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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Titanic's Final Words

On this day, 100 years ago, the HMS Titanic sank after striking an ice berg, taking with her the souls of 1,514 passengers and crew to a cold, dark Atlantic grave. The Titanic disaster has been deemed one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters in history. The ship, which was the crown jewel of White Star Line, was considered the first truly "unsinkable" boat in the world. At the time of her launch, Titanic was the largest and most luxurious ship in the world. Among some of her most popular luxuries, Titanic prided herself on offering its guests access to an on-board gymnasium, swimming pool, four libraries, a high-class restaurants and opulent cabins.

One of the most interesting of Titanic's luxuries was its high-tech, super-powered "wireless" radio transmitter, which afforded passengers (mostly upper class) the ability to send and receive Morse Code dispatches to and from the eastern United States, Great Britain and parts of Europe. The transmitter also had a practical benefit for Titanic's crew, giving them the ability to easily communicate with other ships on the Atlantic and receive up to date weather reports. Needless to say, the device was in great use on the night of Titanic's horrific tragedy. For us today (especially on this day) these Morse Code messages provide an interesting and compelling narrative of Titanic's final hours and the struggle that her passengers and crew faced as the reality of their fate became more obvious. These messages, which read almost like an early 20th century version of Twitter, are the final glimpses that historians will ever have into the last moments of life for both Titanic and her human compliment. It therefore goes without saying that these messages deserve the interest and the reverence of all who read them.

Titanic's chief radio officer was a 25-year-old man named John (Jack) Phillips. On the surface, the job of a radio operator might appear somewhat boring, since most radio traffic consisted of monitoring weather reports and other dispatches from ships at sea. Titanic, however, was quite different. Jack was also responsible for meeting the needs of passengers who wanted to communicate with friends and family. This kept Jack quite busy and engaged with some of the most prominent of Titanic's compliment. For just 12 shillings and sixpence for the first 10 words, and 9 pence per word thereafter (a substantial sum in 1912, although not for a First-Class passenger) Jack Phillips or Harold Bride (Titanic's deputy radio officer) could send a message roughly 2,000 miles away.

But none of Jack Phillips' experience could have prepared him for what he would endure on the night of April 15, 1912. At approximately 11:40 P.M., Captain Eward Smith received the first reports that Titanic had struck an ice berg on its starboard side. It took the crew an additional twenty minutes before they could assess the actual damage done to Titanic, but once the truth was discovered, Jack Phillips became the most important man on board.

The following are some of the actual surviving Morse Code transcripts between Titanic and responding vessels. They serve to illustrate just how real and tense this tragedy was for those who participated in it, and the efforts made by those (like Jack Phillips) who tried to save Titanic's human compliment. I have added my commentary and explanations of the transcripts in bold, otherwise everything else comes from the transcripts that were made 100 years ago today:

12:14- Titanic: "C.Q.D., C.Q.D., C.Q.D. This is MGY. This is MGY. This is MGY. Position 41.44 N. 50.24 W.
***"C.Q.D." was the Morse Code sign for distress that was implemented by the Marconi International Marine Communication Company. The letters stood for "Come Quick Distress" or "Come Quick Drowning." Even though "S.O.S." had become the accepted international sign of distress in 1908, many radio operators still used "C.Q.D." out of habit, especially when Marconi communication equipment was being used, as was the case on Titanic. "MGY" was the official call sign for Titanic.***

12:15- La Provence, Mount Temple, Cape Race and Frankfurt receive Titanic's first distress signals.

12:18- Titanic: "C.Q.D., C.Q.D., C.Q.D. Position 41.44 N. 50.24 W. Require assistance."

12:25- HMS Carpathia: "Do you know that Cape Cod is sending a batch of messages for you?"
***The Carpathia was eventually the ship which arrived to save Titanic's remaining surviving passengers. Ironically, Carpathia herself was sunk on July 17, 1918, the result of a German U-Boat torpedo during WWI.***

Titanic: "Come at once. We have struck a berg. C.Q.D. Position 41.46 N 50.14 W."

Carpathia: "Shall I tell my Captain? Do you require assistance?"

Titanic: "Yes, come quick. Are you coming to our assistance? We have collision with iceberg. Sinking. Please tell Captain to come."

12:27- Titanic: "I require assistance immediately. Struck by iceberg in 41.46 N. 50.14 W."

12:34- Titanic (to Frankfurt): "Are you coming to our assistance?"
Frankfurt: "What is the matter with you?"

Titanic: "We have struck an iceberg and sinking. Please tell Captain to come."

Frankfurt:"O.K. Will tell the bridge right away."

***This type of exchange between different ships continues for nearly an hour.***

1:51: Titanic issues its first S.O.S. message. HMS Frankfurt responds, "What is the matter with u?" Titanic replies: "You fool, stdbi and keep out."
***It is obvious from this exchange that stress is mounting on Titanic. Frustrated at the Frankfurt's reply, Phillips becomes hostile. This exchange also highlights some of the struggles that different crews had with distress calls. The "C.Q.D." warnings from before did not trigger as big of a response as did the "S.O.S."***

1:52- Titanic: "We are putting passengers off in small boats. Women and children in boats. Cannot last much longer. Losing power," said the Titanic as the situation grew ever more desperate. This is Titanic. C.Q.D. Engine room flooded."

1:55- Virginia hears Titanic calling very faintly, power being greatly reduced. Titanic reports to Virginia: "The Captain visits the wireless room for the last time and says: 'Men, you have done your full duty. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it's every man for himself'"
***Phillips refuses to abandon post***

1:56-2:15: Several ships receive faint messages from Titanic but are unable to get a reply through.

2:17- At this point, Titanic is beginning to lose power. Water has flooded the engine compartments and is even beginning to fill up in the radio room. There are a series of messages that Titanic is able to get out (along with several replies from other ships) but some of it becomes jumbled in transmission. Eventually, Jack Phillips and his partner, Harold Bride, are forced to abandon the radio room. All transmissions from Titanic cease at 2:17 with the final message being "C.Q.D. MGY", a final plea for help. Jack Phillips was last seen climbing the rooftop of Titanic's radio tower in a desperate attempt to make it to an inflatable life boat. Hypothermia, however, had already severely limited his physical abilities. Jack Phillips' body was never recovered.
And though the story if Titanic is esteemed by most as a terrible tragedy, it can and should also be appreciated as a tale of human endurance in the face of certain death. For the 1,500+ souls who perished together, their death reminds us all of the frailties of our mortal existence. But it also reminds us of how bravery, true bravery, when facing one's ultimate demise, is worthy of our reverence and respect. I'm sure that even after another 100 years passes away, Titanic will still be remembered as a story of tragedy, but hopefully, and more importantly, of human bravery.

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