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Remembering RMS Carpathia

by Lisa Plotnick

 

On the centenary of the sinking and tremendous loss of life on RMS Titanic, many historians, journalists, and bloggers are writing of the tragedy that befell the liner on her maiden voyage. Rather than add to the plethora of articles on Titanic—most of which are very good, by the way—we have decided to commemorate this milestone anniversary by honoring the ship that rescued her surviving passengers, the Cunard Line’s RMS Carpathia.

 

Birth of Carpathia

 

Carpathia was built in Newcastle, England in 1903. She was one of Cunard’s smaller passenger ships, measuring 13,600 gross tons, 558 feet long, and just 64 feet wide. Her passenger complement was 1,704, which included accommodations for 204 passengers in first class and 1,500 in steerage. (She was later fitted for three classes, in which third class carried the largest segment.)

 

Launched soon after Cunard beauties Mauretania (1907) and Lusitania (also 1907), Carpathia was one of several Cunarders that served a more utilitarian than luxury purpose. Her main duty was to transport passengers between Liverpool and Boston, and she was also used to carry immigrants to the United States from the Mediterranean. It was on one of these return trips in April 1912 that she made her great mark in history.

 

Titanic Legacy

 

On April 11, 1912, Carpathia departed New York for what was to be a routine, seasonal crossing to the Mediterranean. Onboard were 740 passengers (including 550 in third class) and 325 crew. Just after midnight on her fourth night at sea, wireless operator Harold Cottam sent a message to Titanic after noting that the latter had not responded to a “batch of messages” from Cape Race. Carpathia then received the message that would start a well-coordinated, heroic rescue that would put this formerly nondescript ship into a prominent place in the history books:

 

“Come at once…we have struck an iceberg. It’s a CQD, old man,” followed by Titanic’s position. This was at 12:15 am. After alerting Captain Arthur Rostron, who charted a course for the 58-mile distance, Carpathia was on her way.

 

What followed was a string of commands by Captain Rostron, both preparing Carpathia to receive passengers and providing for their comfort once they were onboard. Among these were to prepare lifeboats, provide rope ladders, chair slings and canvas bags (for children) to bring passengers up to the decks, and open all gangway doors. Extra look-outs were provided in the crow’s nests. Additionally, he ordered the firing of his ship’s rockets at 15-minute intervals to reassure the Titanic passengers who were in the lifeboats. Power was diverted to the engines to expedite Carpathia’s arrival.

 

Despite her service speed of 14 knots, she raced to Titanic at a speed of 17 knots, reaching the first lifeboats at 4:10 am, four hours after the first had been launched and two hours after the last.

 

The crew was also busy readying Carpathia to receive an unknown number of Titanic’s survivors. The three dining rooms (first-, second-, and third-class) to tend to Titanic’s first-, second-, and third-class passengers, respectively. One doctor was stationed in each, along with stewards and other assistants. Blankets, soup, and other supplies were on the ready. Public rooms were prepared to serve as accommodations, as were empty berths in third class. Other stewards were commanded to oversee Carpathia’s passengers, keeping them out of the way while providing reassurance that all was well with their ship. Many Carpathia passengers offered their berths to Titanic’s survivors.

 

By 8:50 am local time, all of Titanic’s 705 surviving passengers and crew were onboard Carpathia, bringing the smaller ship’s human cargo to nearly 1,800. Within two hours, Carpathia reversed course to head back to New York, arriving there the evening of April 18, 3 days and 13 hours later to a hero’s welcome.

 

Final Days

 

Carpathia met with, unfortunately, a violent end. Like other British liners, she was pressed into war duties during World War I, during which she transported troops from North America to Europe. She carried passengers on the return trips, although these were greatly reduced in number due to the War. On July 17, 1918, Carpathia was traveling from Liverpool to Boston when she was hit by two torpedoes from a German Naval submarine. Five crewmen were killed, yet all 57 passengers and the remaining 218 crew evacuated safely. Two hours after the first impact, a third torpedo hit the ship, sinking her within ten minutes.

 

In contrast to many well-known ships, however, Carpathia will not be remembered for her final moments. Instead, she will be forever known for her role in rescuing and comforting the survivors of the most storied ship of the twentieth century, Titanic.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Braynard, Frank O. and William H. Miller, Jr., Picture History of the Cunard Line, 1840-1990. New York: Dover, 1991.

Chirnside, Mark, The Olympic-Class Ships: Olympic, Titanic, Britannic. Stroud: Tempus, 2004.

Lord, Walter, A Night to Remember. New York: Bantam, 1956.

Meyers, L.T., The Sinking of the Titanic, Thrilling Stories of Survivors, with Photographs & Sketches. Halifax: Nimbus, 1998. Originally published as The Sinking of the Titanic and Great Sea Disasters. Philadelphia: C. Winston, 1912.

Miller, William H., Jr., Picture History of British Ocean Liners, 1900 to the Present. New York: Dover, 2001.