After RMS Titanic catastrophically hit an iceberg 375 nautical miles south of Newfoundland, Canada and began to sink on 15th April 1912, survivors of the disaster were left virtually stranded with no hope of rescue.
However, little did they know that a humble transatlantic steamship, RMS Carpathia, would hear their calls and make a valiant and dangerous journey to aid them.
Here’s the story of how RMS Carpathia became world famous for its role in the Titanic disaster of 1912.
RMS Carpathia is Born
RMS Carpathia was built in Newcastle, England between 1901 and 1902 by Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson for the Cunard Line as a transatlantic passenger steamship. Construction of the vessel began on September 10, 1901 with the laying of the keel and following completion of the hull and main superstructure, the 64 foot 6 inch liner was launched on 6th August 1902.
She was much smaller than the White Star Line’s Titanic at around 13,500 tons and a length of about 170 meters, compared to the Titanic’s 46,328 tons and 269 meters.
When RMS Carpthia was launched she registered a gross tonnage of 13,603, her eight cylinder quadruple-expansion engines installed by the Wallsend Slipway Co. gave her a service speed of approximately 14 knots and she could carry approximately 1,700 passengers.
Between 22nd and 25th April 1903, RMS Carpathia undertook sea trails before she made her maiden voyage on 5th May 1903 from Liverpool, England, to Boston, USA, with additional services to New York, Gibraltar, Genova, Naples, Trieste and Fiume. She provided essential immigrant revenue during the summer on cruises to Europe, which were particularly enjoyed by wealthy Americans on holiday.
In 1905 she underwent some vital restructuring which allowed her to carry over 2,500 passengers, provinding accommodation for 100 first class, 200 second class and 2,250 third class passengers. By 1909 she was permanently assigned to the Mediterranean service, only returning to Liverpool at the end of each year for a refit.
The Distress call
On April 11, 1912, the Carpathia departed from New York City for Fiume, Austria -Hungary (now Rijeka in Croatia) carrying some 740 passengers and captained by 42-year-old Arthur Rostron. Among its passengers were the American painters Colin Campbell Cooper and his wife Emma, author Philip Mauro, journalists Lewis Palmer Skidmore and Carlos Fayette Hurd, photographer Dr. Francis H. Blackmarr, and Charles H. Marshall, whose three nieces were travelling aboard Titanic.
At about the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, the hugely celebrated Titanic was leaving Queenstown and heading west on her Maiden Voyage to New York with some 2,224 passengers and crew. The brand-new pride of the White Star fleet, commanded by Captain Edward Smith, on his last voyage before retirement, the Titanic had on board many rich and famous socialites.
On Sunday 14th April 1912 at approximately 12:20 am, wireless operator Harold Cottam received the rivals, White Star Line’s Titanic’s distress signal and immediately notified the captain, Arthur Henry Rostron, who had been resting in his cabin. The signal stated that they had struck ice and were in need of immediate assistance.
The captain sprang into action and gave the order to turn the ship around. Whilst dressing, Captain Rostron set a course for Titanic, sent for the chief engineer and told him to call another watch of stokers and make all possible speed to the Titanic, as she was in trouble.
Cottam, meanwhile, messaged the Titanic that Carpathia was coming as quickly as possible and expected to be there within four hours, he then refrained from sending more signals after this, trying to keep the air clear for Titanic’s distress signals.
Full Steam Ahead
Most of the Carpathia’s passengers were asleep when the distress call was received, however for many, their sleep was soon to be disturbed by unusual sounds in the dark. Lifeboats were being prepared and all around crew members were running around, preparing the vessel for the job of rescue.
Captain Rostron worked out that the distance to Titanic was 58 nmi (67 mi; 107 km) and would take the Carpathia three and a half hours. At the same time, Rostron had Carpathia’s crew prepare hot drinks and soup for the survivors, the public rooms were made into dormitories, doctors were made ready to treat any wounded survivors, and oil was made ready to pour down the lavatories to calm the water on the sides of the ship should the sea become rough. Preparations were made to receive 2,000 Titanic passengers in the public rooms.
Carpathia sailed at the full speed of 17 knots, towards the Titanic’s position and all off duty stokers were raised from their beds to shovel coal into the furnaces as fast as they were able. Since the ship was working on steam, to ensure maximum speed he commanded that no hot water should be used for any reason, so that maximum heat could be used to drive the engines and had extra lookouts on watch to spot ice.
The area had many floating icebergs and travelling at full speed could put the Carpathia in a similar danger to the one that sunk the Titanic. Nonetheless, Captain Rostron was determined to offer whatever help he could, even at the risk of his own ship.
RMS Carpathia Reaches The Titanic
Thanks to Captain Rostron’s quick thinking, RMS Carpathia reached the RMS Titanic’s location in 3 and a half hours at 3.30am.
By this time most of the Carpathia’s passengers were awake and standing on deck. Many described the view as the ship neared the position of the Titanic as being strangely beautiful.
“A most beautiful sight of icebergs on every side – some of much greater dimensions than the ship, and then some baby ones – all beautiful white in the calm sea and glittering sun, a most impressive view.”
To the dismay of Captain Rostron and his crew, there was no sign of the Titanic when they arrived at the radioed position.
Half an hour later, Rostron ordered the engines of his ship be shut off and his crew began to search desperately for some sign of survival. They had reached the position of the Titanic, approximately an hour and a half after it had sunk.
Miraculously, a flare from one of the lifeboats caught the attention of one of Carpathia’s crew. After this initial sighting, more of the lifeboats were spotted making their way towards the RMS Carpathia.
The boats appeared out of the dark of the dawn, very little was visible from the wreckage, just a few pieces of wood and other materials. It did not seem possible that these few hundreds could be the victims of a shipwreck.
For the next four and a half hours, the ship took on the 705 survivors of the disaster from Titanic’s 20 lifeboats. Many of the Carpathia’s passengers observed how much in readiness the Cunarder was, and how simply and rapidly the survivors were taken on board.
The rescue efforts were completed by 8:30 am and the final person to be rescued, Charles Lightoller, stepped aboard Carpathia.
The Amazing Mission is Completed
Now carrying double her original complement of passengers, Carpathia steamed slowly among wreckage and icebergs seeking more survivors, but none were found.
One of the passengers noted how calm and well organised the rescue effort was.
“My first and lasting impression was the inward calm and self poise on the part of those who had been saved.”
On board, her passengers and crew sought to care for the rescued, many gave up their rooms to the Titanic’s people. Mary Lowell, travelling with her mother, offered their cabin to actress and model, Dorothy Gibson, while Luke Hoyt and his wife moved in with Charles and Lucy Reynolds, so that four male survivors could take their room.
The Marshall family, whose nieces had been aboard the Titanic, had slept through the drama, and were woken early on April 15th by a steward knocking at their door. The steward explained that Mr Marshall’s niece wished to speak to him. Marshall was confused, explaining to the steward that his nieces were on board the Titanic. Quickly the steward explained what had happened, and shortly afterwards the Marshall’s were united with Charlotte Appleton. Her cousin, Evelyn Marshall, hurried on deck to see what was happening, while the rest of the family waited for Mrs Appleton’s sisters to be brought to the Carpathia.
RMS Carpathia Returns To Safety
After considering options for where to disembark the passengers, including the Azores (the destination with the least cost to the Cunard Line) and Halifax (the closest port, although along an ice-laden route), Rostron consulted with Bruce Ismay and decided to disembark the survivors in New York. The captain chartered a course and steamed ahead to its destination at 14 knots.
News of the Titanic disaster had spread on shore, and the humble Carpathia quickly became the centre of intense media attention.
During its journey back, the ship was inundated with calls from the press, hundreds of wireless messages were being sent from Cape Race and other shore stations addressed to Captain Rostron from relatives of Titanic passengers and journalists demanding details in exchange for money.
Rostron ordered that no news stories would be transmitted directly to the press, deferring such responsibilities to the White Star offices, as Cottam provided details to Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic.
On Wednesday, 17 April, after battling with storms and bad weather, the scout cruiser USS Chester began escorting RMS Carpathia to New York. Cottam, by then assisted by Titanic’s junior wireless operator Harold Bride, transmitted the names of third-class survivors to Chester.
When they finally arrived in New York on the morning of 18th April, it was accompanied up river by reporters in hired tugboats shouting questions through megaphones and welcomed by thousands of spectators.
Eventually the vessel berthed at 9.30 am at Pier 54, from which it had set out just seven days earlier.
Glory in a Time of Disaster
Following Carpathia’s amazing rescue mission, medals were awarded to those served on Carpathia. Margaret T. Brown, who began to raise relief and reward funds while still aboard RMS Carpathia, presented bronze medals to the crew, silver medals to the officers, and a silver commemorative cup to Captain Rostron.
Though much praised and decorated for his calm and exemplary actions, Captain Rostron was reluctant to speak publicly about the Titanic disaster, and the references in his autobiography ‘Home from the Sea’ published after retirement were self-effacing and devoid of sensation. But in response to a journalist querying many years later how the little ship could have travelled at a speed greater than the maximum of which it was supposedly capable, and how it had progressed safely at such speed through ice in the dark, the deeply religious Rostron simply replied:
“A hand other than mine was on the wheel that night.”
Nevertheless, for his leadership and bravery in such a daring rescue, Captain Rostron received many high honours. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by the United States Congress, and was an invited guest in the White House with President Howard Taft.
Rostron would go on to testify in both the United States and British inquiries into the sinking of Titanic, even though the RMS Carpathia saved some 705 people, the Titanic disaster still took 1,517 lives.
He would continue to command sea-faring vessels for almost two decades after his heroic rescue of Titanic survivors, and was knighted by King George V in 1926 for his service.
Life After RMS Titanic
The Carpathia’s role in the Titanic story came to an end with her arrival in New York on April 18th. Her passengers, whose voyage had been interrupted, left the ship while arrangements were made to clean and replenish the vessel for a sailing on April 20th.
On April 20th 1912 RMS Carpathia once more departed New York for the Mediterranean. On board were most of her original complement of passengers, just sixteen people had chosen not to re board the ship. Normal life resumed after the Titanic disaster, with many people trying to forget the horrors of the stories that emerged from that faithful night.
The now famous ship carried on with her Mediterranean duties until 1915, when it was adopted as a troopship in World War I to transfer American and Canadian troops to Europe as well as carrying essential supplies from New York to Liverpool.
A Devastating End
On 15th July 1918, RMS Carpathia left Liverpool in convoy to Boston, a trip that she had made regularly.
However, on the morning of 17th July 1918, just off the southern coast of Ireland, the ship was struck by two torpedoes from the Imperial German Navy submarine U-55 and began to take on water.
RMS Carpathia reportedly sank at 11:00 am, just four months before the Armistice was signed, after a third torpedo impacted the port side of the vessel and the engine rooms, killing three trimmers and two firemen in an explosion.
Thankfully the rest of the passengers and crew were rescued by the HMS Snowdrop, which also drove the German U-boat away with gunfire.
RMS Carpathia Remembered
In 1999 the wreck of the RMS Carpathia was discovered intact and lying upright at a depth of more than 500 feet (152 metres). Due to its remote location and extreme depth the Carpathia has only been visited twice by scuba divers and is owned by RMS Titanic Inc.
Like so many others, Carpathia’s days were ended by a wartime torpedo; but unlike them, the little ship from the Tyne will always be remembered for its part in a night of tragedy and heroism.
Carpathia braved dangerous ice fields and diverted all steam power to her engines in her rescue mission and her story is still celebrated today as one of the strongest tales of bravery and strength in a time of adversity.
Words: Katie Davies