Breaking through the mist, the ship’s passengers and crew were greeted by a sight that would haunt many of their dreams for years to come. Passenger Luke Hoyt would write in a letter; “In the Providence of God it has come to Emma and myself to be of assistance to our fellow men and women in the greatest ‘Tragedy of the Seas’ and it was a tragedy. The horror of it all was appalling.”
April 15th, 1912 is a date known by most of us as the date the unsinkable Titanic sank. But while we often focus on the lives that were lost that night, not everyone who sailed on the Titanic drowned in the frigid north Atlantic waters. And the credit for that has to be given to the R.M.S. Carpathia. The Carpathia, owned by the Cunard Line, was the first vessel on the scene that fateful night.
It had been just over four hours before that wireless operator Harold Cottam had relayed to Captain Arthur Rostron the distress message he had just received from the Titanic. The message was short and filled with urgency “Come at once. We have struck an iceberg.”
The Carpathia, an intermediate sized passenger liner owned by the Cunard Line had departed New York City on the same day the Titanic had begun her voyage from Queenstown, Ireland. Rostron, like most mariners of the day, was aware that the White Star shipping line was launching their greatest ship, the Titanic, but he had no idea that their paths were destined to cross. For years Cunard and White Star had been competing to have the largest and fastest liners. The Titanic and her sister ship the Olympic had been built to take the premiere spot away from Cunard’s R.M.S. Lusitania.
Upon hearing the message, Captain Rostron immediately turned his ship to the last known position of the ill-fated liner. Once Rostron had made sure that he had done everything humanly possible he sought divine aid. The captain, a devout Christian, moved to the wing of the bridge to pray for guidance. Steaming at a speed twenty percent faster then her rated top speed through a moonless night across hazardous waters the Captain would later comment; “Someone else’s hands must have been at the helm of this ship.”
During the four hour trip the Carpathia’s crew did everything possible to prepare for the rescue of the passengers and crew from their rival’s vessel. Gangways, cargo nets and ladders were positioned over the rail; lifeboats were prepared in their davits. Spare clothing and blankets were collected, and soup and coffee were put on in the galley. But through all the preparations the Captain and Crew of the Carpathia had no idea of the magnitude of the tragedy. They fully expected to arrive and find the floundering Titanic, wounded but still alive. Instead when the Carpathia finally arrived they found nothing at all.
Arriving at the Titanic’s last known position, instead of being greeted with the sight of the crippled liner they discovered empty ocean. Passenger Hoyt wrote; “Nothing was to be seen, however, and it was supposed the Titanic had gone down with all on board, but soon appeared out of the ‘Dark of the Dawn’ first one boat and the other 18 in all.”
Within four hours, all 712 of the Titanic survivors had been brought aboard the the Carpathia. Those who were able climbed up rope ladders and nets, those who couldn’t were hauled aboard in slings. Children were placed in canvas bags and hoisted to the decks above.
With the rescue done and no more survivors to be found, Captain Rostron ordered the Carpathia’s flag lowered to half-mast and assembled a memorial service as the ship steamed over the site where the Titanic sank.
The Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, was now close enough to relieve the Carpathia of the survivors. However it was decided that those who had gone through the ordeal should not have to transfer to another four stack vessel flying the White Star flag. The Carpathia would continue the voyage the Titanic had begun, delivering the Titanic’s remaining passengers to their original destination: New York City.
And so the Titanic sank into history while the Carpathia sailed into oblivion.
John G. Langley, Chairman of the Cunard Steamship Society, a retired lawyer stated “History would remember the Titanic but would forget the story of the Carpathia.” A story he said should be remembered not as a story of a sinking but of a saving.
The Carpathia’s career ended while part of a convoy travelling from Liverpool to Boston, on July 17, 1918. Crippled by two torpedoes from a German U-boat, the crew and passengers were in the process of abandoning ship when a third torpedo ripped into her hull, killing five crew members and sending the Carpathia to the bottom.
And there she rested undisturbed, in 500 feet of water off the coast of Ireland, for over eighty years before adventure novelist Clive Cussler and NUMA (National Underwater Marine Agency) discovered her on May 27, 2000. And while the discovery of the Titanic was a world wide news spectacle the discovery of the Carpathia was greeted with the same apathy as was her life and death.
This is a reprint of an article written by Denn Guptill for “Atlantic Boating News” in 2003