That should have been the headlines on April 16, 1912 but sadly we all know the reality. What if there was a ship that was closer than the Carpathia the night the Titanic sank? What if I told you there was such a ship and that if they would have responded the fatalities following Titanic's sinking would have been minimal at most? I'm sure you think I am making this up and just feeding into the whole Titanic myth thing, but I'm not. The SS Californian was not only the closest ship to Titanic, she even sent Titanic numerous ice warnings and even reported stoping for the night due to the ice. We all hear the story about how the Carpathia steamed through the night to save the survivors, but we never hear about a the Californian and how they sat by as the Titanic sank and thousands died.
There isn't really anything special about the Californian that makes it stand out in the course of maritime history, well except that it did nothing as the Titanic sank. She was British operated ship and mainly used to transport cotton from the states to Jolly Old England. The relation to Titanic is very minimal, just some general chatter between radiomen. However that chatter was important and always overlooked by Titanic. Around 7:30pm on April 14 a message was sent to Titanic about "three large bergs." Another message was later sent around 11:30pm and the Californian informed Titanic they would stop for the night only a few miles away due to an ice field. Titanic, however responded back in a not so friendly way, "Shut up! Shut up! I'm working Cape Race" which would be her final message to the Californian. The Californian was now stopped for the night and Titanic was steaming directly into the ice they were warned about.
We all know what happens next, "iceberg, right ahead" and Titanic hits an iceberg and begins to sink around 11:40pm. But what was happening on the Californian? Well her captain, Captain Stanley Lord, was informed of Titanic's location and issued the ice field warnings before retiring and Second Officer Herbert Stone took over. After his orders to warn Titanic of their stopping for the night it would be only 10 minutes before Titanic hits the iceberg and the two ships are less than 10 miles away from each other. A few minutes later the Californian's wireless operator, Cyril Evans, turned off the wireless and went to bed. With Stone now at the helm, Titanic rested in his hands. The Californian had tried signalling Titanic with a Morse Lamp to give away their position. Stone had reported to Lord about seeing signal rockets but no further actions were taken. The crew of the Californian sat by with no knowledge of the disaster happening only a few miles away and Titanic would sink at 2:20am. At 4:30am Lord ordered Evans to find out why the ship was firing rockets all night, it was then that the Carpathia informed them about the Titanic's sinking. Lord then ordered the ship to assist in the search for survivors but arrived as Carpathia secured the last survivor. The Californian would hang around for a few hours, finding nothing, before steaming on to Boston.
The Californian arrived in Boston on April 19 and no one had any idea about her role in the Titanic sinking. The story about the Californian broke on April 23 in a report in a local New England newspaper, the Daily Item and in the Boston American. Both stories were identical as the witnesses were crew members of the Californian, carpenter James McGregor and assistant engineer Ernest Gill. Captain Lord also spoke to papers but his stories never matched up. As all the stories were released many crew members of the Californian were subpoenaed to testify at both British and American inquiries. Captain Lord was proven wrong time after time at both inquiries as his testimonies were consistently wrong, conflicting and evasive. The inquiries found that the Californian was closer than Lord testified and that Captain E.J. Smith of Titanic's order to lower the port side life boats first signaled another ships location as close enough to row to. It was later the judgement of the courts that if the Californian responded the loss of life would have been less. Captain Lord is judge and vilified for two reasons; First, if he had left the wireless on there would be a documented time table of events. Second, he should have responded to signal rockets as that was a maritime signal for distress.
So what happened to Captain Lord and the Californian? Captain Lord was either dismissed or resigned from the Leyland Line. He did however continue to captain ships and never stopped trying to clear his name from the Titanic Inquires. Lord would die in 1962 and never clear his name and will be remembered as the captain who stood by as people died needlessly and demonized by historians from 1912 until today. As for the Californian, she continued to be used for a few more years. She was taken over by the British government during WWI as a supply ship. While sailing from Salonica to Maresilles she was torpedoed by the German U-35. One man perished in the attack but the wreak of the Californian has yet to be found. But what do we see here? We see a captain who did nothing on a ship that could have been the most famous rescue ship ever. Captain Lord would have gone down in history as one of the greatest maritime heroes and the Californian would be held in higher regards than the Carpathia is today. In the end the Titanic's passengers were helpless in the North Atlantic as they awaited their deaths while there one chance at being saved sat less the ten miles away.