Saturday marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Two-thirds of the passengers — 1,500 people — died when the luxury liner struck an iceberg and swiftly sank to the bottom of the freezing North Atlantic. The morning after the rescue ship docked, a U.S. Senate committee began interviewing the Titanic’s survivors to find out how an “unsinkable” ship could sink on its maiden voyage.
It didn’t take long for Congress to react. The morning after the Titanic went down, senators were already arguing which committee should be the one to investigate. Sen. William Alden Smith of Michigan was the fastest. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says the white-haired Republican lawyer proposed his Senate Commerce Committee start a special investigation immediately.
"There were reports – and these were semi-official reports from the Navy, which was intercepting the Marconi telegraph messages – that the president of the White Star Line, Bruce Ismay, who had survived the sinking and was on the rescue ship coming to New York, intended to return to England immediately and take the British crew with him," Ritchie said.
Smith convinced President William Howard Taft to send a U.S. Treasury cutter to intercept the rescue ship Carpathia.
Smith took the afternoon train to New York. The Senate issued subpoenas and a hearing began at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel just hours after the Carpathia docked. Here are excerpts from the transcripts:
Sen. Smith: You were in regular communication.
Wireless Operator Thomas Cottam from the Carpathia: Yes, sir.
Smith: With the Titanic?
Cottam: Yes, sir.
Smith: Until the last communication was heard?
Cottam: Yes, until the last communication was heard.
Smith: What was the last communication?
Cottam: Come quick! Our engine room is filling up to the boilers.
After several days, the hearings moved to Washington. As it happened, the Daughters of the American Revolution were in town for their annual convention. The women, appalled by the tragedy, packed the hearing room of the newly opened Senate office building. Ritchie says it was noisy.
"And it was in the days before microphones that the Senators could barely hear the testimony," he described.
The hearing was moved to a smaller room with fewer spectators. Senator Smith asked most of the questions. "Didn’t beat around the bush. Just duh duh, duh, duh, duh, duh. He was drilling them and he got good responses," Ritchie added.
Sen. Smith: Did you hear any pistol shots?
Titanic officer Harold Godfrey Lowe: Yes.
Smith: And by whom were they fired Sunday night?
Lowe: I heard them and I fired them.
Smith: What did you do?
Lowe: I had overcrowded her. But I knew that I had to take a certain amount of risk. So I thought well, I shall have to see that nobody else gets into the boat or else it will be a case! I saw a lot of Italians - Latin people - all along the ship’s rails. And they were all glaring more or less like wild beasts, ready to spring!
Donald Ritchie says the memories were fresh, and painful for the people who were talking about them:
First Class passenger Emily Ryerson from Philadelphia: My husband joked with some of the women he knew and I heard him say, “Don’t you hear the band playing?” I begged him to let me stay with him, but he said you must obey orders. “When they say women and children to the boats, you must go when your turn comes.”
George Hogg, Titanic lookout: I think all the women ought to have a gold medal on their breasts. God bless them. I will always raise my hat to a woman after what I saw.
First Class Passenger Mrs. J. Stuart White from New York: The women all rowed — every one of them. Miss Young rowed every minute. The men could not row. They did not know the first thing about it. Miss Swift from Brooklyn rowed every minute, from the steamer to the Carpathia. Miss Young rowed every minute also, except when she was throwing up, which she did six or seven times.
Occasionally, others on the committee got in a question, including Republican Sen. George C. Perkins, a former California governor who’d run steamships up and down the Pacific coast. He wondered how important it was that the Titanic lookout didn’t have binoculars:
Sen. Perkins: Could anything have been done to save more lives than were saved?
Titanic lookout George Hogg: No, sir. The only thing I can suggest is in regard to the glasses. If we’d had the glasses, we might have seen the berg before.
Perkins: Can you not see better with your plain eyes than you can with artificial glasses?
Hogg: On a very nice night, with stars shining, sometimes you might think it was a ship when it was a star on the horizon. If you had glasses, you could soon find out if it was a ship or not.
Donald Ritchie says the British press criticized the “sensation-seeking American hearings” conducted by “a backwoodsman from Michigan.” He says they also wrote about kangaroos in Michigan.
After 16 days of testimony from more than 50 witnesses, the committee issued its report. Many of the safety recommendations are now standard on ocean liners: a sufficient number of lifeboats, emergency drills for passengers and crew and improved communications. And the many pages of testimony have become a resource for writers and movie producers — including James Cameron, who scoured the transcripts as he prepared his 1997 blockbuster. Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says the Titanic hearings satisfied not just curiosity, "but a real sense of desperately wanting to know what went wrong." He says that’s the important part of any Congressional investigation: to uncover the facts.