When the RMS Titanic fell on the night of April 14-15, 1912, people on both sides of the Atlantic were frantically awaiting more news. Newspapers gathered what little information they could get from wireless telegraph messages sent by the Titanic and other ships at sea, often relying on speculation to fill in the gaps. More than one major newspaper assured readers that all of the passengers had been rescued and the injured liner was slowly heading for Nova Scotia. It wasn’t until the Carpathia rescue vessel arrived in New York City on April 18 that fuller details began to emerge. Even then, rumors were rampant.
Fortunately, for the sake of history, government officials from the United States and Great Britain acted aggressively to find out what had happened and why. Their investigations, which began on April 19 and May 2 respectively, highlighted much of what the world now knows about the disaster – that the ship was traveling too fast for the freezing conditions, that its design made it more vulnerable to shipwreck than anyone thought. , that it was carrying too few lifeboats for the people on board and much more.
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US senator starts probe
Senator William Alden Smith (R-Mich.), Lawyer by training, led the US Senate investigation. He was quick to assemble key witnesses, in part for fear that they would leave the United States and return to England before they could be questioned. Smith and his entourage met the Carpathia at its New York wharf to serve summons on the surviving members of the Titanic crew, the Captain of the Carpathia, and J. Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line and survivor of the wreck.
The investigation began the next morning at a New York City hotel before moving to Washington, DC a few days later.
Smith would call 82 witnesses in all, including four Titanic officers, 34 crew and 21 passengers. Their testimonies testified to the reckless speed of the ship, the apparent indifference of the captain to iceberg warnings sent by other ships, the poor preparation of the crew in handling the lifeboats and, most damning , from a mysterious nearby ship that refused to come to the aid of the Titanic despite seeing its distress flares. Smith pointed the blame on the cargo ship SS Californian and her captain, Stanley Lord, whom he also subpoenaed and treated to a vigorous grill.
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Smith’s subcommittee report released on May 28 has been praised for its details and remains a vital document for Titanic historians to this day. His behavior, however, was another matter. A London newspaper accused him of “scrambling, intimidating and harassing” witnesses – especially Ismay, who, by running away, had become a bad guy in the American press. Newspapers around the world have denounced Smith’s lack of nautical knowledge and ridiculed many of his questions to the crew of the Titanic, the most famous: “Do you know what an iceberg is made of?” (To which Titanic’s fifth officer Harold G. Lowe replied, “Ice, I guess, sir.”).
But The New York Times, who did his share of mocking Smith, admitted that, for all his faults, “he brought out what we all wanted to know and had a right to know about the loss of the great ship” and “allowed us all to to form a clear idea of the responsibility, direct and indirect, for this loss. ”
Smith’s report may also have served another purpose. As one American magazine noted, the testimony Smith recorded made it impossible for the British investigation to simply whitewash the disaster, as many feared.
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British lawyer takes over
The second major investigation, which began about two weeks after the sinking, was carried out on behalf of the British Board of Trade – a body Smith had sharply criticized, saying its “lax regulation and hasty inspection” was a major cause of the disaster. .
Lord Mersey, otherwise known as John Charles Bigham, an experienced lawyer in shipping cases, was chosen to head the court of inquiry.
“What surprised many observers, but not those who knew Lord Mersey well, was the surprising objectivity the tribunal was to display over the next five weeks,” writes Titanic historian Daniel Allen Butler in his 2009 book on the disaster and its consequences. , The other side of the night. Even the Board of Trade, Butler adds, “would not escape Mersey’s keen eye or sharp tongue.”
Mersey also took advantage of the evidence gathered by William Alden Smith’s subcommittee. When his personal papers relating to the Titanic – including his private notes on the investigation, which will be explored on the HISTORY show “History’s Greatest Mysteries” – their content included two copies of the US report.
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The Mersey Court of Inquiry called 97 witnesses and released their report at the end of July. While covering roughly the same topic as the US report, “UK investigators paid much less attention to the human facets of the disaster and focused more exclusively on nautical and navigation issues,” Wyn writes. Craig Wade in his 2012 book, The Titanic: catastrophe of the century. “The way the Titanic was damaged and then flooded has been described in great detail.”
The UK report disappointed some observers, who expected the Titanic’s captain, EJ Smith, to be more severely criticized for not reducing his speed. This absolved him of negligence, but admitted that he had made a “very serious mistake”. J. Bruce Ismay also got away with it, with the report concluding that “if he hadn’t jumped [the lifeboat], he would simply have added one more life, namely his own, to the number of people lost.
Captain Stanley Lord was not so lucky. If anything, Mersey gave him a more in-depth job than Smith. In the final report, he concluded that: “When she saw the rockets for the first time, the Californian could have crossed the ice to open water without any serious risk and thus come to the aid of the Titanic. If she had, she could have saved many if not all of the lives lost. ”
READ MORE: What was the captain of the Titanic doing as the ship sank?
(More recent investigations, based on the location of the wreckage of the Titanic, discovered in 1985, have concluded that the Californian was too far away to have saved many lives, if any. Some historians still blame Lord for not having taken no action to aid a ship in distress, while defenders contend it was blameless.)
Perhaps the main contribution of the British survey was its list of 24 recommendations for making sea travel safer. While the US report had made similar recommendations, powerful UK shipping companies seemed more likely to take them seriously, coming from their own government.
Recommendations included the provision of a sufficient number of lifeboats; adequate training of crew members on how to handle them; greater government authority over the design of ships and their watertight compartments; the installation of wireless telegraphs on all ships; and the hiring of a sufficient number of operators to staff them 24 hours a day. Many of these recommendations were incorporated into international maritime law in 1914.
As for the two very different men who had carried out the investigations of their country, Smith and Mersey both moved on to other projects. But for Mersey, the Titanic investigation proved to be invaluable preparation. In 1915, he will lead the investigation into another maritime disaster that has rivaled the world: the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.
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