Standing Still, Watching a Tragedy: The Californian

The Night Titanic sank, another ship was close by. The S.S Californian

As Titanic’s lights sunk lower and lower into the icy blackness of the North Atlantic, a ship, less than 30 kilometers nearby, hovered in the distance. Surrounded by icebergs, the crew of the passenger-less Californian watched the still lights of Titanic disappear right in front of them. It was the Californian earlier that day that had warned Titanic of the nearing icebergs. The Californian itself had stopped for safety measures.

Titanic and the S.S Californian were close. This is a picture of Titanic leaving port.
RMS Titanic and the S.S Californian were close the night Titanic sank, leaving many to believe that Californian could have saved many who perished aboard.

Most unusual, the crew saw lights flashing and flare rockets going off- and yet did nothing. While on Titanic, young and desperate wireless officers Harold Bride and Jack Phillips stayed aboard the sinking vessel, trying in vain to reach other ships. Californian’s wireless officer himself was asleep, and the crew hadn’t tried to wake him. It became common belief that the Californian could have saved all those who died aboard the RMS Titanic. A US report read,

“Had assistance been promptly proffered, or had the wireless operator of the Californian remained a few minutes longer at his post, that ship might have had the proud distinction of rescuing the lives of the passengers and crew of the Titanic.”

About the Californian and Titanic

The story of the Californian is an interesting one. 10 years before Titanic sank, she completed her maiden voyage. While working the night Titanic hit an iceberg, she had come into contact with Titanic’s wireless officers. Titanic’s officers, tired and frustrated by the amount of passenger telegrams to send out, acted bitterly against Californian’s wireless officer.

The Californian ship
A photo of the S.S Californian

“Shut up! Shut up! I am working Cape Race!” sent Jack Phillips over the wireless set. Californian’s officer promptly signed off. Cape Race was a point in Newfoundland that received messages from ships. Titanic’s impressive wireless system amazed passengers. The wealthy who could send out messages to their friends and family, did so. As well as their family, they sent instructions to their personal chauffeurs and servants awaiting them in New York. Naturally, the work was tiring for Titanic’s young officers. Another ice warning wasn’t exactly a worry for them more than it was a nuisance.

When Californian watched Titanic fire rockets into the air, its captain, Stanley Lord had awaken twice. When Lord saw the rockets shoot up, he thought a ship nearby fired company rockets; a method used for ships to identify one another of being of the same line.

Californian, Answering the Wireless Call

The next morning, when the crew had Californian’s wireless set opened, the messages came through. Heading off to the wreckage site to observe, they arrived on the scene to only find bodies.

The ship that did respond to the Titanic was the Carpathia. Her captain, Arthur Rostron, became hailed as a hero. He deserved the praise, but the same people who lifted up Rostron painted Lord as the villain in the Titanic story. For many, many decades, Lord became a vision of evil. His crew didn’t respond to the flares, they watched the ship sink but did not react. It is believed that if they did, another 200 could have been saved. The Californian was smaller than Titanic, and not all 2,201 people aboard Titanic could have been rescued, but is general belief that Californian could have saved at least 100 more.

Lord wanted to clear his name. He didn’t feel like the criminal that the media was making him out to be. He fought this until his death in 1962.

And although Lord isn’t completely free of blame, there are circumstances that made it difficult to say whether or not he could have really helped. For one, he constantly mistook the lights of Titanic for stars. When Titanic tried to reach them through morse lamp, those on Californian thought they saw a mast light. Furthermore, Californian rested in a field of ice. It would be difficult to cross those 17 something miles to Titanic without the proper safety measures taken.

The World Blames Lord

Although they never arrested Lord, for the rest of his life, the world considered him a coward. The Californian herself sunk in World War 1 and then never found again.

The world judged Lord severely, and considered him the cause of loss of life that night. In an interview in 1961, he explained what it was like watching the Titanic perish before him.

Then I suppose a little later on, we didn’t know the times back then, we weren’t suspecting any Titanic being sunk, but I went on the bridge, I went to the port wing of the bridge, the third officer was there, and we – I don’t know if either he or I, I think I did draw his attention to a small light approaching on the port quarter. And he saw it of course, and we looked for a while, and I said, ‘well there’s nothing in sight that I know of, only the Titanic.’ He said,

‘Well that looks like a passenger ship.’ I said, ‘to me it doesn’t look like any passenger ship. There’s not enough lights, and there’s not speed enough on her.’ So anyhow I said I would go down and ask wireless. Went down, got hold of wireless, asked him what he had, he said, ‘I’ve only got the Titanic.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘There’s a ship out here, and he came out of the door of his room, with the ’phones on his head, and I said, ‘There’s the only ship going,’ and he said, ‘That’s not any Titanic ship, she’s not lights and not going fast enough. Those were his very words.  And eventually, to take his job, the third officer came on deck and I had a yarn with him. I told him I would be around. The third officer was on deck. I met the second officer, came out. He er… I spoke to him. He went on the bridge to relieve the third officer. I went up and had a yarn with him. Came down and had a talk with the engineers, some of them. And turned about, sat down in the chart room.

And the third officer – second officer – whistled down to say this steamer that was in sight was, er, showing signals. I said, ‘What are they? Company signals?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Well,’

I said, ‘Just Morse her and find out. And he did Morse her, because I heard him, the thing, just over my head. You could hear him tapping. And then, nothing happened then for a little while, and probably I dozed off, and the wire – er, Gibson came down to say that the ship had steamed away. And altered her bearings from South by West – wait ‘til I get that – South by West to Southwest by West. That is what? Four points, isn’t it?

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