CQD. This is Titanic. CQD. This is Titanic.

Like sovay (from whom I got this), I had no intention of blogging about the sinking of the Titanic. But then she posted this.

This is the conversation that rattled across the North Atlantic the night the Titanic sank. You can hear the moment Jack Phillips stopped transmitting a personal message from a passenger, cutting off abruptly only to begin broadcasting again: “CQD. This is Titanic. CQD. This is Titanic.” The old distress call — SOS had only just been instituted, and wasn’t added to the message until later that night — followed by the announcement of the collision. And then the replies from other ships, fragments of information being passed back and forth, questions and offers of help until the chatter gets too thick and Phillips just sends, “Stop talking. Stop talking. Jamming.” And everybody shuts up until he starts again.

All of it so level, so lacking in inflection. Because this is the record of the wireless messages, run through voice synthesizers to translate that conversation into a form the layperson can understand. But you know what’s behind the words, and that makes it all the more devastating.

Then static creeps in, as Titanic’s signal weakens. And then silence.

Seeing the tragedy from that angle . . . it’s like a punch to the gut. Especially when you think that if the captain of the Californian hadn’t decided the ice was too thick to proceed, if he hadn’t ordered his ship’s boilers shut down for the night, if the wireless operator had stayed up a mere half hour later before going to bed, then the Californian would have heard the distress call, and would have come to help.

(Or, y’know, if there had been a firm code for the use of ship’s rockets, so the guys on the Californian who saw them fired off from the Titanic would have known for sure it was a distress signal. Or if the captain of the Titanic had paid attention to the Californian‘s warnings in the FIRST PLACE, and hadn’t gone charging full speed into an iceberg. If, if, if. There are so many ways the Titanic, or at least its people, could have been saved, but none of them happened.)

The link goes to an article, but if you click through to here you should be able to listen to the broadcast directly. Be warned, though: after the Titanic sends its last message, there’s a stretch of silence . . . and then a bloody advertisement starts up, before the program returns. And to add insult to injury, the ad I got — don’t know if it changes — was for a performance of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. In Gujarati!

Yeeeeeeeeeeah. Not only is that probably the worst Shakespearean play title you could choose to interrupt the story with, the Gujarati singing is especially out of place.

But go read the article, and listen to the broadcast if you have the time. It’s worth it.

0 Responses to “CQD. This is Titanic. CQD. This is Titanic.”

  1. green_knight

    There was a lovely minute-by-minute programme on Radio 2 last night (starting at 11.25UK time, which included reportage, live music and many statements.

    Add ‘if they had sent a message as soon as the accident happened’ because as far as I can make out the Californian’s operator would still have been awake.

    And I cannot help but feel that capitalism was partly to blame: if the wireless operators had been employed by the ship and given passengers’ messages a lower prioriy. the Titanic might have paid more attention to local conditions.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m not surprised they didn’t send out a distress signal immediately, though. It would have taken a while to assess the damage and figure out that they needed help.

      As for blame . . . there are so many people and things with a share in it, going at least as far back as the design that didn’t give it a large enough rudder.

      • green_knight

        I think there are four kinds of failure that contributed:

        – people doing their best. People – including ship designers and crew – who were working to the best of their abilities, but who didn’t have hindsight or a hundred years of additional engineering skills.
        – people making the wrong decisions under stress, or decisions that proved wrong with hindsight. I’d include the people who refused to save additional lives because they were afraid that would risk the lives of the people who were already in the boats and likely to survive.
        – human failure: people who *don’t* have that excuse. I don’t know how much of that contributed, but… well, it’s hard to say who is to blame and how much they are to blame and whether they should have known better, but really: holding a church service instead of a lifeboat drill? Who the fuck considers that a good idea?
        (And I have my own suspcions about the speed of the vessel – there were plenty of iceberg reports after all.)
        – systemic failure. If you can’t access a vital piece of equipment because the key is missing: why don’t you have backup equipment? Why don’t you break the cupboard open? I think the radio operator thing counts as this even though it might not have made a difference – but if an able seaman had collected iceberg sightings and carried them to his captain, they might just have gone that bit slower.

        And it’s the systemic failures that make me furious, because even under the conventions and with the knowledge ofthe time those were obvious to spot as something that might cause problems, and if there’s no system of checking and double-checking in place… people get hurt, or killed, or both.

        It would have taken a while to assess the damage and figure out that they needed help.

        I feel that the correct procedure – the procedure less likely to cause problems to the struck ship and to anyone in the path of the iceberg – would have been to tell other ships in the area ‘just stuck an iceberg. Will access damage.’
        Other ships appear to have broadcast iceberg _sightings_ – so striking one definitely counts as something that’s worth telling the world about. You can always follow up with ‘everything fine, thanks for your concern’.

        • Marie Brennan

          I feel that the correct procedure – the procedure less likely to cause problems to the struck ship and to anyone in the path of the iceberg – would have been to tell other ships in the area ‘just stuck an iceberg. Will access damage.’

          True . . . but that’s from a perspective where we’re already used to thinking of radio as a central part of the ship’s systems, for safety and other official purposes. Back then, it was a novelty, and there wasn’t really any clear procedure for dealing with these things.

          Me, I’m furious at both the human and systemic failures. The first two categories are more understandable — even things as horrific as the refusal to send a boat back until most of the cries had stopped. It would have been very possible to swamp the lifeboats, if too many people tried to claw their way on board.

  2. leatherdykeuk

    The world service broadcasted this without any adverts — available on BBC i-player

  3. starlady38

    New research suggests the Californian and its crew were much less culpable than is commonly assumed: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/10/science/a-new-look-at-natures-role-in-the-titanics-sinking.html?_r=1&src=me&ref=science

    And that the Titanic’s crew were not mistaken to think that there shouldn’t have been icebergs that far south at that time of year.

Comments are closed.