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The "Titanic" Report from U.S. Senate Hearings - 1912

Senator William Alden Smith. Arriving at the Senate Office Building in Washington to Question the Surviving Officers and Crew of the Titanic

Senator William Alden Smith. Arriving at the Senate Office Building in Washington to Question the Surviving Officers and Crew of the Titanic. © C. V. Buck, Washington. The Literary Digest (11 May 1912) p. 976. GGA Image ID # 10868a33ae

"New laws will best testify our affection for the dead," declared Senator Smith in his speech presenting the report of the Senate sub-committee which conducted the inquiry into the loss of the Titanic.

And it is in the new laws recommended by this committee that the press are inclined to find the most valuable results of its work. For, as the Philadelphia Public Ledger remarks, "practically every important fact in the report has long been known to the public, and the main conclusions reached by the committee have been independently drawn by the people."

The New York Journal of Commerce, indeed, finds nothing novel in such suggestions as "that lanes of travel should be more carefully defined, the structural strength, life-saving appliances, and discipline of crews upon such vessels should be improved, and greater vigilance observed in navigating them."

Yet, the promised enactment of these "sound" reforms by the United States Government, supplemented by such recommendations as the English Board of Trade may make at the close of its inquiry, convinces the Boston Transcript that even out of so great an evil as the sinking of the Titanic "good will come." "In the end, these two inquiries will greatly conduce to the safety of all life at sea."

Both the Senator's speech and the committee's report, which have evoked some sneers from London, find hearty favor in the eyes of the American press. Though they admit that it contains "unnecessary rhetoric," the Springfield Republican and New York Evening Post consider it a fair, temperate, and useful summing up of the results of the investigation.

As for the committee's work, the New York World speaks for many of its contemporaries in judging it to have been "well and thoroughly done at a time of high public excitement." Senator Smith's own comment on his confess unfamiliarity with nautical affairs, that "energy is often more desirable than learning," is deemed by most of the New York editors as a sufficient reply to his critics on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The tenor of this report," observes the New York Times, "is justification for the manner of its procurement."

Those looking to Senator Smith to fix upon someone personal responsibility for the disaster, hear almost nothing of Mr. Ismay.

They learn, however, in the words of the New York Tribune's Washington correspondent, that "blame for the Titanic disaster is chargeable directly to the failure of the dead Captain Smith to heed repeated warnings of icebergs ahead; but responsibility for unnecessary loss of life must be shared by Captain Lord of the steamship Californian, through his disregard of distress signals."

Nor does the British Board of Trade escape all responsibility, in the judgment of Senator Smith, who declares that to its "laxity of regulation and hasty inspection the world is largely indebted for this awful fatality."

The White Star Line is also scored for the lack of discipline on board the Titanic, and for sending her on her maiden voyage with so inferior a crew.

Officers of the line in New York City are criticized for "battling with the truth" after receiving the first information of the accident the morning after.

Praise as well as blame was meted out. The Senator from Michigan paid tribute to the personal heroism of Captain Smith, his officers, and the wireless operators.

Congress, upon recommendation of the committee, gave Captain Rostron of the Carpathia a vote of thanks and a gold medal.

The principal conclusions which the investigating committee arrived at, after review of all the evidence, are summarized as follows in the Associated Press dispatches: "The supposedly water-tight compartments of the Titanic were not water-tight, because of the non-water-tight condition of the decks, where the transverse bulkheads ended.

"The steamship Californian, controlled by the same concern as the Titanic, was nearer the sinking steamer than the nineteen miles reported by her captain, and her officers and crew  saw the distress signals of the Titanic, and failed to respond to them in accordance with the dictates of humanity, international usage, and the requirements of law."

The committee concludes that the Californian might have saved all the lost passengers and crew of the ship that went down.

  • "Eight ships, all equipped with wireless, were in the vicinity of the Titanic, the Olympic farthest away—512 miles.
  • "The mysterious lights on an unknown ship, seen by the passengers on the Titanic, undoubtedly were on the Californian, less than nineteen miles away.
  • "The full capacity of the Titanic's lifeboats was not utilized, because, while only 706 persons were saved, the ship's boats could have carried 1,176.
  • "No general alarm was sounded, no whistle blown, and no systematic warning was given to the endangered passengers, and it was fifteen or twenty minutes after the collision before Captain Smith ordered the Titanic's wireless operator to send out a distress message.
  • "The Titanic's crew was only meagerly acquainted with its positions and duties in an accident, and only one drill was held before the maiden trip.  Many of the crew joined the ship only a few hours before she sailed and were in ignorance of their positions until the following Friday.
  • "'No discussion took place among the officers, no conference was called to consider warnings of ice, and no heed was given to them. The speed was not relaxed; the lookout was not increased.'. . . . . .
  • "The committee believes many more lives could have been saved had the survivors been concentrated in a few lifeboats, and had the boats thus released returned to the wreck for others."

The committee's recommendations for legislation are embodied in a bill whose chief provisions are thus stated in the daily press:

  • "Vigilant supervision over steamships by the steamboat inspection service, which is authorized to issue inspection certificates.
  • "Lifeboat capacity for every passenger and member of the crew, the passengers to be assigned to a place in the boats before sailing, and the crew to be drilled in manning the boats by constant practice.
  • "Two electric search-lights for every ship carrying more than one hundred passengers.
  • "The regulation of radio-telegraphy, with provisions that ships shall have
  • an operator on duty at all times.
  • "A water-tight inner skin, or hull, either in the form of longitudinal bulkheads or of an inner bottom.
  • "Transverse bulkheads extending from side to side of the ship and continued vertically to the uppermost continuous structural deck.

Many sincerely regret, with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "that the memory of gallant Captain Smith of the Titanic must be darkened by knowledge of the absolute foolhardiness of his conduct during the closing hours of his life."

Yet such, it believes, is "the irresistible logic of the situation. Smith gambled with the lives of 2,300 people and lost all but a remnant of his ghastly stake."

With this judgment, the New York Press and the Philadelphia Press concur and approve of the committee's  'refusal to divide the captain's responsibility with Mr. Ismay.

The condemnation of Captain Lord of the Californian is severe, but the New York Times and Springfield Republican agree that it is "no more so than the evidence warrants." A careful editorial review of the captain's evidence, given in the editorial columns of the New York Sun, would seem to confirm the opinion of the two other papers that he appeared in an even worse light in London than in "Washington. 

The report of the Senate Committee, avers the New York World, is "a grave indictment of the methods employed in ocean traffic where the lives of thousands of human beings are daily involved." Yet, it adds that the lesson is being learned—the Titanic's successor as the biggest steamship in the world, the recently launched German liner Imperator, is to be provided with lifeboats enough to carry all on board.

And the New York Evening Post notes that this new steamer "is to carry a special first officer, whose sole duty will be to attend to the safety of the ship, and those upon it."

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