Dubbed “unsinkable” before she even set sail, the White Star Line’s R.M.S. Titanic was heralded as the greatest ship of its time, exceeding standards of the day in safety and luxury. The Titanic’s legacy reflects the tragic cost of human error. After hitting an iceberg on April 14, 1912, the “greatest ship ever built” sank in the chilly northern Atlantic, in under three hours. More than 1,500 passengers lost their lives.
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The Mystery Ship
Surrounding the sinking of the Titanic are many “what ifs.” Probably the greatest question lies in the mystery of a third ship or the presence of the ship Californian. The night the Titanic sank, numerous survivors testified that a ship was close enough for Captain Smith to order passengers into lifeboats to row to the ship, drop off survivors, and return for more. Many believed at the time of the sinking that the mystery ship was the Californian, captained by Stanley Lord. For years controversy surrounded Captain Lord and the Californian’s actions on the night of April 14, 1912. Most questionably, the ship turned off its wireless machine and therefore never received the distress signal from the Titanic.
Evidence regarding the Californian and the mystery ship remains unresolved. First, the Californian did send an ice warning that night, and Titanic ignored the wireless message. Shortly before 11:00 pm, the Californian wireless operator Cyril Evans wired the Titanic the message, “Held up for the night, surrounded by ice.” In response, the Titanic’s wireless operator Jack Phillips wired, “shut up, shut up, I’m busy.” Icebergs sat in the back of everyone’s mind that night, and Phillips, bogged down with social wires from passengers, did not have time to be bothered with warnings from the Californian. Second, historians wonder if the rockets seen from crew members on the Californian were the distress flares from the Titanic. Two facts prove that the rockets came from a third ship sailing on the Atlantic that night: first, the ship seen from the Californian and the Titanic was moving while they were both stationary; second, witnesses on the Californian saw white rockets but did not hear them, implying they came from a far distance. The most convincing evidence that the Californian was not the ship seen from Titanic is that the next morning, it took the Californian two hours to reach the Carpathia, the ship rescuing the Titanic survivors. Also, the Californian had anchored seventeen to twenty miles away from the position of the Titanic wreck. Many blamed the Californian for the extraordinary loss of life on the Titanic, but blame for the sinking of the Titanic can be fixed on the mistakes of men, not Stanley Lord. Whether or not the mystery ship could have saved the Titanic remains unresolved. No matter how many “what ifs” exist, no ship came close enough to aid the sinking liner that night.