4. Collision & Aftermath
Logo on White Star Deck Rug
From lifeboat recovered by 'Carpathia'.
Lt. W.M. Murdoch RNR
The recent release in the United Kingdom of the film 'Titanic' has yet again brought the actions of her crew under public scrutiny. Unfortunately, this has also perpetuated myths about the principal officers such as Captain Smith and his First Officer William McMaster Murdoch. The film has incorrectly portrayed Murdoch as a man who committed suicide by shooting himself after killing passengers.
In this page, the events of the 14th and 15th of April 1912 have been reconstructed, centering particularly on those involving Murdoch. There is also a summary of later events up to the British Board of Inquiry under Lord Mersey. The Inquiry, and the effects of the death on Murdoch's family, are dealt with elsewhere on this site.
Radio message from 'Caronia' warns 'Titanic' of field ice and icebergs at 42 degrees North, between 49 degrees and 51 degrees West. This message taken to bridge.
Divine Service held in First Class Saloon by Purser Henry Mcelroy.
Dutch vessel 'Noordam' reports ice in same area as 'Caronia'. This may have been sent to Captain Smith on the bridge at about noon.
Sextant observations on navigating bridge to calculate position of ship. 'Titanic' sailed 546 nautical miles since previous noon.
Murdoch had been on watch, but had been relieved to allow him to eat his lunch. According to Second Officer Lightoller's American testimony, he and Murdoch discussed the ice problem 'after lunch', and thought that they would reach the ice-field at about 11:00 p.m. Certainly, Murdoch is reported to have listened to Lightoller and to have said "All right."
The White Star liner 'Baltic' relayed warnings of icebergs and "large quantities of field ice" at 41 degrees and 51 minutes North latitude and 49 degrees and 52 minutes longitude. This is 250 nautical miles from the current position of 'Titanic', - about eleven hours' steaming time at 22 knots. Captain Smith was given the message, and Smith later handed it to James Bruce Ismay - who pocketed it for some hours.
The Norddeutscher Lloyd liner 'Amerika' warns all ships of a 'large iceberg' at 41 degrees 27 minutes North latitude and 50 degrees and 8 minutes West longitude. This message was placed in the Marconi Room tray and only delivered much later.
At around this time, the radio of the 'Titanic' failed, for reasons that kept First Radio Operator Phillips at work on it for at least four hours. He may have missed several key ice warnings as a result.
Chief Officer Henry Tingle Wilde takes over the duty of Officer of the Watch (on the bridge) from Murdoch. Wilde will be on the bridge until 6:00, when he will be relieved by Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller.
During the afternoon, according to Lightoller, the officers not on watch discussed ice conditions amongst themselves. The most dangerous time would be between about 8:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. (on the 15th). Lightoller did amend his later statements to 'from eleven o'clock onwards', but he probably was expecting ice during his own watch. He may have been avoiding questions about his own navigation, earlier on.
Thermometers record a fall in air temperature to 33 degrees Fahrenheit (about 1 degree Centigrade above freezing). This could indicate an approach to an ice-field. Nightfall was at about 6:00 p.m.
According to Fourth Officer Boxhall, at 5:50 p.m. Captain Smith decided to 'turn the corner', changing course southwest towards New York, about three quarters of an hour earlier than usual, possibly to avoid the ice. But it is drifting south, and Smith did not make sufficient allowance for this, nor did he reduce speed.
By about 6:30 p.m., Phillips was back on the air, but he had a considerable backlog of commercial messages to clear. He and Bride were already tired, with a prospect of little break until after 11:30 p.m.
Trimmer Samuel Hemming is ordered by First Officer William Murdoch to make sure that the forward forecastle hatch is kept shut to stop the light destroying the night-vision of the lookouts in the crows'-nest on the foremast. Murdoch is definitely aware of the danger lying ahead.
Three radio messages are received from 'Californian' which is having difficulty passing through pack ice at 42 degrees 3 minutes North latitude and 49 degrees 9 minutes West longitude. The messages are delivered to the bridge. Captain Smith is attending a party in the First Class Saloon (but he does not become drunk). The edge of the ice field would then be less than 50 miles away.
Lightoller worried that the fresh water supply could freeze, as the sea temperature was close to freezing. Note that salt water can stay liquid due to its salt content down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit whilst fresh water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Seawater salt concentrations freeze at about 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Icebergs are mostly made of fresh water ice, so tend to float.
Captain Smith arrives on bridge before turning in for the night, to spend time discussing sea conditions with Lightoller. The weather is unusually calm and clear, Lightoller claims that he discussed iceberg visibility, as a large iceberg was detected more by the surf at its water-line than by light reflected from its upper parts. A moonless night, but clear and stars very visible. Lightoller mistakes the ice-blink of light on ice for stars setting on the horizon, as is revealed by his testimony at the Inquiries. The ship must already be amongst smaller ice floes. Smith leaves orders for him to be roused "if it becomes at all doubtful".
The writer has learnt that the first stage of ice formation in a cold sea is the formation of 'frazil' ice, - small platelets that give an oily appearance to the water, - and which then aggregate to form first 'pancake' ice then 'floe' ice. Frazil and pancake ice may have been hard to detect on a moonless night, and would not have noticeably impeded the progress of so large a liner. The ice would also have tended to locally calm any wave motion, reducing the surf against small growlers or larger, full-sized, icebergs.
Lightoller sends a message to the lookouts to keep a sharp lookout for icebergs until morning. Visibility still excellent, sky is still clear of clouds.
'Mesaba' radios warnings of 'heavy pack ice and icebergs' in a zone between 42 degrees and 41 degrees 25 minutes North latitude, and 49 degrees and 50 degrees 30 minutes West longitude. The message is placed in a tray and overlooked under the pressure of other radio traffic. There is an ice-field about 80 miles long ahead of 'Titanic', and Lightoller has not been passed the information.
In a 1936 BBC radio interview, Lightoller claimed that he would have halved the speed of the ship and notified Captain Smith, had he received the 'Mesaba' message. Captain Smith might have had extra evidence to show Ismay, or, conversely, he might have resumed the previous speed. It is very important to recognise the strength of authority that both Ismay and Smith had aboard ship. The crew of the 'Californian', later on, were reluctant to disturb their own Captain because of his own reputation as an autocrat.
Murdoch is roused in his cabin by Second Quartermaster Olliver, and readies himself for the watch ahead.
First Officer William Murdoch relieves Lightoller. At same time, new lookouts Frederick Fleet and Lee take over from Jewell and Hogg. The warning to watch out for icebergs is passed from one watch to the next. Sea temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Centigrade, - freezing point), but at 10:30 p.m. the sea temperature falls below freezing to 31 degrees Fahrenheit. It will take between twenty and thirty minutes for Fleet and Lee's eyes to fully adapt to the night, and they are looking forward into a 22-knot wind caused by the ship's steaming speed. As a result, the wind-chill on their faces and eyes must be causing their eyes to water, distorting vision and deterring them from looking straight ahead. There are no binoculars in the box in the crows'nest.
First Radio Operator Phillips is sending commercial wireless messages by morse from 'Titanic' to the Cape Race radio station, about 500 miles away. 'Californian' is stopped in ice between 10 and 19 miles north of 'Titanic', and her warning messages jam Phillips. Phillips tells the operator of the 'Californian' "Keep out ! - Shut up ! You're jamming my signal, - I'm working Cape Race." Unable to get confirmation that Phillips has informed the bridge of this ice warning, the only radio operator on 'Californian' monitors 'Titanic' until 11:30 p.m,, then turns off his set and goes to bed. No 24-hour radio watch is required at sea, at this time. Incidentally, Cameron's film implies that Phillips was crudely rude to the radio operator on the 'Californian', who is then made to turn off his radio in a fit of pique, a slur on both dedicated 'Marconimen'. All three radio operators were tired men, the one on 'Californian' being the sole operator on that ship.
Murdoch is uneasy, and stands out on the open starboard wing bridge of the 'Titanic'. His position is not certain, - he may have been on the port wing bridge, or even have changed sides during the watch. Moody is beside the crows'-nest telephone in the enclosed section of the bridge. Standby Quartermaster Alfred Olliver is in the wheelhouse, at work trimming the oil-lamps in the binnacle of the steering compass. Behind them, Quartermaster Hichens is at the ship's wheel. The ship's telegraphs are set for almost full ahead together, 75 to 78 revolutions or 22 to 22.5 knots.
Boxhall is approaching the bridge from the starboard boat deck at this moment. It is uncertain as to whether Murdoch was on the starboard or the port wing bridge; Elizabeth Gibbons, in her 'To the Bitter End', considers he was on the port wing bridge from the evidence of Lightoller, but others contend that Murdoch was on the starboard side. Unfortunately, Boxhall's later testimony does not help with this. The writer does not consider it to be too significant, so has adhered to the more commonly accepted theory of Murdoch being on the starboard side.
Fleet and Lee smell the chilled air of the ice, note a slight haze, but do not yet spot the berg. It is dark, the swell is calmed (maybe by ice) so there is no obvious mark for them to see. Murdoch, on the wing bridge, can only see what is visible over the top of the ship's bow. He may have seen a light distant on the port bow, and be concerned about colliding with another ship.
The 'Rappahannock' had passed close by on the previous night, and local radio traffic indicated other ships in the area. The 1910 head on collision of White Star's 'Baltic' and the 'Standard' had been the result of an eastbound ship cutting too far to the north. Now, a few minutes before the collision, a white light had been seen low on the sea on the port bow, and that light has never been clearly identified. It probably diverted both Fleet and Lee from gazing straight ahead, and may have distracted Murdoch.
This page was prepared with editorial assistance from Samuel Scott Murdoch, the nephew of the First Officer of the 'Titanic', Ernie Robinson, maritime historian.
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