A Very Deceiving Night: Stooping rockets

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Rockets from Titanic. As well as trying unsuccessfully to contact the Californian by radio and Morse lamp, Titanic had also been frantically sending up distress rockets to try and attract the Californian’s attention:

Boxhall: 15394. Could you see how far off she was?
– No, I could not see, but I had sent in the meantime for some rockets, and told the Captain I had sent for some rockets, and told him I would send them off, and told him when I saw this light. He said, “Yes, carry on with it.” I was sending rockets off and watching this steamer. Between the time of sending the rockets off and watching the steamer approach us I was making myself generally useful round the port side of the deck.

  1. How many rockets did you send up about?
    – I could not say, between half a dozen and a dozen, I should say, as near as I could tell.
  2. What sort of rockets were they?
    – The socket distress signal.
  3. Can you describe what the effect of those rockets is in the sky; what do they do?
    – You see a luminous tail behind them and then they explode in the air and burst into stars.
  4. Did you send them up at intervals one at a time?
    – One at a time, yes.
  5. At about what kind of intervals?
    – Well, probably five minutes; I did not take any times.

These rockets went high into the air and were clearly observed by Steward James Crawford, who had been ordered by Captain Smith to row towards the Californian, drop his passengers off and then return to the Titanic. As Crawford was rowing towards the Californian he had his back to her, facing the Titanic and therefore had a ringside seat as Titanic’s rockets were going up:

  1. After the boat was launched that you were in, did you see any rockets sent up?
    – Yes, from the “Titanic.” I also saw the morse code being used.
  2. About how many rockets did you see sent up?
    – I should say I saw about a dozen go up; probably more.
  3. A dozen rockets from the “Titanic”?
    – Yes, they kept going up.
  4. And you could see those quite distinctly?
    – Yes.
  5. And should those lights have been seen by the steamer towards which you were pulling?
    – Yes.
  6. Those rockets should have been seen?
    – Yes, I think they ought to have been seen.

The Commissioner:
Well, we know they were, Mr. Harbinson.

  1. (Mr. Harbinson.) Yes, My Lord. (To the witness.) Seen distinctly?
    – Yes, I should think they ought to have been at the height they were sent up from the “Titanic.”

But the peculiar atmospheric conditions that night caused Titanic’s rockets to appear to rise to only half the height of her masthead light. Although the cold air near the sea surface caused abnormal refraction which made the Titanic loom up higher than she would normally appear, the warm air higher up was refracting normally.  This meant that when Titanic began firing distress rockets – which in reality rose to a height of about 600 feet – these exploded in the normally refracting, warm air, high above Titanic and appeared at the normal height for their distance, but therefore did not appear to rise very high relative to the looming Titanic, and this was observed by Second Officer Stone on the Californian:

  1. Tell me what you said to the Chief Officer?
    – I have remarked at different times that these rockets did not appear to go very high; they were very low lying; they were only about half the height of the steamer’s masthead light and I thought rockets would go higher than that.
  2. Well, anything else?
    – But that I could not understand why if the rockets came from a steamer beyond this one, when the steamer altered her bearing the rockets should also alter their bearings.
    [Author’s note: In fact it was the Californian which was altering her heading and not the Titanic altering her bearing.]
  3. That pointed to this, that the rockets did come from this steamer?
    – It does, although I saw no actual evidence of their being fired from the deck of the steamer except in one case.
  4. (Mr. Butler Aspinall.) Which is the one case?
    – One rocket that I saw that appeared to be much brighter than the others. [Variable refraction]
  5. I suppose, at any rate, now you have not any doubt but that that ship which was showing you the navigation lights was the ship which was showing you these series of rockets?
    – Except, as I say, that they were very low; they did not appear to go high enough to me.

rockets from Titanic

It is also interesting to note that the duct or miraging layer of air through which Titanic was seen, could also have caused the ship to disappear completely, depending on the eye height of the observer, as mirages are very observer-height specific, and this may be what happened when Greaser Earnest Gill of the Californian observed Titanic’s rockets, but without seeing the ship at all:

tim maltin a very deceiving night ebook 01

Californian’s Greaser Earnest Gill

ERG014. About 12.30 you began first to see the rockets?
– Yes, sir; at first, when I saw it was not very plain.

ERG015. Off on your starboard bow?
– Yes, sir.

ERG016. What kind of rockets were they? What did they look like?
– They looked to me to be pale blue, or white.

ERG017. Which, pale blue or white?
– It would be apt to be a very clear blue; I would catch it when it was dying
[i.e. low down]. I did not catch the exact tint, but I reckon it was white.

ERG018. Did it look as if the rocket had been sent up and the explosion had taken place in the air and the stars spangled out?
– Yes, sir; the stars spangled out. I could not say about the stars. I say, I caught the tail end of the rocket.[i.e. when the rocket was low down]

ERG019. Did you see any lights on the steamer where the rockets were sent up?
– No, sir; no sign of the steamer at the time.

ERG020. You could not see any lights at all?
– No, sir.

Titanic’s rockets were high enough not to be affected by the duct, but Titanic was in the duct and so her visibility would have been very height-dependent.  Indeed, Gill admits as much in the following testimony, when he describes seeing the Titanic, half an hour before she fired her first rocket:

ERG028. You think it may have been the Titanic?
– Yes; sir. I am of the general opinion that the crew is, that she was the Titanic.

ERG029. When did you first see her?
– At four minutes after [sic afore] 12, exactly.

ERG030. How do you know that?
– Because at five minutes to 12 I was working with the fourth engineer at a pump that kicked, that would not work, and while we were interested in our work we forgot the time; and I looked up, and I said, “It is five minutes to 12. I haven’t called my mate, Mr. Wooten. I will go call him.” And I got to the ladder to climb out of the engine room and get on deck. That taken me one minute, to get up there.

ERG031. Was this ship moving at that time?
– I did not take particular notice of it, sir, with the rushing to call my mate. I went along the deck. It taken me about a minute going along the deck, to get to the hatch I had to go down, and I could see her as I walked along the deck. Suppose I am going forward, now; I could see her over there (
indicating), a big ship, and a couple of rows of lights; so that I knew it was not any small craft. It was no tramp. I did not suppose it would be a “Star” boat. I reckoned she must be a German boat. So I dived down the hatch, and as I turned around in the hatch I could not see her, so you can guess the latitude she was in. As I stood on the hatch, with my back turned, I could not see the ship. Then I went and called my mate, and that is the last I saw of it. 

Gill’s testimony also suggests that the stooping or even inverting rockets that he saw appeared to be exploding above a false horizon, which Gill calls only “what appeared to be the water’s edge” in the following testimony from the British Inquiry:

  1. (Mr. Rowlatt.) Did you see anything in the direction where the steamer had been?
    – I had pretty nearly finished my smoke and was looking around, and I saw what I took to be a falling star. It descended and then disappeared. That is how a star does fall. I did not pay any attention to that. A few minutes after, probably five minutes, I threw my cigarette away and looked over, and I could see from the water’s edge – what appeared to be the water’s edge – a great distance away, well, it was unmistakably a rocket; you could make no mistake about it. Whether it was a distress signal or a signal rocket I could not say, but it was a rocket.

I hope by blogging chapters from my book, A Very Deceiving Night, it will contribute to the ongoing discussions regarding the atmospheric conditions on the night of the tragedy and the true causes of the disaster. At the moment, the book is only available as an e-book. If you wish to purchase it then you can do so in Amazon Kindle format here and other formats, including Apple, Kobo and Nook, here. Thank you.

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