was from there I saw the Titanic sink. As I watched I could see her bow getting deeper and deeper in the water, with the foremast sticking up above the surface, whilst her stern lifted higher and higher till it was right out of the water. When she got to an angle of about 60 degrees there was a sullen sort of rumbling roar as her massive boilers all left their beds and went crashing down through the bulkheads and everything that stood in their way.
Up to that moment she had stood out as clear [as a skyscraper] with her rows of electric lights all burning. When the boilers broke away she was, of course, plunged into absolute darkness, though her huge black outline was still perfectly distinct up against the stars and sky. Slowly, she reared up on end, till at last she was absolutely perpendicular. Then, quite quietly, but quicker and quicker, she seemed just to slide away under the surface and disappear. As she vanished everyone round me on the upturned boat, as though they could hardly believe it, just said, ‘She’s gone.”
There has always been some controversy about Lightoller’s famous assertion that vital messages warning of ice ahead never reached Titanic’s bridge from the Marconi Shack. So many ice warnings reached the bridge that Mrs. Arthur Ryerson and Mrs. Thayer ‘ two mere passengers ‘ had occasion to discuss them with Mr. J. Bruce Ismay (the ship’s owner). They had met him on deck, on that last day, carrying an ice warning from the bridge and mentioning that a ship, the Deutschland, was in trouble and had sent out a call for assistance ‘ which Ismay had asserted he intended to decline (behaving, Mrs. Ryerson recorded in her deposition for the British Inquiry, as if he were ‘acting” as Captain). There are in fact so many independent accounts of ice warnings received by Titanic’s bridge (with only a call from the Californian, about being stopped by [and surrounded] by ice in Titanic’s path being confirmed as never leaving the Marconi Shack ‘ and this, on account of the collision having occurred within mere minutes of the message’s arrival) ‘ so many warnings of this nature, that Captain Smith’s Initial question to Hitchens and Murdoch, after the collision, impressed Walter Lord as one of the silliest questions in maritime history. ‘There was already,” said Lord, ‘enough evidence of exactly what lay ahead for Smith never to have had cause to ask, ‘What did we hit?'”
Captain Lord of the Californian, in a letter to his attorney, summed up ‘the night in question” with the phrase, ‘a certain amount of slackness.”
No one believed it could actually happen until after it actually happened.
As above, so below.
On the abyssal plain, not very far from Titanic’s stern, lies a plaque cast from bronze. It bears no names, no expedition number, no boast of ‘We were here.” On one face, these words appear: ‘The fifteen hundred souls lost here still speak, reminding us always that the unthinkable can happen, but for our vigilance, humility, and compassion.”
As below, so above.
Posted May, 2004
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