Thursday, May 31, 2018

Who fired the first rocket on the Titanic

Who fired the first rocket on the Titanic?
There have always been only two contenders.
Fourth office Joseph Boxhall told the British Inquiry that he fired a rocket just before he got a phone call to the bridge asking if he was aware there was a lifeboat in the water.
Quartermaster George Rowe, who said he was the one who phoned, told writer Walter Lord (A Night to Remember) that the person who answered his call ordered him to bring detonators for rockets to the bridge and that when he got there the Captain order him (Rowe) to start firing distress signals.
Between the two accounts I always found Rowe's more believable, simply because there was no way, that I could see, how he could have missed seeing a rocket's display if one had been fired before he phoned the bridge.
But it was some detailed research into Boxhall's activities on the sinking ship that answered the question once and for all.
(Fair warning---casual readers might find this hugely boring. Titanic wonks only.)
At the Titanic inquiries, Boxhall had an interesting habit of often telling his story backward; he would say he did something, only to explain that this was after he did something else. For the purpose of this study  I've taken his evidence at the two inquiries and from a 1962 radio interview with the BBC and rearranged his accounts into chronological order.
It's important to the story to note that Fourth Officer Joseph Boxhall showed commendable initiative during the sinking of the Titanic, while at the same time following protocol and touching base with the Captain regularly. This will be relevant later.

The story picks up when Boxhall returned to the bridge from his own inspection of the damage to the Titanic. 

British Inquiry:
15586. And then you came up and reported to the Commander?
- Yes.
15587. What did he say?
- He walked away and left me. He went off the bridge, as far as I remember.
15588. He did not say anything to you that was fixed in your memory?
- No
15378. We have been told that at some time you called the other Officers; both Mr. Lightoller and Mr. Pitman said you called them?
- I did. That was after I reported to the Captain about the mail room
15379. Could you form any opinion as to how long that was after the impact?
No, but as near as I could judge; I have tried to place the time for it, and the nearest I can get to it is approximately 20 minutes to half-an-hour.
His timing was wrong.
Unfortunately a well-meaning legion of revisionist Titanic researchers has adopted his erroneous conjecture and propagated his error as truth. So when did he rouse the off-duty officers?
Some determined digging narrowed down the time.
Boxhall actually called out three men--Second Officer Charles Lightoller, Third Officer Herbert Pitman and Fifth Officer Herbert Lowe. Their rooms were side-by-side along the port side of the bridge. If Boxhall went from the front of the ship backward he would have knocked on Pitman's door first, then Lightoller's, then Lowe's. If he went from back to front, he would have roused Lowe first, then Lightoller, then Pitman.
Lowe was so tired that after speaking with Boxhall, he actually fell back asleep and later didn't remember Boxhall's visit..
Boxhall, as shown above, was asked if he knew how long it was after the collision with the iceberg that he called out the other officers, and he answered "No..."  He then speculated 20 minutes to half an hour.
Lightoller was asked the same question and was similarly vague.
13781. (The Solicitor-General.) How long were you in your room after that before you did turn out?
- It is very difficult to say. I should say roughly about half-an-hour perhaps; it might have been longer, it might have been less.
13784. (The Solicitor-General.) Time is very difficult to calculate, especially when you are trying to go to sleep, but seriously do you think it was half-an-hour?
13785. - Well I did not think it was half-an-hour, but we have been talking this matter over a very great deal, and I judge it is half-an-hour, because it was Mr. Boxhall who came to inform me afterwards we had struck ice, and previous to him coming to inform me, as you will find out in his evidence, he had been a considerable way round the ship on various duties which must have taken him a good while. It might be less, it might be a quarter-of-an-hour. You will be able to form your judgment.
Pitman was firmer in his conjecture.
14949. How long do you think had elapsed between the time you were aroused and Mr. Boxhall coming and telling you this?
- I should think it must be 20 minutes.
Lightoller and Pitman agreed on what Boxhall told them---that the ship had hit an iceberg and the mail room was flooding.  There was no mention of an order to clear the lifeboats.  That's because the order hadn't been given yet, as Boxhall told the British Inquiry:
15380. I think those are the times which are given by Mr. Pitman and Mr. Lightoller. After calling those Officers did you go on to the bridge again?
- Yes, I think I went towards the bridge, I am not sure whether it was then that I heard the order given to clear the boats or unlace the covers. I might have been on the bridge for a few minutes and then heard this order given.
When Boxhall said "a few minutes" was he trying to be accurate or was he speaking colloquially? The time in question is actually so small that it hardly matters.  When, then, was the order given to clear the boats?  Knowing that would help in determining the time Boxhall spoke with the off-duty officers.
The question was explored, and answered, in evidence from a number of crewmen at both Inquiries:
Quartermaster John Poingdestre, British Board of Trade Inquiry, Day 4
2809. And then?- I saw the carpenter.
2819. Will you tell me what was said by the carpenter to you?- The carpenter told me, and said the ship was making water; "Get up to your boats."

2825. Now when the carpenter gave you that information how long do you think that was after the ship had struck the iceberg?- I think about 10 minutes.
2826. What did you do after the carpenter had told you that?- Stayed where I was.
2827. For about how long?- A matter of a couple of minutes.
2828. And at the end of a couple of minutes what did you do?- The boatswain piped.
2829. What did the boatswain pipe?- "All hands up and get the lifeboats ready."

 George Moore, Able seaman, U.S. Senate Inquiry.
- "About 10 minutes to 12 the boatswain came and piped all hands on the boat deck and started to get out boats."
What did that mean, that the entire crew was to go up on the boat deck?
- All the able seamen.
Seaman William Lucas, British Inquiry, Day 3
- The first orders I got was up under the bridge, that would be the boatswain’s mate, followed by the boatswain, "All hands up about the boats."
How long was that after the collision do you suppose?
- I suppose about a quarter of an hour.

Seaman Edward Buley, U.S. Senate Inquiry, Day 7, April 26, 1912
- "The next order from the chief officer, Murdoch, was to tell the seamen to get together and uncover the boats and turn them out as quietly as though nothing had happened."

"When did you first see that boat on the bow?"
- "When we started turning the boats out. That was about 10 minutes after she struck."

Seaman Ernest Archer, Senate Inquiry, Day 7, April 26, 1912
- "…the boatswain ordered us on deck."
"How long after that (the collision) did that occur?"
- About 10 minutes sir.
The collective evidence of these crewmen is that the boatswain piped "all hands on deck" at about ten minutes after the collision, and five minutes later the gathered deck crew got the order to clear the lifeboats.  The order to clear the boats was therefore given at roughly 11:55 p.m.
By Boxhall's account, this was "a few minutes" after he called the off-duty officers, which would mean he knocked on their doors somewhere near 11:52 p.m. Given the short time he would take to speak with all three men means he was given the order to get them up about the same time that the boatswain was piping the men on deck.  That only makes sense; the bosun was ordered to get the men up, and Boxhall was ordered to get the officers up to supervise the work of the men.
A final piece of evidence, overlooked by everyone up to now, comes from Second Officer Lightoller.
When he was questioned at the British Inquiry as to what time Boxhall called him, he was asked to clarify something he told inquiry staff before his public appearance:
13789. It was Mr. Boxhall who came to your room and gave you the information?
- Yes.
13790. What was it he told you?
- He just came in and quietly remarked "You know we have struck an iceberg." I said "I know we have struck something." He then said "The water is up to F Deck in the mail room."

13792. (The Solicitor-General.) "The water is up to F deck in the mail room." It is quite fair of you to have told us why you thought it was longer, but I want to see we get it right from your point of view. I see when you gave your statement about this matter at that time your impression was it was a shorter time than half-an-hour?
- Did I?
13793. Yes, I have got down here six minutes?
- Oh, there must be some mistake, I think, in that
So the very first time that Lightoller was asked when Boxhall spoke to him, Lightoller said six minutes after the collision.  Though he denied it at the inquiry proper, it is a true indication that he felt it was sooner rather than later, adding support to a time of 11:50 or thereabouts.
It seems an inordinately short time, but it certainly shows he felt Boxhall came to his room very soon after the collision, and not a half hour later. Nobody would confuse a half hour with six minutes.
Back, then, to the Boxhall narrative:
15384. When the order was given to clear the boats what did you do; did you go to any particular boat?
- No, I went right along the line of boats and I saw the men starting, the watch on deck, our watch.
15385. Which side of the ship?
- The port side, I went along the port side, and afterwards I was down the starboard side as well but for how long I cannot remember. I was unlacing covers on the port side myself and I saw a lot of men come along - the watch I presume.
15610. Did you hear the Captain say anything to anybody about the ship being doomed?
- The Captain did remark something to me in the earlier part of the evening after the order had been given to clear the boats.  I encountered him when reporting something to him, or something, and he was inquiring about the men going on with the work, and I said, "Yes, they are carrying on all right." I said, "Is it really serious?" He said, "Mr. Andrews tells me he gives her from an hour to an hour and a half." That must have been some little time afterwards. Evidently Mr. Andrews had been down.   12:00
The night of Sept. 29, 1912, Sen. Theodore E. Burton. a member of the Senate Inquiry, had a private meeting with Boxhall.  The A.P. story about that meeting, carried across the country the next day, reported that "He (Boxhall) said Capt. Smith had told him about 20 minutes after the collision that the Titanic was doomed and that J.W.Andrews, representing the builders, had given him the information. Andrews had gone over the ship immediately after the crash and discovered that her hull had been ripped open. He told the Captain that the ship could not be saved."
"Senator Burton planned to have Boxhall recalled to the stand before leaving for England to be questioned further about this incident."  But Boxhall wasn't called back to testify in America. However this information prompted the question at the British Inquiry, and we can see the meeting between Boxhall and the Captain took place about midnight.
Boxhall provided even more relevant information in a 1962 BBC interview.
"And I got back to the Boat Deck and saw the Captain, and I told him and I said, “The Mail Room is filling, sir. Should I send a distress signal?” And the Captain said, “I've already sent a distress signal.” “What, what position did you send it from?” He said, “From the eight o'clock DR.” “Well,” I said, “that was about, she was about twenty miles ahead of that sir. If you like I will run the position up from the star position up to the time of the contact with the ice berg.” And because, I said, she was about twenty miles ahead of our position, amended this position and took it down to the wireless room,-"

5391. You took it to the marconi office in order that it might be sent by the wireless operator?
- I submitted the position to the Captain first, and he told me to take it to the marconi room.

The details in Boxhall's interview buttress the timing of this encounter with the Captain and the dire news from Andrews.  The first CQD from the Titanic was heard at 10:25 p.m. New York Time, which translates to 11:58 p.m. Titanic time.  Remember, that's when it was received and recorded, not necessarily when the CQD was first sent. When the Captain said at about midnight in 1912 "I've already sent a distress signal" he had no idea his statement would be confirmed decades later.

Boxhall also fills in the timeline when he says he took the new position of the Titanic to the wireless operators with orders to send it out immediately. The wireless station at Cape Race heard the Titanic give a "corrected position" at 10:35 p.m. New York Time, 12:08 a.m. Titanic time.

 There's a short gap in Boxhall's activities which allows for some intriguing conjecture.

He had testified that he started clearing lifeboats on the port side "and afterwards I was down the starboard side as well but for how long I cannot remember." Was this the point in time when he crossed over to starboard? 

15381. Had you a boat station of your own; did you know what it was?
- I did not know what it was.

15382. We have been told it is customary for the third and Fourth Officers to be assigned to the emergency boats?
- Yes, it is for emergency purposes.

15383. The third Officer was assigned to No. 1. Were you assigned to No. 2?
- For emergency purposes I was assigned to No. 1 as a matter of fact, the starboard boat.

Was it going to "his" boat that prompted what he did next?

15436. - There is always a lamp in the emergency boats.

15437. Lamps are always kept there?
- They are lighted every night at 6 o'clock.

15438. Do you mean they are not kept in the other boats usually?
- They were not kept in the other boats, no.

15439. Did you see any put in the other boats?
- Yes.

15440. Was that by your orders?
- Well, it was through my speaking to the Chief Officer about it. I mentioned to him that there were no lamps. That was earlier on, when they started to clear the boats. I mentioned to him the fact that there were no lamps in any of the boats, or compasses, and he told me to get hold of the lamp trimmer.

15446. (Mr. Raymond Asquith.) Did you have the lamps taken up?
- Yes. The Chief Officer told me to find the lamp trimmer. I did find him after a little trouble. I really forget where I found him. He was on the boat deck working amongst the men. I told him to take a couple of men down with him and fetch the lamps, and he was afterwards seen to bring the lamps along the deck and put them in the boats.

Lamp trimmer Hemming survived the sinking and helped pinpoint the timing of that order for lamps.  He said Lightoller took him and another sailor to help with lifeboat No.4 . "We lowered the boat in line with the A deck, when I had an order come from the Captain to see that the boats were properly provided with lights."

Lightoller provided the last piece of the puzzle:

- Well, it would take us from 15 minutes to 20 minutes to uncover No. 4; then to coil the falls down, then to swing out and lower it down to A deck would take another six or seven minutes at least.

In summation, if he started clearing No.4 about 11:55 p.m. as evidenced above, the lifeboat would have been lowered to A deck about 16 or 17 minutes later---12:16 a.m.  That would be roughly the time Hemming got the order from Boxhall to get lamps for the boats.

And then?

"...they started to screw some out on the afterpart of the port side; I was just going along there and seeing all the men were well established with their work, well under way with it, and I heard someone report a light, a light ahead. I went on the bridge and had a look to see what the light was."

How did Boxhall know what was happening on the afterpart of the port side?  Did someone tell him?
Was that someone Pitman, who testified he crossed from the aft port boats to the forward well deck to see the ice left behind by the collision with the iceberg?
Why he started aft is less important than what he did when he heard about the light on the horizon. He wrote about it to Walter Lord:
"And I worked on the boat covers, taking off the boat covers, on the Boat Deck, when I heard the Crow's Nest report a light on the Starboard Bow. Well I went on the bridge right away, and I found this light with my own glasses but I wanted the telescope to define what it was..."

Boxhall first used his own binoculars to identify the source of the light, then went on the bridge to use the Titanic's telescope when...

15593. ..Somebody telephoned to say that one of the starboard boats had left the ship, and I was rather surprised.
The person at the other end of the phone was Quartermaster George Rowe, who described the phone call to the Senate Inquiry:
I felt a slight jar and looked at my watch. It was a fine night, and it was then 20 minutes to 12. I looked toward the starboard side of the ship and saw a mass of ice. I then remained on the after bridge to await orders through the telephone. No orders came down, and I remained until 25 minutes after 12, when I saw a boat on the starboard beam.
Senator BURTON.
What was the number of the boat?
You could not tell the number. I telephoned to the fore bridge to know if they knew there was a boat lowered. They replied, asking me if I was the third officer. I replied, "No; I am the quartermaster." They told me to bring over detonators, which are used in firing distress signals.

Boxhall's accounts of this incident can be confusing. He said he hadn't heard an order to send off lifeboats and so was surprised to hear of a lifeboat in the water. He reported it to the Captain, he said. 
15594. At their doing it so quickly?
- No; I was rather surprised. I did not know the order had been given even to fill the boats. I reported it to the Commander.
And after he had a better look at the far-off light ("it was two masthead lights of a steamer"), he reported to the Captain.  What he doesn't say is that he told the Captain both things at the same encounter. 
15394 Could you see how far she was?
No, I could not see but I had sent in the meantime for some rockets, and told the Captain I had sent for some rockets, and told him I would send them off, and told him when I saw this light. He said, "Yes, carry on with it."
BBC 1962
"and I realized then it was two masthead lights of a steamer below the horizon and the lights were very close and I went back and told the Captain, “There is a steamer in sight very nearly ahead but slightly on the Starboard Bow and if she continues on her course she'll pass close to us down the Port Side.” Well I asked the Captain, “Shall I send up some distress rockets, sir?"
The confusion that's roiled through the years has stemmed from Boxhall's comment about getting that phone call to the bridge
15593. “I knew one of the boats had gone away, because I happened to be putting the firing lanyard inside the wheel house after sending off a rocket, and the telephone bell rang. Somebody telephoned to say that one of the starboard boats had left the ship, and I was rather surprised.”

It's obvious now that this never happened.  The evidence, including Boxhall's own recollection, shows that he never fired a rocket before Rowe phone the bridge. Why he made this confounding statement will never be known. 
Note what I said at the beginning---Boxhall followed protocol. Count how often to reported to the Captain.  There's simply no way he would fire off a rocket without getting the Captain's okay. In fact, the way he remembers it in 1962, that's exactly what he did---ask permission to send up distress rockets.
Crewmen on the Californian, a ship stopped miles away by the icepack, saw the first rocket sent off from the Titanic and noted the time, a conversion of which from their time to Titanic time shows that first signal was sent at 12:28 a.m.
That's only three minutes from when Rowe phoned the bridge.  That makes it impossible for that rocket to have been fired by Quartermaster Rowe. 
So Fourth Officer Boxhall did, indeed, fire the first rocket---but only after getting the order officially from Captain Smith.
Which still leaves open the question of why Rowe never saw---or never mentioned seeing---that rocket.
The answer lay for years in a letter Rowe wrote to Walter Lord in 1955
"...after I saw a boat being lowered on the starboard side and I went up on to the after bridge and phoned the fore bridge if they knew about it. I could not recognise the voice but he asked me who I was I told him the after Quarter-master he asked me if I knew where the distress rockets were stowed I told him I did he told me to bring as many as I could on to the fore bridge, I went below one deck to a locker and got a tin box with I think 12 rockets in it (they were fairly heavy), I carried them along the boat deck where there was a bit of confusion clearing away and turning out boats... On reaching the bridge Capt Smith asked if I had the rockets I told him yes and [he] said fire one and fire one every five or six minutes.""
Rowe didn't see the first rocket because he wasn't on the top deck when it was fired!  He was one deck below getting the detonators he had been ordered to bring to the bridge.
There's one other mystery solved by this examination.
Quartermaster George Thomas Rowe:
17683. Did you take any part in firing distress rockets? -Yes.
17684. How long do you think it was from the time you commenced firing the rockets till you finished firing the rockets? -From about a quarter to one to about 1.25.  

Rowe 's account is that he fired rockets for 40 minutes starting at 12:45 a.m. If the first rocket was fired 17 minutes earlier than Rowe arrived with his box of detonators,  it's very possible that Boxhall fired a second one prior to Rowe's first.  Boxhall, then,  may have fired off two rockets, and Rowe the other six as seen by the Californian.

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