One Ship Came to the Titanic's Rescue on the Night It Sank

The sinking of the Titanic is probably the most famous nautical story in history. But there's another story you may not know: the story of the ship that raced to save its passengers. The RMS Carpathia wasn't as distinguished or elegant as the Titanic, but what it achieved that night was a feat of human virtue.

A Tale of Two Vessels

On April 10, 1912, the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic set sail from Southampton, England headed for New York City. It was one of the largest ships in the world and equally opulent, featuring a massive first-class dining saloon, four elevators, and a swimming pool. Even its second-class accommodations rivaled those of first class on other ships. Naturally, its passengers were society's crème de la crème: Isidor Straus, founder of Macy's; silent-film star Dorothy Gibson; real-estate millionaire Colonel John Jacob Astor IV; and many others. All told, 2,200 people were on board, 1,300 of them passengers.

Carpathia docked in New York following the rescue of Titanic's survivors.

One day later, a much smaller ship with a much less glamorous cast of characters set sail from the other side of the Atlantic. The RMS Carpathia left New York on April 11, headed for the Mediterranean port of Trieste where it would drop off elderly Americans on vacation and immigrants visiting home and pick up Hungarian emigrants eager to start their new lives in the United States, as it did throughout the year. The Carpathia had 700 people on board in addition to its captain, the 42-year-old Arthur Rostron. He had been an officer with the Cunard line of ships for nearly 20 years but had only worked on the Carpathia for three months.

Related Video: The Truth About the Titanic's Lifeboats

A Historic Call

Just past midnight on the morning of April 15, Carpathia's wireless operator was just about to take off his earphones and turn in for bed when he heard it: an SOS signal from the Titanic. He woke Captain Rostron who, after a brief moment of incredulity that the "unsinkable" Titanic could actually be in distress, considered his options. The Carpathia was 58 miles (93 kilometers) from the Titanic. At the ship's top speed of 14 knots, it would take them more than four hours to get there, and that's if they didn't strike a hull-breaching iceberg on the way. Was this really a wise decision?

We might wonder about these questions, but as far as the records show, they never crossed Rostron's mind. He simply jumped into action: He told the chief engineer to turn off all of the heat and hot water so they could use every last bit of steam to power the engines. Every last stoker on board was called to the engine room to shovel coal into the furnaces as fast as they could. The rest of the crew readied the ship for survivors, lowering the lifeboats and ladders, rigging emergency lighting, readying the cargo cranes to lift luggage and lifeboats. They set up first-aid stations. They prepared blankets and warm clothes. They made soup and brewed coffee and tea.

Meanwhile, the ship tore through the water as the engine worked beyond capacity. Forget 14 knots — the Carpathia reached a full 17 knots as it sped through minefields of icebergs without any radar to guide the way. Finally, at 4 a.m., they arrived at the Titanic's position — but there wasn't anything to be seen. Not at first. Suddenly, a streak of green lit up the sky as a lifeboat passenger shot an emergency flare. 10 minutes later, they pulled the first survivors on board. Over the next four hours, 705 passengers of the Titanic were brought safely aboard the Carpathia.

Captain Rostron decided the logical thing to do would be to turn back and return to New York. Though they were swarmed by reporters, both over wireless calls and through megaphones when they arrived, Rostron ordered the crew to ignore their questions. He was quiet about the event for years after until one day, when a journalist asked him how it was possible that such an ordinary ship could reach such extraordinary speed in those conditions. To that, he replied, "A hand other than mine was on the wheel that night."

Rostron would go on to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor from President William Taft, be named a knight commander of the Order of the British Empire, and be appointed the commodore of the entire Cunard fleet. But perhaps the most heartwarming award he got as a result of his heroism was from the survivors themselves. Led by "Unsinkable" Molly Brown — the woman played by Kathy Bates in the 1997 film — they presented him with a silver cup and a gold medal as a symbol of their deep gratitude. He faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge but ignored the obstacles, and saved more than 700 lives in the process.

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Read the whole story in "The Other Side of the Night: The Carpathia, the Californian, and the Night the Titanic Was Lost" by Daniel Allen Butler. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer April 10, 2019

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