A very deceiving night
At worst, the deceiving conditions caused Captain Lord to conclude that what they were observing the night the Titanic sank was a nearby cargo ship with no wireless and a slack crew who would not reply to his Morse lamp, which had probably got into some difficulty owing to the dangerous ice conditions. In the circumstances, he decided that it was better to wait a few hours until daylight, when he could investigate the matter safely.
At best, he may have only been made aware by Gibson that it could really have been a situation of distress after the nearby stranger had disappeared, when he still felt he could not do anything useful until daylight. The low rockets could genuinely have struck him as company signals, especially if he had also been informed, as Stone claimed, that it appeared Titanic began steaming away as soon as she began firing rockets. After all, a ship in distress does not steam away from possible assistance: The tragedy is that, in those peculiar conditions of visibility, a ship sinking would look like one steaming away, and the latter would be much more likely.
Nevertheless, Stone and Gibson had worked out that something was wrong:
Stone: 7900. But you knew they were not company’s signals, did you not?
– I said I did not think so.
- (The Commissioner.) You did not believe they were company’s signals?
– I had never seen company’s signals like them before.
- Then what did you think they were?
– I did not think what they were intended for; white rockets is what I saw them as.
- Wait. You did not think they were company’s signals?
- You did not think they were being sent up for fun?
- What did you think?
– I just thought they were white rockets, that is all.
- That you know because your eyes told you of it, but what did you think they were being sent up for?
– Naturally, the first thought that crossed my mind was that the ship might be in trouble…
Gibson: 7527. You have told us what the Officer said to you. Did you think yourself when you looked at her through the glasses that something was wrong?
– We had been talking about it together.
- (The Commissioner.) I should very much like you to tell me what you had been saying to the Officer?
– He remarked to me –
- I should like you to tell me what were you saying to each other?
– He remarked to me that a ship was not going to fire rockets at sea for nothing.
- Who said that?
– The Second Officer.
- A ship is not going to fire rockets at sea for nothing?
- I daresay you agreed with him?
- What took place after that between you and him?
– We were talking about it all the time, Sir, till five minutes past two, when she disappeared.
And this attitude of concern on the part of Stone and Gibson was confirmed by Evans, the wireless operator:
CFE177. Did any other officer of the Californian say anything to you about having notified the captain three times that a vessel was sending up rockets?
– I think the apprentice did.
CFE178. What is his name?
CFE186. Now, witness, tell me if you heard anybody else say anything about the captain having been called three times and informed that rockets were being sent up, the night the Titanic sank?
– Well, I do not remember any other special individual, but I know it was being talked about a lot.
– Yes, sir.
CFE188. There was a lot of talk about it, but you cannot recall any individual who spoke to you about it?
– No, sir; except the apprentice. I think he told me that he had called the captain.
CFE189. Did this talk occur on board the Californian?
– Yes, sir.
CFE190. Immediately after the accident to the Titanic?
– Before we got to the Titanic; yes, sir.
CFE199. Was there any talk of this kind after you left the scene of the sinking of the Titanic?
– Yes; it has been talked about all the time since then.
CFE200. They have talked about it all the time since then?
– Yes, sir.
CFE201. As an unusual and extraordinary occurrence?
– Yes, sir.
Lord’s attitude looked criminally callous and irresponsible in the light of the Titanic disaster, which is why he decided he could not tell the truth about his mistakes and decisions that night. After all, he had ignored what could have been distress signals, no matter how confusing and dangerous the circumstances:
- …you were not satisfied it was a company’s signal. You did not think it was a company’s signal?
– I inquired, was it a company’s signal.
- But you had been told that he did not know?
– He said he did not know.
- Very well, that did not satisfy you?
– It did not satisfy me.
- Then if it was not that, it might have been a distress signal?
– It might have been.
- And you remained in the chart room?
– I remained in the chart room.
It is clear from the following exchanges that Captain Lord had little previous experience of ice and that he had decided, firmly, not to move until daylight, in the interests of the safety of his own ship:
STL221. But you could have gone to the Titanic?
– The engines were ready. I gave instructions to the chief engineer and told him I had decided to stay there all night. I did not think it safe to go ahead.
- You have not had much experience of ice?
– No I have not; of field ice this is my first experience.
- You were treating the ice, so to speak, with great respect, and behaved with great caution with regard to it?
– I was treating it with every respect.
- May I take it that you were not anxious if you could help it, between 10 o’clock and 5 o’clock, to move your engines?
– I did not want to move them if I could help it. They were ready to move at a moment’s notice.
- Under those circumstances, seeing that there was a possibility of the boat being near, do you consider it reasonable that you should go off duty?
– Perfectly reasonable. I was looking after my own ship.
These are answers that do not do you the least good, and they are not the answers that you want.
Faced with a similar situation, in the same area of the North Atlantic, on 26th March 1912, Captain Hoie of the Norwegian steamship the Romsdal had at least made the attempt, as reported in The Atlantic Daily Bulletin, although he had had the advantage of seeing the ship in daylight first…and the ship he had seen sink was not the largest, newest and safest ship in the world:
This afternoon the Norwegian steamship Romsdal came to an immense field of ice with a steamer of about 8,000 tons trapped in it. After dark the steamer commenced signalling for aid by rockets. Captain Hoie endeavoured to assist her and ran into the ice, but was compelled to stop, as the ice had injured his vessel in several places. About midnight the vessel seen from the Romsdal stopped firing rockets and all her lights disappeared. After daylight nothing was seen of the steamer which had been firing rockets during the night and Captain Hoie concluded that she had probably sunk.
At 5.40am on 15th April 1912, Captain Lord found himself in a terrible situation, when the Virginian confirmed to him by wireless that the Titanic had sunk nearby, during the night when rockets had been reported to him, which he had decided to ignore.
As a Massachusetts newspaper called the Clinton Daily Item reported on Tuesday 23rd April 1912:
“According to Mr. Frazier’s cousin [the Californian’s carpenter, James McGregor], the captain of the California [sic] had the appearance of being 20 years older after the news reached him.”
Although Captain Lord should have gone to the aid of the ship that was firing rockets, if there had not been deceiving circumstances which caused her to look completely unlike the Titanic – the only ship with wireless in the area – and made it inexplicable to him that she did not reply to his repeated attempted communications by Morse Lamp, he would have gone; and he would probably have used his wireless immediately to talk with the largest liner in the world, stopped by ice on her maiden voyage.
But we now know, 100 years later, that the cold water of the Labrador Current and large area of field ice at Titanic’s wreck site was causing abnormal refraction, which both caused Titanic to see the iceberg too late and caused the nearest ship to fail to come to Titanic’s aid. Had Titanic looked anything like the Titanic, Lord would certainly have radioed to her when she came to a stop, instead of trying to Morse her.
That there was abnormal refraction that night is the further information that Beesley was waiting for. Rather than there being two ships – the Californian and a mystery ship in between – the nearer ship was in fact just the looming image of the more distant Californian.
It is ironic that Titanic, the largest moving object ever made by Man at that time, was brought down by a trick of the light; but it is perhaps even more ironic that, were it not for the abnormal refraction at her crash site, most of us today would probably never even have heard of the Titanic, because she would not have hit an iceberg in the first place.
Titanic at Queenstown, now Cobh, Southern Ireland at lunchtime on Thursday 11th April 1912
© Cork Examiner, Author’s collection.
The casualty of Titanic is an awesome testimony to the power of nature, both at her most serene and, at the same time, at her most deadly. On that calm April night, Titanic was in fact unwittingly sailing into a perfect storm of abnormal refraction.
Captain Lord summed up the conditions very well that night, in the final question he was asked at the US Inquiry, in 1912, which was also referred to in the British Inquiry:
- Did you tell the American Court of Enquiry that the light that night was very extraordinary; the conditions were very deceiving?
– I told them it was a very strange night; it was hard to define where the sky ended and the water commenced. There was what you call a soft horizon. I was sometimes mistaking the stars low down on the horizon for steamer’s lights.
STL285. (Senator Smith) From the log which you hold in your hand, and from your own knowledge, is there anything you can say further which will assist the committee in its inquiry as to the causes of this disaster?
– No, sir, there is nothing; only that it was a very deceiving night. That is all I can say about that. I only saw that ice a mile and a half off.
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.