Copyright 1998 Chris Daino.
Born in 1869, Arthur Roston went to sea at 13. He spent 10 years in sail, joined the Cunard Line, where for the next 17 years, he rose steadily up the company ladder. He had served as Chief Officer aboard the Lusitania. When Titanic's call for help came in 1912, it was his second year as a Cunard skipper and only his third month on the 13,564 ton Carpathia having taken command that January. Titanic was to be his first real test.
At 43, he was an experienced, respected shipmaster, known for quick decisions and for his ability to transmit his own boundless energy into those serving under him. Not surprisingly, his Cunard shipmates nicknamed him "The Electric Spark".
Rostron's most notable quality was piety. Rostron did not smoke or drink, never used profanity, and frequently turned to prayer. When he did so, he would lift his uniform cap slightly, and his lips would move in silent supplication.
On the night of April 14th, the Carpathia was three days out of New York on a Mediterranian cruise, and so far there had been little occasion for either prayers or quick decisions. The Carpathia left the same day that the Titanic had left Queenstown. She carried 120 first class and 50 second class passengers, chiefly American tourists, as well as 565 third class passengers, immigrants to the United States, who were returning to their native lands on a visit. Her extensive passenger acommodation - providentially, as it turned out - was nearly half-empty.
It was some time after three bells on the first watch on Sunday, the 14th, that Captain Rostron came up on the bridge and heard from his Second Officer, James Bisset, the O.O.W, of the latest ice reports, including the message from the Mesaba. He was plainly impressed by these warnings. Summoning the radio operator, H.T. Cottam, he asked him what ships were within range. Cottam mentioned the White Star Line's new vessel.
"I suppose the Titanic will have to slow down," said Rostron, "or steer a more southerly couse than her usual track. She'll be late in New York. It's hard luck on her maiden voyage. Any other ships near?" Cottam replied that in addition to the Mesaba, Baltic and Carona which he had heard earlier in the day, he had identified five others, the Frankfurt, Mount Temple, Virginian, Birma, and very faint and far away - Olympic.
Rostron said thank you and turned in for the night. Unknown to him or the 750 passengers sleeping peacefully in their cabins, a pleasant springtime crusie to the Mediterranean was abruptly turning into a desparate rescue mission.
Three hours later, Cottam was preparing to turn in. During his watch he had overheard the Titanic 's wireless operator Phillip's snub to Evans of the California. He began to undress and knelt down to unlace his boots. It was now past midnight. For a while he had slipped off the headphones, thereby mising the Titanic's original CQD. Then he put them on again. It occured to him to call up MGY (Titanic's call letters). He switched on his transmitter and tapped out the message, receiving in reply a curt K ("go ahead") After asking if there were any messages from Cape Cod, he got a swift response. Cottam's heart nearly missed a beat as the dread CQD came out of the night.
In trousers and shirt, Cottam raced up on the bridge and breathlessly informed the Officer of the Watch, FIrst Officer Dean. They both raced down the ladder, through the chartroom and burst into the Captain's cabin. Rostron - a stickler for discipline even when half-asleep - wondered what the ship was coming to, with people dashing in this way. They were meant to knock, but before he could reprimand them, Dean blurted the news. Rostron bolted out of bed. It was 12:35 A.M.
Rostron's reaction was completely in character. He immediately ordered the Carpathia turned around then asked Cottam if he was absolutely sure. Nine out of ten captains would have done it the other way around. He then told Cottam to "Tell him we are coming along as fast as we can."
The Titanic sent a message to Carpathia asking how long she would be in arriving. "We are coming as quickly as possible", Carpathia telegraphed to MGY "and expect to be there within four hours." "TU OM (Thank you, old man") was the reply.
Having ascertained the Titanic's position from Cottam, Rostron hurried off to the chart. He glanced down the meridians and picked off the degrees and minutes and then measured off the latitude. He calculated his present position and worked out the course. Returning to the Bridge, he addressed the helmsman: "North 52 West". He later would testify that he did all this while "I was dressing".
As he figured and scribbled, he saw the boatswain's mate pass by, leading a party to scrub down the decks. Rostron told him to forget the decks and prepare the boats for lowering. The mate gaped. Rostron reassured him, "It's all right; we're going to another vessel in distress."
By this time the other officers, including the Chief Engineer, had assembled on the bridge. Beckoning them all into the chartroom, the Captain quickly outlined the situation. He sent for First Officer Dean and told him to knock off all routine work, organize the ship for rescue operations. All seamen were to be on deck to keep sharp look-out and to swing out the boats; eletric clusters to be rigged at each gangway and over the side.
With another barrage of orders, he told Chief Steward Harry Hughes, call out every man.. prepare coffee for all hands.. have soup, coffee, tea, brandy and whisky ready for survivors.. pile blankets at every gangway.. convert smoking rooms, lounge, and library into dormitories for the rescued.. group all the Carpathia's steerage passengers together, use the space saved for the Titanic's steerage. He asked the Purser, Assitant Purser and chief steward to receive the passengers at different gangways, assisting the Titanic passengers to the dining rooms, etc. A purser was to be stationed at each gangway to get Christian and surnames of all survivors as soon as possible to send by wireless. He ordered all officer's cabins to be given up for survivors.
He called the ship's surgeon, Dr. McGhee, and told him to collect all the restoratives and stimulants on the ship.. set up first aid stations in each dining saloon.. put the Hungarian doctor in charge of Third Class, the Italian docotr in second. McGhee himself would be in first.
All gangway doors were to be opened., bosun's chairs slung out at each gangway, and pilot ladders dropped over-side. Portable lights and nets were to be drapped along the side of the ship to facilitate boarding. Oil was to be got ready to quiet the sea if necessary. He warned them that they might have to pick up more than two thousand people.
As he gave orders, Rostron urged them all to keep quiet. The job ahead was tough enough without having the Carpathia's passengers underfoot. They longer they slept, the better. As an extra precaution stewards were stationed in every corridor. They were to tell any prowling pasengers that the Carpathia wasn't in trouble, and urge them to go back to their cabins.
Then he sent an inspector, the master-at-arms and a special detail of stewards to keep the steerage passengers under control. After all, no one knew how they'd react to being shuffled around.
Rostron later said "To all I strictly enjoined the necessity for order, discipline, and quietness and to avoid all confusion."
Rostron sent for Chief Engineer Johnstone, told him to pour it on. Call out the off-duty watch ... cut off the heat and hot water...pile every ounce of steam into the boilers. Down in the engine rooms it seemed as if everyone had found a shovel and was pouring on the coal. The extra watch tumbled out of their bunks and raced to lend a hand. Most didn't even wait to dress. Faster and faster the old ship knifed ahead.
Presently, the decks began to throb as the revolutions of the engines steadily increased; and within a few minutes of receiving the call for assistance, the Carpathia, a 14-knot ship, was shearing through the water at over 17 knots - a speed which she kept up for well over three hours. No one dreamed the Carpathia could drive so hard.
Roston called the Second Officer, James Bisset, over to the starboard wing of the bridge saying: "Station yourself here, Mister, and keep a special lookout for lights or flares - and for ice! I will remain on the bridge. In this smooth sea it's no use looking for white surf around the base of the bergs, but you will look for the reflection of starshine in the ice pinnacles. We'll be into the icefield at 3AM or perhaps earlier. Extra lookouts will be posted on the bows and in the crow's nest, and on the port wing of the bridge, but I count on you, with your good eyesight, and with God's help, to sight anything in time for us to clear it. Give that all your attention!". Later Bisset remembered how his face stung as the frigid night air rushed past him. He also remembered glancing over at the bridge where the captain standing alone, bowed his head for a moment of prayer.
By 2:35 AM, Dr. McGhee climbed the ladder to the bridge, told Rostron that everything was ready below.
At about 2:45PM, when, according to Rostron's reckoning, they must be approaching the ice-region, a green flare was seen in the distance, about one point on the port bow. Although his last message from the Titanic had said that the "Engine room was flooded", Roston had hopes that the Titanic was still afloat. At about the same time young Bisset, out on the starboard wing, signaled an iceberg glimmering in the starlight three quarters of a mile ahead on the port bow. He sang out to the Captain, who was standing besides the helmsman. Rostron immediately altered course to starboard and reduced to half speed. He went out on the port wing, and then, seeing that they had easily cleared the iceberg and no more ice was in sight, brought the Carpathia back on her former course and moved the handle of the engine room telegraph once more to Full Speed Ahead.
A few minutes later they sighted another berg, and then another, and then, at intervals, a whole sucession of bergs. Bisset had all his senses strung up to the highest pitch of intensity. Roston handed him the job due to his exceptionally keen eyesight. There were at least a dozen other men stationed in various parts of the ship to keep a lookout. On the port wing, in the bows and up in the crow's nest. The night was clear, but there were patchs of surface haze, but always the iceberg was seen in time, and avoided. For half an hour more the Carpathia, steaming at forced full speed, zigzagged among the islands of ice, avoiding each in turn with sufficient clearance. Reducing speed was out of the question; time was everything. None knew better than the Master of the Carpathia that the lives of his seven hundred passengers and crew, as well as those of the survivors of the Titanic, depended upon the keep eyesight, vigilance, and seamanshiop of those on the Bridge and on look-out. He was taking "a calculated risk".
The big steamer then began to fire rockets - one every fifteen minutes, with Cunard Roman candles in between. He fired rockets to reassure the Titanic's people that help was on the way.
They were now very near the position given in the distress call - Lat 41 46 N. Long 50 14 W. Rostron's heart was sinking. By 3:35AM there was still no sign of her. He decided that the green flare couldn't have been so high after all. It was just the sparkling-clear night that let him see it from so far off. At 3:50 he put the engines on "stand by" - they were almost at the spot. At 4AM, he stopped. The Carpathia was there. It was the first light of day, at 8 bells.
Just then another green flare blazed up. It was directly ahead, low in the water. The flickering light showed the outline of a lifeboat perhaps 300 feet away. She was rising and falling in the ocean swell. It was hardly moving as if the oars were exhasuted. Rostron started up the engines, began to maneuver the Carpathia to starboard so as to pick up the lifeboat on his port side, which was leeward. An instant later he spotted a huge iceberg directly ahead and had to swing the other way to keep from hitting it.
The lifeboat was now to windward, and as he edged toward it, a breeze sprang up and the sea grew choppy. A voice from the dark hailed him. the officer on board said, "We have only one seaman and can't work very well." "All right," Rostron shouted back, and he gently nudged the Carpathia closer, until the voice called again, "Stop your engines".
Owing to an iceberg which lay directly ahead it was impossible for Rostron to maneuver his ship so as to give them a lee and he said to Bisset "Go overside with two quartermasters, and board her as she comes alongside. Fend her off so she doesn't bump and be careful that she doesn't capsize." Ten minutes later the lifeboat lay under the Carpathia's starbard side and the work of getting the 25 occupants aboard began. The first to be rescured was lifeboat #2 with Fourth Officer Boxhall in command.
Up on the Bridge Rostron knew without asking - yet he felt he had to go through with the formalities. He sent for Boxhall and as the Fourth Officer, still suffering from exposure to the cold and from shock, stood shivering before him, he put it to him: "The Titanic has gone down?" "Yes" Boxhall's voice broke as he said it - "she went down at about 2:30." Boxhall began explaining in detail what had happened when Rostron interrupted "Were many people left on board when she sank?" "Hundreds & hundreds! Perhaps - a thousand! Perhaps more!" Boxhall cried with emotion. "My God, Sir, They've gone down with her. They couldn't live in this icy cold water." After a few moments Rostron finally replied, "Thank you, mister, go below and get some coffee, and try to get warm."
The Carpathia's passengers lined the rails as boatload after boatland of survivors came on board. The boats had been scattered over a four-mile area. The passenger's stood in solemn silence looking down on the scene below. The rescued were escorted to the dining saloons where hot coffee, soup and sandwiches were awaiting them. One after the other the Titanic's survivors were assisted on board.
Looking back a good many years afterwards, Captain Rostron recalls that the outstanding feature of the scene as the survivors came on board was the extraordinary silence. There was an almost total lack of excitement. It is true that in the saloon one of the rescued women burst into hysterical, crying and that later others gave way to their hopeless grief. But the great majority of the survivors suffered no physical ill-effects from the experience. Captain Rostron was impressed with the orderly way in which the rescued came on board. There was no hurry, no noise. Seeing how many lifeboards were only partially filled and noting how many passengers were not well clothed, he imagined how hurriedly they must have vacated the Titanic, and felt sympathy for the fear they must have felt that the ship would go down before they could get away.
The task of maneuvering the large ship amongst the icefloes without crushing or overturning the small lifeboats was extremely difficult and taxed Captain Rostron's skills to the limit. The painstaking task fo recovering survivors took hours.
At 8:30AM, the last lifeboat was emptied.
The survivors were processed in almost assembly-line fashion. Name taken, handed to the doctor's for a medical check and down the line for brandy, coffee, breakfast, blankets and a bunk. The Carpathia's own first Class passengers gave up their cabins to those who seemed in the greatest need, and not surprisingly Mrs. Astor, Mrs. Widener and Mrs. Thayer - Roston's three most prominent guests - were assigned to his own quarters.
As it came on full daylight, it was possible to see the vast extent of the icefield which had been the subject of so many warnings. Rostron sent a junior officer to the top of the wheel-house and told to count the large icebergs. He reported that there were no less than 25 between 150-200 feet hight and that the smaller ones were too numerous to count. Later in the day, it took the Carpathia nearly four hours to steam round this great mass of ice.
Even with a sharp lookout few of these bergs had been sighted, and it seemed incredible that the ship had missed them all. Years later, Rostron told his friend, Captain Barr of the Cunarder Caronia, "When day broke, I saw the ice I had steamed through during the night, I shuddered, and could only think that some other Hand than mine was on that helm during the night."
Rostron now wondered where to take his 705 unexpected guests. Halifax was nearest, but there was ice along the way, and he thought the TItanic's passengers had seen enough. The Azores were better for the Carpathia's schedule, but he didn't have the linen or provisions to last that far. New York was best for survivors but most costly to the Cunard Line. He dropped down to the Surgeon's cabin where Dr. McGhee was examining Bruce Ismay. The man was shattered - anything Rostron wanted was all right with him. So Rostron decided on New York.
Then the Olympic broke in and suggested - Why not transfer the Titanic's survivors to her? Rostron thought this was an appalling idea - he couldn't see subjecting these people to another transfer at sea. Besides, the Olympic was the Titanic's sister ship and the sight alone would be like a hideous ghost. To be on the safe side, he trotted back to Dr. McGhee's cabin, checked again with Ismay. The White Star President shuddered at the thought. So New York it was, and the sooner the better.
Rostron sent out a wireless message to the Californian who had now steamed over to their postition "I am taking the survivors to New York. Please stay in the vicinity and pick up any bodies." But before heading back, Rostron couldn't resist one last look around. He was a thorough man; he didn't want to overlook the smallest chance. Let the Californian go through the motions, but if there was any real hope of picking anybody else up, Rostron wanted the Carpathia to do it.
As he cruised, it occurred to him that a brief service might be appropriate. He dropped down and asked if Ismay had any objection. It was always the same - anything Rostron wanted was all right with him.
So Rostron sent for the Reverand Father Anderson, an Episcopal clergyman aboard, and the people from the Titanic and Carpathia assembled together in the main lounge. There they gave thanks for the living and paid their respects to the lost.
While they murmured their prayers, the Carpathia steamed slowly over Titanic's grave. There were few traces of the great ship - patches of reddish-yellow cork... some steamer chairs ... several white pilasters... cushions....rugs...lifebelts... the abandoned boats..just one body.
At 8:50 Rostron was satisfied. There couldn't possibly be another human being alive. He rang "full speed ahead" and turned his ship for New York.
On board the Carpathia, J. Bruce Ismay was lodged in the doctor's cabin, Captain Rostron came down to see him and said, "Don't you think, sir, you had better send a message to New York, telling them about the accident?" Ismay agreed and wrote "Deeply regret advise you Titanic sank this morning after collision iceberg, resulting in serious loss of life. Full particulars later." Turning to the Captain he said "Captain do you think that is all I can tell them?" Rostron answered "Yes" and returned to the deck.
During the Carpathia's return to New York, there were frantic inquiries sent out from American shore stations demanding detailed information of the disaster. From President Taft downward, some of the wealthiest and most influential men in the United States were endeavouring to get news of their relatives and friends who had been on board the Titanic. The messages were brought up to Rostron on the bridge. But the Master, who already had as much as he could do, paid little attention to them.
In a recently found scrapbook belonging to Dr. Frank H. Blackmarr, a Chicago physician who was a passenger on the Carpathia that day, there is a four page letter from Captain Rostron to the survivors explaining why they were not going to send any Marconigrams to shore (for fear of) adding to the confusion and giving false hope and false information. He says "I have sent one telegram via UPI saying we are on our way with Titanic survivors." The directive goes on to tell surviors who are trying to wire news of their deliverance to families ashore. "Thats it, that is it, There is a news freeze."
Nobody could get any information out of Carpathia - Rostron was saving his wireless for offical traffic and private messages from the survivors.
The Carpathia continued obdurate to the end; on the night of April the 18th, Thursday, as she entered New York Harbour the city was frantic with anxiety. As she steamed by the Statue of Liberty, 10,000 watched form the Battery. As she edged for toward Pier 54, 30,000 more stood in the waterfront rain. A she paused off Ambrose to pick up a pilot, the Carpathia was met by a swarm of tugs, ferries, yachts, steam launchs and various other vessels. Some carried huge placards bearing the names of missing friends or relatives. She was surrounded by about fifty boats from whose decks reporters shouted inquiries through megaphones to her unresponsive bridge. Rostron had no truck with newman. The fleet was led by a large tug containing the mayor and the official welcoming party.
When the Carpathia was first sighted, the mayor's tug let out a whistle blast, quickly followed by the toots, bells, and sirens of every other boat in the harbor. The sound cascaded across the bay and was met by a cry that rippled through the crowd gathered at the pier and along the Battery. Rostron was later to say that at this time, coming into the harbor "we got some idea of the suspense and excitement in the world..... As we were going up Ambrose Channel, the weather changed completely, and a more dramatic ending to a tragic occurence it would be hard to conceive. It began to blow hard, rain came down in torrents, and, to complete the finale, we had continuous vivid lightning and heavy rolling thunder.... What with the wind and rain, a pitchdark night, lightning and thunder, and the photographers taking flashlight pictures of the ship, and the explosion of the lights, it was a scene never to be effaced from one's memory."
"Are you going to anchor for the night?" Captain Roston was asked by megaphone as his boat approached Ambrose Light. It was then raining heavily. "No" came the reply. "I am going into port. Ther are sick people on board."
Captain Rostron had no intention of allowing the rescued passengers to be harassed by a horde of ruthless pressmen lusting for lurid details. One reporter did succeed in scrambling on board while the pilot was coming on board; but he was sequestered and held a close prisoner on the bridge until the liner docked. The Captain informed him that under no conditions could he interview survivors. The Captain then left the newsman on the Bridge on his own honor. "I must say he was a gentleman", Roston later remarked.
At 8:37PM, she reached the White Star pier and began unloading Titanic's lifeboats. They were rowed off, where souvenir hunters picked them clean during the night.
As the Carpathia with her escort of tugs came slowly alongside the Cunard pier, every press photographer on the quayside let off his flashlamp. Amid on explosion of magnesium 'bombs' the gangways were pushed across and the disembarkation began.
At 9:35 PM, the first surviivors tumbled off.
Captain Rostron was asked to testify before the Senate Committee headed by Senator William Alden Smith. Rostron was described as tall, trim, and balding, appeared to be in his mid-forties; he had a wide mouth and a disciplined yet gentle bearing.
After telling about the rescue, Rostron suddenly paused, his eyes seeming to fix on a distant scene. "I want to go back again, a little bit," he said slowly, "At eight thirty all the people were on board. I asked the purser, and told him that I wanted to hold a service - " Rostron's eyes filled with tears and his voice broke with emotion. "A short prayer of thanksgiving for those rescued," he sobbed, "and a short burial service for those who were lost." The sight of this gallant man's tears humbled everyone in the East Room. Many began weeping, including Senator Smith, who leaned across the table closer to the captain. "I then got an Episcopal clergyman," Rostron continued, "one of our passengers, and asked him if he would do this for me, which he did willingly. While they were holding the service, I was on the Bridge, of course, and I maneuvered around the scene of the wreakage. We saw nothing except one body." "Floating - " Smith began hoarsely. "Floating." " - with a life preserver on?" "With a life preserver on," Rostron nodded. "That is the only body I saw. Senator Smith than asked if it was a male or a female. Rostron replied "Male. It appeared to me to be one of the crew. He was only about 100 yards from the ship. We could see him quite distinctly, and saw that he was absolutely dead. He was lying on this side like this (indicating) and his head was awash. Of course he couldn't possibly have been alive and remain in that position. I did not take him aboard. For one reason, the Titanic's passengers were knocking about the deck and I did not want to cause any unnecessary excitement or any more hysteria among them, so I steamed past, trying to get them not to see it. From the boats we took three dead men who had died of exposure..." Another man was brought up - I think he was one of the crew - who died that morning about ten o'clock, I think. He, with the other three, were buried at four in the afternoon."
Captain Rostron's account of those rescued varied considerably from the visions of lunancy, suicide, and hysteria that the American press had conjured. He also had vastly different experience for the committee and spectators than had been Ismay's. According to Rostron, the boat on which Ismay made his escape was "hardly collapsible. It is a flat raft boat, with collapsible canvas sides, about two feet deep." Rostron told the committee it could hold sixty to seventy five comfortably, Ismay had said forty-five.
Smith also got around to other questions bearing on Ismay's credibility. Rostron testified he knew Captain Smith and had met him three times in fifteen years. He testified that the Captain is "In absolute control legal and otherwise. No one can interfere." Pressed further, Rostron qualified his remark. "By law, the captain of the vessel has absolute control, but suppose we get orders from the owners of the vessel to do a certain thing, and we don't carry it out. The only thing is then that we are liable to dismissal."
Finally, he asked Rostron if the captain's absolute authority provided the legal basis for Rostron's decision to go so far off his course and cut full speed through ice to rescue the Titanic's survivors. Rostron nodded. "I can confess this much, that if I had known at the time there was so much ice about, I should not; but I was right in it then. I could see the ice. I knew I was perfectly clear. There is one other consideration. Although I was running the risk with my own ship and my passengers, I also had to consider what I was going for." "To save the lives of others?" Smith suggested. "Yes, I had to consider the lives of the others." "You were prompted by your interest in humanity?" "Absolutely." "And you took the chance?" "It was hardly a chance. Of course it was a chance, but at the same time I knew quite what I was doing. I considered that I was perfectly free, and that I was doing perfectly right in what I did." "I suppose no criticism has been passed upon you for it," Smith said quietly. "No". The senator paused; his lips parted, but nothing came out. Quite unexpectedly his eyes filled with tears which he mopped with a handkerchief. "In fact," Smith choked, "I think I may say for my associates that your conduct deserves the highest praise." (According to his own account of this moment, Smith "could hardly speak the words.") Rostron's eyes were also bedewed. "I thank you, sir," the captain said softly. "And we are very grateful to you, Captain, for coming here."
An important mention was Rostron's effect on the investigation committee. In the words of the captain's own second officer, who was present at the hearing, Rostron's testimony had been "seamanlike and forthright." Summing up his own impressions to reporters, Senator Smith called Rostron "not only an efficient seaman, but one of nature's noblemen." Unfortunately for a number of future witnesses, Rostron's superb seamanship would provide the Senator with a standard against which every interrogated mariner would be measured.
Contributing L/F writer: Chris Daino © 1998