A Midweek Musing about some history I did not know
For this musing, I thought perhaps we would begin with a word game.
I will list three words and see if you are familiar with them and if you know how they are related.
While you may not know the first two, I am certain you recall the third one. The sinking of the RMS Titanic is one of the most well-known tragedies of the 20th century. On April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic, this ship which had been touted as unsinkable, had its hull breached and began taking on water finally buckling and descending rapidly to the seafloor. To this very day, it remains one of the worst peacetime sinkings in history claiming around 1,500 lives, many perishing in the frigid Atlantic waters.
This tragedy has been the subject of books, documentaries, legends, and movies. The sinking and all of the mistakes made by numerous folks which combined to lead up to this event eventually led to the implementation of new safety standards that impact seagoing ships even to this day.
However, what I did not know until recently was that the other two words in my word game list, the Carpathian and Californian, were also ships in these same waters that the Titanic found itself in on the night it tragically sank.
The Californian was less than 20km away. The ship's captain had stopped its sailing for the night due to the ice and gone to bed. While this vessel did send out a warning to other ships earlier in the evening about the ice (a warning evidently ignored) when the Californian was contacted by the Titanic in the form of distress signals via rocket flares which everyone awake on the Californian could clearly see the captain of the Californian Captain Stanley Lord who did not want to be bothered from his sleep ignored those who shared this information instructing them twice to leave him be.
Titanic Historian Daniel Allen Butler writes, "Surrounded by icebergs, he (Captain Lord) decided not to act. He didn't wake his wireless operator; he didn't try to contact the ship, and he didn't head towards it.
"The hazard to himself and his command was too great to risk responding. The Californian did nothing."
Captain Lord later maintained he did not realize the rockets were a distress signal, and was further away than 20km, but a British inquiry concluded that if he had pushed through the ice to the troubled ship, the Californian "might have saved many, if not all, of the lives that were lost."
At the same moment, the Californian was ignoring the strange activity on the horizon; another captain more than 100km away made a split-second choice that saved those lives.
The Carpathia's wireless operator, Harold Cottam, had just sent a message to his counterpart on the Titanic to let him know there was a backlog of messages from shore waiting for his passengers. The response "literally made Cottam's blood run cold," Butler said.
"CQD, MGY, 41.46 NORTH, 50.14 WEST," Titanic operator Jack Phillips tapped back.
"CQ" is a call-out, "D" means distress, "MGY" was the Titanic's call letters, followed by the coordinates.
He also mixed in the newer "SOS" signal for one of the first times in history, but it would have been CQD that stood out to Cottam.
The operator raced up to Captain Arthur Rostron's cabin, ignoring the first officer and flinging open the door in a clear breach of protocol. "The Titanic has sent out a distress call; she needs our assistance immediately," he said.
The first words out of the captain's mouth were directed at first officer Horace Dean, who had followed Cottam in: "Mr. Dean, turn this ship around. I'll work out the course for you in a moment. Now, Cottam, are you sure it's the Titanic, and are you sure she needs our assistance?"
Butler — who wrote a book called The Other Side of the Night about what happened outside the sinking Titanic — believes this says it all about who Captain Rostron was.
"He wasn't going to waste the seconds necessary to confirm before he acted," Butler said. "So, when he heard the word 'distress' he reacted, I think, instinctively."
The temperature on board plummeted as the captain shut off steam to any part of the ship except the engines in order to travel faster, realizing he was three or four hours away.
"Every time Phillips sends out new information, Cottam is sending it to the bridge, and it quickly becomes obvious that the Titanic is not just in trouble, the Titanic is sinking," Butler said. "This is unthinkable, but it's happening."
The Carpathia, designed for speeds of 14.5 to 15 knots maximum, was traveling about 16 knots, with extra lookouts posted about the ship to call out if they saw ice.
It was an extremely dangerous undertaking, and the captain later said he believed "some other hand than mine was on the helm that night." 1
Arriving an hour and a half after the initial distress call, the Titanic had already sunk; however, the crew was able to pull would-be victims from the frigid waters. Working through the night, they saved 705 passengers having to pull most up via ropes and pullies since they were too weak to pull themselves on board.
The next morning the Californian, having heard the Titanic news went to the location of the disaster, where they only discovered empty lifeboats and frozen corpses in the waters.
In an interview after his book on the Titanic was published Butler said, "In some ways, the story of what happened on the Carpathia and didn't happen on the Californian is more dramatic than what happened on the Titanic itself."
As I read more and more about this story, I was reminded of the story of Jonah. The safest and most comfortable thing for Jonah to do was run away from his enemies, the people of Nineveh, but that is not what the people of God do, although it took a bit for Jonah to come to that conclusion.
The same was true for Jesus. When he set his face towards Jerusalem, he knew that he was headed for trouble. He could have turned away at any point, but that was not his mission. Instead, his call was to give us a living example of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
As Christians, we are called to serve those in need, and sometimes those are hard places to be. Now it is not always about going headlong into danger or being like Mother Theresa and living with the poor in Calcutta. Often it is about listening to hard stories of folks who need to be heard. Sometimes it is about a phone call or card or wiping away a tear. Sometimes it is providing food without demanding they do something to deserve it or questioning what decisions they made that put them in that place.
Often it is just about seeing those in need and being willing to reach out and help. Maybe you will be called to head into dangerous icy waters or maybe deliver an uncomfortable message to those who will not like what you have to say. Or maybe it will be some act that seems insignificant to you but is an act of unimaginable grace to the recipient.
Whatever it is, we are called to do the good that is ours to do wherever and whenever that might be.
In the name of the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of all.