The RMS Carpathia had reached what for ships was middle age in 1912, having been in service since 1903.
On the night of 14-15 April, she was eastbound from New York, having sailed on 11 April with around 700 on board and bound for Fiume in the Mediterranean Sea. She was under the command of Captain Arthur H. Rostron, in command since January of that year.
When wireless operator Harold Cottam chanced upon the Titanic’s CQD while undoing his boots and preparing to turn in, he rushed the message to Rostron, who immediately swung the ship and her crew into action. Carpathia put on extra steam as she turned northwest and steered for Titanic’s reported position. As she went, her crew sped through a list of preparations Rostron had dictated on the spot that covered everything from steam in the winches for taking on cargo to which doctors would service which classes of survivors.
Reaching the first of Titanic’s lifeboats in around three and a half hours, Carpathia set about recovering 13 of Titanic’s boats and 712 survivors from the more than 2,200 that had been aboard. Having done all that could be done, Rostron turned his ship toward New York and delivered his sad and unexpected charges to their destination on 18 April.
Carpathia then returned to her routine of Mediterranean sailings until later serving in World War I as a troopship. Ironically, Carpathia herself would be lost to a torpedo in July of 1918.
Once it became clear that not only had Titanic been lost, but also that nearly 1,500 passengers and crew had met their deaths in the icy North Atlantic, the White Star Line wasted little time in preparing to recover the bodies that now dotted the Atlantic waves. While none of the ships that rendezvoused with Carpathia at the site of the sinking found or recovered bodies, reports steadily came in of bodies, some singly and others in groups, floating in the shipping lanes.
Four ships, led by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett, set out from Halifax to locate and recover as many bodies as they could. Loaded with pine coffins, ice, and embalming supplies, these ships recovered 328 bodies. Five more would be recovered by other passing ships.
The recovery of the bodies led to the creation of the Barnstead Method, a detailed system for cataloging and identifying bodies and belongings and ensuring that they stayed together and were returned to the families of the lost.
While some victims were buried in family plots, 150 of those who perished were buried in Halifax where their graves are still tended and can be visited today.
While the main recovery operation took place immediately after the sinking, bodies turned up for over a month after Titanic sank. The last body recovered came in late May of 1912 when the sealer Algerine brought aboard the body of steward James McGrady, who was later buried in Halifax.
Shock on both sides of the Atlantic over the worst maritime disaster to that point in history was immediate. That shock quickly gave way to a mixture of outrage and the need to understand how a ship that was lauded by trade publications as ‘practically unsinkable’ and that was considered the last word in maritime technology could have sunk on her maiden voyage after colliding at a glancing blow with an iceberg.
In the United States, Senator William Alden Smith of Michigan moved quickly to win approval for and piece together a full inquiry into the loss of the American-owned, British-flagged liner. Unwilling to allow their upstart cousins to have the last word, England also prepared to conduct its own investigation.
America, by virtue of the survivors landing there and Smith’s quick work, got the first crack, with the questioning opening in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on 19 April. It would run for 18 days and hear testimony from more than 80 witnesses. Their report was read in the Senate by Smith on
28 May 1912.
The British, waiting somewhat impatiently, would go second, opening their Wreck Commission on 2 May and carrying on until early July. The British enquiry, headed by Lord Mersey, would hear from around 100 witnesses, ask more than 25,000 questions, and publish their report on 30 July.
Both investigations arrived at similar conclusions. Both found fault with Captain Stanley Lord and his ship, the Californian, who would be created as the quintessential villains in the story. Both also managed to be respectful of Titanic’s dead captain, Edward J. Smith, finding that, while he showed ‘indifference to danger’ he had acted in ways consistent with the typical operation of steamers on the North Atlantic run up to that time.
Most significant of all, both investigations determined that this status quo which had led the able Smith to his death would now need to change.
Titanic’s lost exposed several dangerous practices and outdated regulations for steamships plying the North Atlantic. While the race to be fastest, largest, and most luxurious was far from over, that race would now be run according to some new rules.
First and most obviously, all ships would now carry enough lifeboats for every man, woman, and child aboard. While the idea that more boats on Titanic would’ve saved more lives has been proven somewhat dubious, the appalling loss of life could most easily be ascribed to outdated Board of Trade regulations dating to 1894, when the largest ships were barely a quarter of Titanic’s gross tonnage.
While lifeboats for all was the immediate rallying cry, other changes would prove far more valuable in practice.
In response to what has become known as the ‘California Incident’, all ships on the Atlantic would now be required to maintain a round-the-clock wireless watch. In addition to this, and also stemming from evidence of the Californian’s failure to come to the aid of Titanic, rockets at sea were now to be assumed to mean distress, regardless of coloration or any other considerations. No more would there need to be talk of ‘company signals’.
Most enduringly, the loss of Titanic led to the creation of the International Ice Patrol, led by the Revenue Cutter Service (later the US Coast Guard). This patrol, still active today, seeks out, reports, and, if needed, destroys dangerous icebergs.
Titanic’s loss also led to the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, or SOLAS as it’s now known. SOLAS not only created the ice patrol, it set safety standards for ships on the ocean. These standards are still enforced and modernized today.
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