Meet The Two Unsung Heroes Who Were Critical in Saving 705 Titanic Survivors
Shortly after the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg that would seal its fate, the captain gave the order to send out an emergency signal. The two wireless operators who sent it — Jack Phillips and Harold Bride — were the only link to the outside world.
In fact, just a few hours earlier, the wireless system had failed, and Bride and Phillips had worked diligently to fix it. Had they not, cicumstances could have turned out even worse. If the ship relied upon flares or other analog means of maritime communication, there would have been no survivors or recounts of what has happened. The Carpathia, a nearby ship that rescued 705 Titanic passengers, would never have come to the Titanic's aid. The world would never have known what unfolded, and the Titanic might still be lying undiscovered at the bottom of the North Atlantic.
Upon docking, the Carpathia was boarded by a New York Times reporter and Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the wireless technology and owner of the Marconi Company, which employed Phillips and Bride. Bride, who survived, recounted what unfolded in the wireless room.
Upon informing the captain the last boat had left, Bride recalled him saying to them, “Men, you have done all you can. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it’s every man for himself.” Phillips continued operating for around 15 minutes, while Bride tied a life belt to him. When a passenger tried to steal the life belt, Bride knocked him unconscious. Bride finally fled and managed to swim to a life boat and later be rescued. Phillips was not so lucky.
As Bride told the Times reporter, once aboard the Carpathia he “positively refused to send press dispatches because the bulk of personal messages with touching words of grief was large.” As a result, confusion back on land reigned, with most early reports declaring all passengers saved and attributing this miracle to wireless technology. In London, people went to bed relieved.
The New York Times recounted a powerful scene of people rushing along with final editions of evening papers, containing the same inaccurate reports, when “some of them stopped as if transfixed as they caught sight of the bulletin declaring the Titanic had gone down and all on board except the women and children had been lost.”
Thousands waited in Times Square for news of loved ones and friends, scanning new names of survivors. Hope turned to despair as hours passed without news. A collective mourning had begun on both sides of the Atlantic. One man yelled, “How dare you — how dare you say they’re all lost now when they were saying all day they were all saved? How dare you do it?”
The erroneous reports were eventually investigated by Parliament in the U.K. For its part, the Marconi Company blamed amateur wireless telegraph operators in the United States, who didn’t need permission to operate.
Marconi himself was heralded as a hero, however. The president of the League of Political Education said, “If I could select a crown for Mr. Marconi it would be a coronet surmounted by a globe on which would be inlaid in pearls those magnificent, significant letter, C. Q. D.”(the call sign for distress). Britain’s Post Master General declared, “Those who have been saved, have been saved through one man, Mr. Marconi, and his marvelous invention.”
Marconi didn’t revel in the praise, however. He criticized the lack of life boats and lax regulations by British and American governments. He also bemoaned the substandard radio technology aboard the Carpathia, which couldn’t broadcast or receive signals at a great distance — also a factor in the lack of information back on land. Though, he defended Bride for giving priority to survivor messages over the press updates.
“I really would like it if less was said about me,” Marconi said. “The wireless has been developed through the work of scores of people, some of them lost sight of and forgotten, not withstanding the value of what they did.” It wasn’t all praise however, one German paper accused him of a conspiracy of withholding information so an exclusive could be sold to a newspaper, for which Marconi sued them for defamation.
The real heroes however were Jack Phillips and Harold Bride, who changed the fate of the 705 who survived.