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The SS Californian: The Ship That Watched Titanic Sink

Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.

The SS Californian

The SS Californian

Vilified forever in the epic tragedy as the 'Ship Who Watched Titanic Sink', the SS Californian remains one of the biggest unanswered questions in the immortal saga of tragedy.

Captain Stanley Lord's life would never be the same after that night. The American and British Inquiries in the wake of the sinking both found Lord's actions that night both unprofessional and negligible. While no formal charges were ever filed, the court of public opinion ruined the man's career and shattered his life.

Ironically, the SS Californian herself disappeared from history not long after the sinking. During World War I, a fate almost poetic in nature, the ship was sunk during the war and has never been found.

the-ss-californian-the-ship-that-ignored-titanics-distress-calls

The Californian Timeline on April 15, 1912.

What exactly transpired on the decks of the Californian that fateful night is forever lost to the voids of history and time. What we can deduce is pieced together from testimony given by Californian's captain and officers during the Official Inquires, and the only first hand record of the events of the tragedy ever to be produced. The following timeline is constructed from those very testimonies:

  • The Californian radioed Titanic at approximately 19:00 hours to warn of an ice field of which the Californian nearly collided with herself.

  • Captain Stanley Lord ordered the Californian to stop for the night, concluding it was too dangerous to proceed. As he was going off duty, he spotted the Titanic's lights on the horizon about 5 miles away.

  • Californian radioed Titanic again, warning that they had stopped and were surrounded by ice. The radio signal was so strong, it interrupted Titanic's regular communication and her reply was "Shut Up. Shut Up. I am Busy." Californian shut down its wireless at 23:30, Titanic struck the iceberg ten minutes later.

  • Californian was spotted from Titanic's bridge 25 minutes later and distress rockets were fired.

  • Officers aboard Californian observed several rockets and called down to Captain Lord, who had since gone to bed.

  • Lord suggested the Californian contact the vessel via morse lamp. No effort was ever made to wake the wireless operator. He suggested that the rockets were company signals of some kind. Testimony given during the British Inquiry suggests mix ideas about the rockets they saw. Some of Californian's officers believed there was a more serious nature behind the rockets.

  • At 0200, Titanic appeared to "be leaving the area" after firing a total of eight white rockets. This was reported to Captain Lord who did nothing. Titanic sank at 0220 hours.

  • At 0300, officers of the Californian sited rockets coming from the south. These were from RMS Carpathia who had traveled all night towards Titanic.

  • At 0416, A shift change resulted in Californian's wireless operator to inquire about why a ship had fired rockets earlier. Radio chatter regarding Titanic's SOS signal overwhelmed the airwaves. The news was sent to Captain Lord.

  • At 0530, Captain Lord, now awake, ordered the Californian to Titanic's position but instead of a direct route, Lord ordered a twisted, longer route that he would later claim, in the inquiry, was to Titanic's last broadcasted position.

  • Californian arrives alongside Carpathia who just finished collecting all survivors. After Carpathia departs for New York, Californian stays behind to continue the search only to find wreckage.
  • Californian continues to Boston.
This map illustrates Californian's close proximity to Titanic that night. Less than 20 nautical miles Northwest of the sinking ship.

This map illustrates Californian's close proximity to Titanic that night. Less than 20 nautical miles Northwest of the sinking ship.

The Aftermath

SS Californian arrived in Boston on April 19, 1912, unnoticed as the world had not yet learned of her significance. The American Inquiry, which was launched the same day as the sinking, learned of Californian's involvement on April 20th when members of her crew, including Captain Lord, leaked stories to the media about seeing the Titanic's distress rockets that night. Lord claimed his ship was thirty miles from the Titanic but other crew claimed it was less than twenty. When reporters pressed Lord, he replied that the exact location was a classified state secret. Lord gave a conflicting story as to why his wireless was offline that night. A result, he claimed, was due to shutting down for the evening. Other details also conflicted with his crew's accounts, including how long the Californian searched for survivors upon arriving at the wreck site, how many rockets the crew saw and its location relative to Titanic during that fateful night.

It didn't take long for the American Inquiry to subpoena Lord and the Californian crew which they did on April 23, 1912. While the crew's accounts were largely consistent in their recollection, Captain Lord's was conflicting and incomplete. Lord's knowledge of Titanic's rockets made up a large part of Lord's inconsistent testimony. What he told reporters, his American testimony and later in his May 2 British testimony were all different. First he denied ever seeing rockets, then he admitted seeing rockets from a third ship, not Titanic. He also openly disputed testimony given by the US Navy and other vessels pinning Californian within visual distance of Titanic.

More incriminating evidence, or a suspicious lack thereof, came in the form of Californian's logs. Its scrap log mysteriously disappeared sometime between the night of the disaster and Californian's arrival in Boston. The official log gave no mention of Titanic, a nearby ship, or rockets of any kind.

Both Inquires concluded Californian's position to be closer than Captain Lord's claim of twenty nautical miles and therefore concluded that the captain failed to act appropriately. The British Inquiry even went so far in saying that Californian could have saved an untold number of additional lives had she responded immediately to Titanic's rockets.




  • Read Captain Lord's Sworn Testimony
    Electronic - Fully Searchable - transcripts of the complete U.S. Senate and British Board of Trade inquiries, and reports, into the sinking of the S.S. 'Titanic.'
Captain Stanley Lord

Captain Stanley Lord

Legacy

Ironically, the Californian's inaction would prompt changes in international maritime law. In 1912, International radio treaties were adopted mandated 24-hour radio duty and later treaties saw the standardization of distress flares and rockets.

The conclusions of both Inquiries officially placed blame on Captain Stanley Lord of the SS Californian for his inaction of the disaster, a verdict that ruined both his career and his life. No criminal charges were ever filed against him in either the United States or United Kingdom. The social disgrace however marked Captain Lord in the public's eye as a coward. He was mocked and scorned wherever he went. His ridicule even equal to that of J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, who survived the sinking. Californian's owner, the Leyland Line, fired Captain Lord in August 1912. For the remainder of his life, the disgraced mariner would fight unsuccessfully to clear his name.

For the next eighty years, official reexaminations of the evidence including one as recent as 1992 all concluded the same results as the original investigations. Experts, scholars, historians and filmmakers would vilify Captain Lord in all forms of media from books to movies. Lord died in 1962 a broken man.


Fate of the SS Californian

The Californian herself existed only for a short time after her commanding officer was dismissed. When World War I broke out in 1914, the ship was pressed into service as a troop transport by the British government. In 1915, German U-Boat, U-35, torpedoed Californian off the coast of Greece. She sank with only one life lost. The wreck has yet to be found.

Source

  • Titanic Inquiry Project
    Electronic - Fully Searchable - transcripts of the complete U.S. Senate and British Board of Trade inquiries, and reports, into the sinking of the S.S. 'Titanic.'

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Not as f***ed in the head as Ash on May 21, 2020:

@Ash Even if there were just rich people aboard (which there was not), letting people die because they were rude is pretty messed up.

Ash on March 21, 2020:

Just a thought. But could classism played any part? Every movie about the titanic brings up the class divide and decadence. Could people on the outside have hated the people on the boat too? The Californian started out trying to be nice. And the titanic responded shut up! I'd take that personally. Rich **cks. Let 'me drown.

Bill on March 15, 2019:

Officers on the Californian watched the Titanic shoot off eight rockets without understanding their significance. Perhaps because the technology was fairly new, it never occurred to the crew to turn their wireless unit back on. The captain wasn't a coward, but he WAS extremely negligent, and paid the price for his negligence. He, and the watch officers on duty that night, were fools, and because of their foolishness, over a thousand people died in the cold Atlantic Ocean that morning as they sat, (fat, happy, and warm,) on their ship less than twenty miles away! How the captain and officers of the Californian looked at themselves in the mirror afterwards, without the urge to cut their own throats, is a mystery...

Kim on February 25, 2019:

I agree why blame another man for the Titanic sinking when the whole world including Ishmay and Captain Smith swore the ship was unsinkable. just like man and society to blame someone else for someone else’s irresponsible behavior and sin (pride)

Joey7 on January 09, 2019:

Think that's a bit strong, If Lord knew the titanic was sinking what courage was needed to sail towards her. I doubt the ppl on the California knew, in time, that the Titanic was sinking and decided to do nothing about it. Don't forget at the time it was reported all over the world that the Titanic was unsinkable, so even if one thought the titanic was in a bit of trouble the last thing to pop into your head was that she was sinking. It was reported that the Titanic radio operator told the radio operator on the California to "Shut Up" 10 mins before she hit the iceberg. The radio operator on the California had turned off his radio and gone to bed, he was not woken again telling me that the California was confused about what was going on aboard the Titanic.

What I found most distasteful about the whole debacle was how the price of your ticket determined your chance of survival and unfortunately I am not completely convinced if a similar thing happened today the same would not be true.

Spencer Slate on December 28, 2018:

Read the book, the Ship that Stood still, clearly Capt. Lord was a coward, whether on purpose or not, his crew left him when the ship docked in NY, clearly indication they knew he was a coward in not responding to the Titanic. History would surely be much better if the Californian has come to the aid of the Titanic. Passengers interviewed their entire life remember the shlp that stood still and clearly saw the outline of the Californian....sad and Lord rightly should have suffered his remaining life!

boss on November 08, 2018:

vary helpful in informative

Henry Adam on August 12, 2018:

An alternative explanation, and well supported by evidence. Data on sea temperatures were collected hourly by most, if not all, ships crossing by that route. That data is held in Berlin.

Mirages at sea are common - caused by layers of air at different temperatures having different refractive indices. On the fateful night - no moon, no clouds, just a sky full of stars (remarked on by all). The Titanic had just crossed from the gulf stream (warm, flowing north) into the Humboldt current (cold, flowing south) causing layers of differently dense air, raising the horizon and causing the bergs to be invisible below that horizon. For the same reason, the Californian - the nearest ship, may not have come to the rescue as the Titanic was rendered by optical illusion as to be too small to be the Titanic. A freak accident caused by freak circumstances. No-one to blame, really, including the poor and possibly wrongly vilified (to his grave) captain of the Californian.

Jim W. on April 30, 2018:

The ice encountered by califonia was field ice, quite different than icebergs.....

reality checker on March 04, 2018:

Night time on the water is difficult at best. Shapes look different, nothing is as it should be, but nonetheless many on the Californian felt that they should act and Captain Lord over-ruled them. On the water you always err on the side of caution. Capt. Lord could have negotiated the icebergs quicker than Carpathian as he was much closer.

At the very least he should have started radio communications and in lieu of that if it failed he should have started to make his way toward the Titanic. As the Californian got closer light signal codes would become more visible and he would have the necessary intelligence needed to make the right decision.

The apparent stubbornness of Capt. Lord and maybe others on the Californian,to make good decisions early on resulted in the bigger tragedy.

If Californian started toward Titanic itself at a slow rate and hit an iceberg itself probably only causing survivable damage, Capt Lord would have been totally justified in not proceeding farther.

I tend to think Capt. Lord saw the ice field and was not a brave enough man to try moving toward Titanic so he played dumb just enough to save his own butt. However when Carpthia came barreling onto the scene, he could do nothing else but go toward Titanic as they showed the ice field could be negotiated and from a much greater distance.

All that being said, I wasn't there and I didn't see how much ice there was and I'm glad I didn't have to make that decision, but I know I would have moved my ship slowly toward Titanic using my light and radio signals until I was sure they did not need help.

Human nature being what it is, after all disasters retribution is the order of the day. From what we know after repeated investigations I think he got off easy, even though his life and career were destroyed.

Itsanarchydog on March 03, 2018:

anyone that said that the californian couldn't have saved the titanic because of all the danger, look up the carpathian comes to the titanic rescue they dodge ice bergs and race to get to the titanic while the californian just sat there and watched.

Sunset on February 05, 2018:

They could've have tried taking action but when they tried warning, they got the rude response to shut up.....so how are they at full blame of negligence

Californian Not Able to Save Titanic on February 03, 2018:

Anyone who believes that Californian could have saved all of Titanics passengers and crew is very nieve!

It took the Californian two hours to thread its way through the pack ice the next morning to reach Titanics position. Captain Stanley Lord was first advised of the rockets being fired at 1.10am (Second officer Herbert Stones own testimony at the US enquiry). So Californian would have reached Titanic by 3.10am but Titanic had sunk by 2.20am.

It was pitch black without moonlight and the most Californian would have been able to do would have been to send its 4 small lifeboats to try to seach for living people in the water. Most people would have been dead by the time Californian got to the disaster scene.

Regards,

Ajmal

Jerry on January 17, 2018:

The iceberg meant nothin to to the titanic, it was it's fatal fire that actually sunk it, the iceberg was a help so it wouldn't capsize.

Birgit on January 14, 2018:

I think that Californian surely would have reached Titanic in time.. Sure ice bergs all around them but still the Carpathia basically had full speed and they dodged ice bergs to get to Titanic. So in my eyes Californian surely would have reached the Titanic.. Just really sad that Lord ignored it..

Ama on November 25, 2017:

Quoting... "For the next eighty years, official reexaminations of the evidence including one in 1992 all concluded the same results as the original investigations."

That speaks volume. (80 years) is a lot of investigations and a lot of evidences, that all yield the same result.

Weird on August 18, 2017:

So that was ship that turned back around when they thought people on Titanic was having party when they saw flares shooting up at sky they didnt bother by checking on them see if they was allright

Jeff on May 05, 2017:

So if the SS Californian was surrounded by icebergs 9 to 20 miles away, how did RMS Carpathia manage to make it to Titanic from 50 miles out? Also, the story says the Californian was sunk in 1915 and 1918. It was actually torpedoed in November 1918.

Jokester Titan on May 01, 2017:

The Californian was surrounded by icebergs and wireless communication was shut off by Titanic's wireless, so there was still NO way for it to hurry and save Titanic.

Jokester Titan on April 27, 2017:

F.Y.I. The Californian, on the fatal night, was surrounded by icebergs and even if they tried, they wouldn't reach Titanic in time.

Also Titanic's wireless communicator shut them out so that meant Californian's wireless communicator shut his off and quit for the night. Californian didn't have a chance.

wedmar80 on April 15, 2017:

As to the colors of the rockets fired from Titanic, eyewitnesses on Titanic, made the following verbatim statements from the 1912 inquires:

QM Robert Hichens: “I did not take no particular notice of the colour, Sir. Some were green, some were red, and some were blue - all kinds of colours - and some white, Sir. I think, if I remember rightly, they were blue.”

QM Reginald Lee: “No, coloured rockets.” after being asked if they were colored or only white.

First class passenger Arthur Peuchen: “A good deal like an ordinary skyrocket, going up and breaking, and the different colors flying down.”

Third Officer Herbert Pitman: “Various colors.” when asked if they were red.

h on April 04, 2017:

I did not know that

Jonathan Fight on January 20, 2017:

I wonder how close California was situated from Titanic. I think she could have aided Titanic in some way.

leo on January 13, 2017:

Rockets fired by Titanice were WHITE. Distress Rockets would have been of the colors Red, Blue or Green.

Lord was OK to have ignored them, thinking they were fired for amusement of passangers.

Danny Gray on October 14, 2016:

for one thing, i'm a big titanic fanatic, at approximately 9 miles away sat the Titanic's fate off the Californians port bow. they had seen the same amount of rockets shout from the titanic, exactly 8. there ain't no doubt in my mind it was. so Lord got every thing the damn bastard deserved yet still not enough. had Lord directed his ship in the direction of the Titanic, more if not all of her passengers would have been saved. Lord doesn't even deserve to be called captain, nor allowed near any shipping lines ever again.

James Pat on June 19, 2016:

Herbert Stone; second in command is the one that saw the rockets; when he told Lord about them, Lord asked if they were distress rockets; Stone said no. They then saw more rockets; they were white. Another crewman though said Stone told him he was worried it was a distress call but he told Lord it wasnt. Also there is no volume on the messages; because it was the first voyage, passengers were obsessed to send out messages to people to say they were doing it on the first voyage. Titanic's radio man was listening to messages and sending them out as fast as he could so he told Californians operator to shut up. He waited for any response after telling them about the ice and heard nothing. He went to sleep and 5 minutes later Titanic hit the iceberg. Lord got all of the blame when he should have got some; but Herbert Stone is the guy that got a pass and he seems to be more of a villin in this

barry kenyon on April 08, 2014:

Is it really as simple as that? As always with this controversy, the answer is "Perhaps"! Several witnesses from Titanic claimed there was colour in the rockets (the Californian saw only white ones). And several others stated that the ship seen from the Titanic was moving (the Californian was stopped all night). The finding of the Titanic wreck does not support the view the two ships were five miles apart. Incidentally Lord's career was not ruined as claimed above. He was dismissed from the Leyland Line following Lord Mersey's 1912 official inquiry, but was appointed as captain with another company until he retired in the late 1920s because of ill-health.

Brad on February 05, 2014:

good story thanks for sharing

Vibhu Satpaul from New Delhi on May 14, 2013:

Like Bermuda triangle,aliens and UFO, Titanic is a mystery which lures everyone from al over the world. I wasn't aware of this side of the story, thanks for sharing mate!