United States Senate Inquiry


Speech of Senator William Alden Smith

Tuesday, May 28, 1912.

Mr. SMITH of Michigan.
Mr. President, I had expected to send to the Clerk's desk this morning the unanimous report of the Committee on Commerce. For the purpose of verifying some figures, it will be delayed a few moments. I shall not detain the Senate, but will proceed with my address.

Mr. President, my associates and myself return the commission handed to us on the 18th day of April last, directing an immediate inquiry into "the causes leading up to the destruction of the steamship Titanic, with its attendant and unparalleled loss of life, so shocking to the people of the world." Mindful of the responsibility of our office, we desire the Senate to know that in the execution of its command we have been guided solely by the public interest and a desire to meet the expectations of our associates without bias, prejudice, sensationalism, or slander of the living or dead. That duty, we believed, would be best performed by an exact ascertainment of the true state of affairs.

Our course was simple and plain - to gather the facts relating to this disaster while they were still vivid realities. Questions of diverse citizenship gave way to the universal desire for the simple truth. It was of paramount importance that we should act quickly to avoid jurisdictional confusion and organized opposition at home or abroad. We, of course, recognized that the ship was under a foreign flag; but the lives of many of our own countrymen had been sacrificed and the safety of many had been put in grave peril, and it was vital that the entire matter should be reviewed before an American tribunal if legislative action was to be taken for future guidance. Therefore, we determined that the testimony of British officers and crew and English passengers temporarily in the United States should be first obtained. We deemed it important to have the surviving officers and sailors of this ship meet the passengers of all classes before our committee. Without any pretension to experience or special knowledge of nautical affairs, nevertheless I am of the opinion that very few important facts which were susceptible of being known escaped our scrutiny. Energy is often more desirable than learning, and the inquisition serves a useful purpose to the State.

We went to the side of the hospital ship with purpose and pity and saw the almost lifeless survivors in their garments of woe - joy and sorrow so intermingled that it was difficult to discern light from shadow, and the sad scene was only varied by the cry of reunited loved ones whose mutual grief was written in the language of creation.

At 10 o'clock on that fateful Sunday evening this latest maritime creation was cutting its first pathway through the North Atlantic Ocean with scarcely a ripple to retard its progress.

From the builders' hands she was plunged straightway to her fate and christening salvos acclaimed at once her birth and death. Builders of renown had launched her on the billows with confident assurance of her strength, while every port rang with praise for their achievement; shipbuilding to them was both a science and a religion; parent ships and sister ships had easily withstood the waves, while the mark of their hammer was all that was needed to give assurance of the high quality of the work. In the construction of the Titanic no limit of cost circumscribed their endeavor, and when this vessel took its place at the head of the line every modern improvement in shipbuilding was supposed to have been realized; so confident were they that both owner and builder were eager to go upon the trial trip; no sufficient tests were made of boilers or bulkheads or gearing or equipment, and no life-saving or signal devices were reviewed; officers and crew were strangers to one another and passengers to both; neither was familiar with the vessel or its implements or tools; no drill or station practice or helpful discipline disturbed the tranquility of that voyage, and when the crisis came a state of absolute unpreparedness stupefied both passengers and crew, and in their despair the ship went down, carrying as needless a sacrifice of noble women and brave men as ever clustered about the Judgment Seat in any single moment of passing time.

We shall leave to the honest judgment of England its painstaking chastisement of the British Board of Trade, to whose laxity of regulation and hasty inspection the world is largely indebted for this awful fatality. Of contributing causes there were very many. In the face of warning signals, speed was increased, and messages of danger seemed to stimulate her to action rather than to persuade her to fear.

At noon on that fatal Sunday the steamship Baltic warned her of ice within 5 miles of her track and near the place where the accident occurred; at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and again an hour before the accident, when but a few miles away, the steamship Californian signaled the Titanic to beware of danger, which her operator curtly acknowledged; the same evening the Titanic transmitted to the Hydrographic Office in Washington a message from the steamship Amerika, saying she had passed "two large icebergs" near the track of the ill-fated ship. In the face of these warnings, each revolution of her engines marked at the moment of the collision her highest speed of 24 1/2 miles per hour.

The Titanic rushed onward on her true course - one recognized as appropriate and agreed upon by mariners as the international highway for westbound vessels, yet dangerous at this season of the year, when the Labrador current may be bearing vast masses of ice across the track of ships. Scores of these towering glaciers planted themselves in the very pathway of this ship, and were so large and so numerous that, in the absence of fog, they should have been easily discernible by the lookout, who says in his testimony that if he had been supplied with glasses, such as he had been accustomed to on the Oceanic, and on this vessel, between Belfast and Southampton, but which were denied him by Second Officer Lightoller between Southampton and the place of this accident, he could have seen the iceberg with which this ship collided, "soon enough to get out of the way."

One of these icebergs was nearly 200 feet above the level of the sea, with seven-eighths of its ponderous bulk hidden beneath the surface. They are composed of ice and earth and rock, and old sailors of the coast of Newfoundland usually give them a wide berth. Land has been formed by these deposits, and icebergs have frequently grounded in 20 fathoms of water with protruding spires more than a hundred feet in height. As they go southward their journey is slow and erratic, and the influence of spring often causes explosions in the ice, which frequently serve to warn sailors of danger; sometimes the drift of field ice, led by a great berg, has been known to convoy schooners in a calm, while shipwrecked sailors have drifted hundreds of miles in safety upon the irregular surface of the ice. Skillful seamanship finds little difficulty in avoiding these obstacles, and those most familiar with the North Atlantic are usually alert at this season of the year to avoid unnecessary peril.

Capt. Smith knew the sea and his clear eye and steady hand had often guided his ship through dangerous paths. For 40 years storms sought in vain to vex him or menace his craft. But once before in all his honorable career was his pride humbled or his vessel maimed. Each new advancing type of ship built by his company was handed over to him as a reward for faithful services and as an evidence of confidence in his skill. Strong of limb, intent of purpose, pure in character, dauntless as a sailor should be, he walked the deck of his majestic structure as master of her keel.

Titanic though she was, his indifference to danger was one of the direct and contributing causes of this unnecessary tragedy, while his own willingness to die was the expiating evidence of his fitness to live. Those of us who knew him well - not in anger, but in sorrow - file one specific charge against him: Overconfidence and neglect to heed the oft-repeated warnings of his friends. But in his horrible dismay, when his brain was afire with honest retribution, we can still see, in his manly bearing and his tender solicitude for the safety of women and little children, some traces of his lofty spirit when dark clouds lowered all about him and angry elements stripped him of his command. His devotion to his craft, even "as it writhed and twisted and struggled" for mastery over its foe, calmed the fears of many of the stricken multitude who hung upon his words, lending dignity to a parting scene as inspiring as it is beautiful to remember.

The mastery of his indifference to danger, when other and less pretentious vessels doubled their lookout or stopped their engines, finds no reasonable hypothesis in conjecture or speculation; science in shipbuilding was supposed to have attained perfection and to have spoken her last word; mastery of the ocean had at last been achieved; but overconfidence seems to have dulled the faculties usually so alert. With the atmosphere literally charged with warning signals and wireless messages registering their last appeal, the stokers in the engine room fed their fires with fresh fuel, registering in that dangerous place her fastest speed.

President Ismay testified:

My recollection is that between Southampton and Cherbourg we ran at 60 revolutions, from Cherbourg to Queenstown at 70 revolutions, and when we left Queenstown we were running at 72 revolutions, and I believe that the ship was worked up to 75 revolutions, or about 22 knots per hour, but I really have no accurate knowledge of that.

And he again said, when asked if she was running at her maximum speed at the time she was making 75 revolutions:

No, sir; my understanding is, or I am told, that the engines were balanced and would run their best at 78 revolutions.

It has been said many times - often in my hearing and often by letter - that the last dinner which he had partaken in the café of the ship, given by Mr. and Mrs. Widener, of Philadelphia, might have had some influence upon the action of the captain, but I have the word of the hostess, whose husband was lost in this catastrophe, that at that dinner Capt. Smith touched no liquor of any kind; indeed, that he asked that all glasses be removed from his plate. I make this statement because I think it is due to the memory of the dead, whose habits of life are worthy the highest praise.

Last Saturday, in company with Admiral Watt, of the Navy, I visited the Olympic, a sister ship of the Titanic, just before she sailed from New York. Down deep in the bottom of that ship, 24 feet below the level of the sea, I found the head firemen of the Titanic, and there in the grease and the heat, by a dim light and surrounded by his companions, he swore that he was the first man to see the water come through the sides of the stricken ship. He said that the tear extended through the side of the forward fireroom, that the water came from a point about 20 feet below the sea level, and rushed like a mighty torrent into the ship.

We know from those who gave the order to construct the ship that the designer of the Titanic and Olympic, who was himself aboard the Titanic and did not survive, a young man but 39 years of age, designed to the ship to carry safely two of her watertight compartments full of water in case of accident, the presumption being that by collision but one bulkhead and at most two of her watertight compartments would be injured, in which event, the watertight doors being closed, the ship could carry this additional weight without serious danger.

By the supplementary testimony of this head firemen, I am able to say that five compartments filled almost instantly. He also said that at the time the ship struck the iceberg the indicator in the fireroom displayed the letters "full speed," and that the ship had been running full speed during the entire afternoon and evening; that 24 of her boilers were lighted out of the 29, and at no other time on the voyage were so many boilers lighted; that when he received a bell signal he looked hastily to the indicator and found that the white light, "full speed," had been taken from the indicator and the red light, "stop," had been substituted in its place. Instantly the watertight doors between the firerooms were closed, but the danger had been accomplished, the harm had been done, and through a space extending past four bulkheads a tear had been made in that steel bottom admitting more water than the ship was able to carry. The water came in with tremendous force, and within five minutes after she struck the ship listed about 5 degrees.

I then reached a conclusion which, in my opinion, accounts for the small proportion of steerage who were saved. The occupants of the forward steerage were the first of the passengers to realize the danger. One or two witnesses said they stepped out of their berths into water probably an inch or two inches deep. Those in the forward steerage knew directly of the impact and of the presence of water, which came up from the lower part of the ship into the mail room and the forward steerage. Those steerage passengers went on deck and as fast as they were able took places in the lifeboats, while the after steerage, more than an eighth of a mile away, was by the operation of the added weight raised out of the water. That after steerage was a deck higher than the forward steerage, and was lifted higher and higher until the ship finally disappeared, so that these steerage passengers got their first warning of real danger as the angle of the deck became very great. I feel that the small number of steerage survivors was thus due to the fact that they got no definite warning before the ship was really doomed, when most of the lifeboats had departed.

At 12.55 Sunday afternoon, answering the warning of Capt. Ranson, of the steamship Baltic, at whose christening he had taken such a proud part, and on whose bridge he had so often braved the perils of the Atlantic, Capt. Smith only replied, "Thanks for your message and good wishes. Had fine weather since leaving." The soft warmth from the Gulf Stream, through which they had passed during the day, gave way at night to chill and cold; the air and water registered their lowest point an hour before the collision. The warnings of shipmasters fell upon deaf ears and officers and crew seemed to have regarded the paper bulletins of danger with absolute indifference and, as if to stir their laggard spirits, nature gave a warning of approaching peril so significant that passengers in stateroom and steerage shut out the chill and spoke to one another of the sudden cold. Sailors off the Grand Banks know the importance of the thermometer, which is almost as necessary to their safety as is the compass. Even the quartermaster, Hichens, who regularly took the temperature of the water from the sea, says, "It suddenly became bitter cold," and added that the first order received by him from Second Officer Lightoller at 8 o'clock Sunday evening was "to take his compliments down to the ship's carpenter and inform him to look to his fresh water; that it was about to freeze," and he says he was also directed by the same officer to find the deck engineer and bring him the key to open the heaters in the corridor and the officers' quarters, wheelhouse, and chart room on account of the intense cold. He also said he took the temperature of the air and water just before he went to the wheel, at 8 o'clock, and that the bucket, with which he dipped the water to make the tests "was a small paint tin," an old one, only improvised for the occasion; that the new one, a long piece of leather, leaded, was not furnished him; while Mrs. Walter Douglas, of Minneapolis, asserts under oath that both she and her husband, who went down with the ship, saw the quartermaster Saturday afternoon attempt to reach the water with this bucket and says that he was unable to do so, and that both she and Mr. Douglas saw him fill the bucket from a hydrant on the deck and take that water to be tested.

Hichens then said:

At 10 o'clock I went to the wheel. * * * All went along very well until 20 minutes to 12, when three gongs came from the lookout, and immediately afterwards a report on the telephone, "Iceberg right ahead." The chief officer rushed from the wing to the bridge. * * * He rushed to the engines. I heard the telegraph bell ring; also give the order, "Hard astarboard." Repeated the order, "Hard astarboard." "The helm is hard over, sir." * * * The captain * * * came back to the wheelhouse and looked at the commutator (clinometer) in front of the compass, which is a little instrument like a clock to tell you how the ship is listing. The ship had a list of 5° to the starboard * * * about 5 to 10 minutes after the impact.

At that moment the ice, resistless as steel, stole upon her and struck her in a vital spot, while the last command of the officer of the watch in his effort to avert disaster, distracted by the sudden appearance of extreme danger, sharply turned aside the prow, the part best prepared to resist collision, exposing the temple to the blow; at the turn of the bilge the steel encasement yielded to a glancing blow so slight that the impact was not felt in many parts of the ship, although representing an energy of more than a million foot tons, said to be the equivalent of the combined broadsides of 20 of the largest guns in our battleship fleet fired at the same moment, with a blow so deadly many of the passengers and crew did not even know of the collision until tardily advised of the danger by anxious friends, and even then official statements were clothed in such confident assurances of safety to arouse no fear. The awful force of the impact was well known to the master and builder, Mr. Andrews, who, from the first, must have known the ship was doomed and never uttered an encouraging sign to one another. Neither ever adjusted a lifebelt to himself. The builder, whose heart must have broken when he realized he had not prepared that ship to resist a blow so dangerous, seemed to have been quite willing to go down with the ship. There is evidence to show that no final warning was given by any officer. President Ismay asked the captain whether he thought the blow was serious. The captain only replied, "I think it is." Col. Astor, at the request of his wife and others who stood near him on the boat deck, was asked to make the same inquiry, and did; and to that inquiry the captain replied, "I think it is dangerous."

There is evidence tending to show that even the watertight compartments were not successfully closed either above or below. No general alarm was given, no ship's officers formally assembled, no orderly routine was attempted or organized system of safety begun. Haphazard, they rushed by one another on staircase and in hallway, while men of self-control gathered here and there about the decks, helplessly staring at one another or giving encouragement to those less courageous than themselves.

Lifebelts were finally adjusted to all. Only Saturday night I gathered from one who rescued the bodies brought in by the Mackay-Bennett ship that, while he found 190 bodies in one "pack," as they call it at sea, 62 miles from the place where the ship went down and within 500 yards of the iceberg which is supposed to have done the damage, all of these 190, with the exception of a little child 2 years of age, were well fitted with lifebelts, and it is the testimony of the surgeon who accompanied the ship that in the position in which he found them he is of the opinion that many of them lived at least four hours after they were thrown into the water, and were killed by the cold, and yet no relief came. The lifeboats were cleared away, and although strangely insufficient in number - and right here I want to say that my observations on the steamship Olympic on Saturday were most gratifying. I saw the voluntary double equipment of lifeboats. Where they had formerly carried 20 they now carry 42, leaving ample room for passengers who desire to use her decks for other purposes and affording better protection to passengers and crew.

The Titanic boats were only partially loaded and in all instances unprovided with compasses and only three of them had lamps. They were manned so badly that, in the absence of prompt relief, they would have fallen easy victims to the advancing ice floe, nearly 30 miles in width and rising 16 feet above the surface of the water. Their danger would have been as great as if they had remained on the deck of the broken hull, and if the sea had risen these toy targets, with over 700 exhausted people, would have been helplessly tossed about upon the waves without food or water. One witness swore that two of the three stewards in her boat admitted that they had never had an oar in their hands before and did not even know what the oarlock was for. The lifeboats were filled so indifferently and lowered so quickly that, according to the uncontradicted evidence, nearly 500 people were needlessly sacrificed to want of orderly discipline in loading the few that were provided. There were 1,324 passengers on the ship. The lifeboats would have easily cared for 1,176 and only contained 704, 12 of whom were taken into the boats from the water, while the weather conditions were favorable and the sea perfectly calm. And yet it is said by some well-meaning persons that the best of discipline prevailed. If this is discipline, what would have been disorder?

Among the passengers were many strong men who had been accustomed to command, whose lives had marked every avenue of endeavor, and whose business experience and military training especially fitted them for such an emergency. These were rudely silenced and forbidden to speak, as was the president of this company, by junior officers, a few of whom, I regret to say, availed themselves of the first opportunity to leave the ship. Some of the men, to whom had been intrusted the care of passengers, never reported to their official stations, and quickly deserted the ship with a recklessness and indifference to the responsibilities of their positions as culpable and amazing as it is impossible to believe. And some of these men say that they "laid by" in their partially filled lifeboats and listened to the cries of distress "until the noise quieted down" and surveyed from a safe distance the unselfish men and women and faithful fellow officers and seamen, whose heroism lightens up this tragedy and recalls the noblest traditions of the sea.

Some things are dearer than life itself, and the refusal of Phillips and Bride, wireless operators, to desert their posts of duty, even after the water had mounted to the upper deck, because the captain had not given them permission to leave, is an example of faithfulness worthy of the highest praise, while the final exit of the Phillips boy from the ship and from the world was not so swift as to prevent him from pausing long enough to pass a cup of water to a fainting woman, who fell from her husband's arm into the operator's chair, as he was tardily fleeing from his wireless apparatus, where he had ticked off the last message from his ship and from his brain.

Even the electric signal of distress was only sent upon its unseen search for help after a delay of nearly 20 minutes, and its spark was arrested by an accident so providential as to excite wonder. In five minutes more the ill-paid operator on the Carpathia, who snatched this secret from the air, would have forgotten his perplexities in slumber, and no note would have been taken of the awful importance of the passing hour. Partially undressed, he had left the telephone receiver upon his head, and through it heard the call for help. On the instant the ship's course was changed and the captain replied, "We are coming to your relief." The elements of nature have chosen darkness as the most helpful medium of radio communication, and operators should be at their posts at that time of the voyage, ready to catch every unfavorable sign and to apprise officers and crew of dangers besetting the ship. Neither timber nor iron nor steel are impervious to its secrets; in its limitless quest no barrier seems insurmountable, and distance is annihilated as by the lightning's flash; schoolboys toy with its in mysteries and catch its lessons from the housetops. Marconi, genius and gentleman, sitting in his office in the capital of the Argentine Republic, read, as in an open book, a wireless message direct from the coast of Ireland. When the world weeps together over a common loss, when nature moves in the same direction in all spheres, why should not the nations clear the sea of its conflicting idioms and wisely regulate this new servant of humanity? To that end wages must be increased in proportion to the responsibility assumed, and service, to be useful, must be made continuous, night and day, while this new profession must rid itself of the spirit of venality, to which, in my opinion, the world is indebted for a systematic reign of silence concerning the details of this disaster, so apparent as to excite international concern, and should be discouraged.

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