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Carpathia; the ship that saved the Titanic

By Aanya Bhola

The RMS Carpathia received a distress signal from the Titanic at 12:15 am, April 15th, 1912.

Some background on this ship: the Carpathia, unlike most other vessels at that time, wasn’t equipped with a 24-hour radio. It was a modest vessel, and had set hours within which messages would arrive and be sent out. At a little past midnight, Carpathia’s wireless operator—one elderly Harold Cottam—was clocking off his shift and heading to bed when he was notified by Cape Race, the closest transmitting tower, that Titanic had a backlog of undelivered messages.

Now, bear in mind that this is taking place around nine minutes past the end of Cottam’s shift. Harold Cottam was tired and probably just wanted to go to bed, but, nevertheless, decided he’d be helpful and let the Titanic know they had messages waiting.

He receives Titanic’s distress signal; five minutes later, Captain Rostron—having been roused from bed instantly—accepts the absurd claim that the seemingly invincible Titanic was in danger with no hesitation. Five minutes later, Carpathia fires up her thrusters and rushes across the Arctic Ocean to save a sinking ship.

(Or in other words, Harold Cottam decided to be kind one night, and 705 people lived for it.)

But the story doesn’t end there, oh no. See, Carpathia was 58 miles away, far enough that no one would have blinked if she’d chosen not to respond, and most definitely a distance no one could reasonably expect to cover in less than five hours—especially for a meager vessel like this one.

There’s always been some uncertainty about other nearby ships; according to the data, SS California should have been close enough to make it, but—for whatever reason—didn’t try.

However, this is not about what could have been. This is about what happened.

Captain Rostock took charge; after verifying that it was indeed a distress signal, he roused the crew and set sail for the last-known coordinates of the titanic. People during the time called him insane, and perhaps he was, for I doubt a sane man would do what Captain Rostock did that night.

Steamships, such as our hero Carpathia, have a built-in energy system that powers everything within the ship, from central heating to the main engines. Captain Rostock woke up the mechanics and technicians of the ship and took all that energy to divert to the engines. The ship (if it could still be called that) had one purpose that night; to go as fast as she could, and then faster still.

Carpathia was not meant for this. Rather than being built for luxury or speed, our fateful hero was built to carry Hungarian emigrants from the small Mediterranean ports of Trieste and Fiume to a better life in New York. Her overall proportions were minuscule when compared with her Olympic-class sisters’ (such as the Titanic), and her absolute maximum speed a perfectly modest fourteen knots.

In the middle of the Arctic Ocean that night, she sustained a speed of more than seventeen.

In barely three hours, they arrived at the Titanic’s last known coordinates, finding the first of the lifeboats within the next hour, and bringing the last survivor onboard just short of five hours later. The passengers of the Carpathia, some 700-odd immigrants, left their cabins and universally gave up clothing and made warm drinks, offering the rescuees whatever comfort they could. In total, Carpathia saved 705 people of Titanic’s original 2208.

(There wouldn’t be any survivors for other ships to find.)

Perhaps we can attribute this miraculous rescue to Mr. Harold Cottam, without whom the entire escapade wouldn’t have ever occurred. Or maybe it was due to Captain Rostock, for his composed and efficient actions under pressure. Perhaps it was the crew, the passengers, the Radio Station that spurred this impassioned rescue in the first place—the list goes on.

I don’t like to think of it that way. Rather, I imagine a group of individuals—strangers, most of them—aboard an old, dingy ship, hearing a call for help and collectively thinking I will not be able to forgive myself if I choose inaction.

Don’t forget them for it. It’s the least we can do now.