History books do a pretty good job in covering the circumstances leading up to, and including, ‘major historical events’ but rarely seem to offer as much attention to the aftermath. The details of a tragedy, such as the sinking of the Titanic, have been captured over the years in hundreds of books, articles, films, newsreels, magazines, etc.  But not as much information is found on the trials and inquests that followed. I believe that if you ever want to transport yourself back to those days and get a real sense of the mood, the times and the events themselves, you need to review these transcripts and read the actual words of the people who were there and experienced the event first hand.

The sinking of the Titanic resulted in not one, but two inquests (one US and one British) where witnesses told their stories. In the case of the US Senate hearings, which began on April 19, 1912 (just 5 days after the disaster), you know you are reading the fresh recollections of the survivors whose memories of the events have not been changed by time or opinion.  

According to Amapedia of … “The Titanic hearings were conducted by a special subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee and chaired by Senator William A. Smith, a Republican from Missouri (UPDATE NOTE: June 11- Thanks to a reader, the state of Missouri is mistakenly named in Amapedia’s information. The correct state that Senator Smith represented was actually Michigan). The hearings began on April 19, 1912,  in New York City. The Senate inquiry is particularly useful because it was the most immediate. The inquiry began at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York the day after the survivors landed. James Cameron used the Senate transcripts extensively in researching his Oscar-winning movie. “The Senate records, for example, provide the exact words spoken by the bridge officers in the moments leading up to the collision,” Mr. Cameron has written. “Those scenes in my film are scripted and staged precisely as the event was described by witnesses.”

A week after the proceedings began, the hearings were moved to the new caucus room of the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. They were the first hearings to be held in that room. A total of 82 witnesses testified about ice warnings that were ignored, the inadequate number of lifeboats, the ship’s speed, the failure of nearby ships to respond to the Titanic’s distress calls, and the treatment of passengers of different classes. The hearings concluded on May 28, 1912, when Senator Smith visited the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, at port in New York, to interview some of its crew. When the Titanic sank, the Olympic was about 500 miles away.

Within two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic, the British Board of Trade established a Commission of Enquiry, chaired by High Court Judge Lord Mersey. The hearings were opened in the Wreck Commissioner’s Court, Royal Scottish Drill Hall, Buckingham Gate, Westminster, on 2nd May, 1912. The British Inquiry cleared Captain Smith and the White Star Line of any negligence in the loss of the Titanic. The conference confronted issues such as subdivision of ships, lifeboat provisions, wireless telegraphy, the reduction of speed in the vicinity of ice, and the use of searchlights.”

One of the best books that I’ve read on the Titanic Inquest is “The Titanic Disaster Hearings” by Tom Kuntz (March 1998). It records the actual transcripts and testimonies from many of the names you’ve read about from Titanic history. Fascinating reading. It’s gripping and you feel like you are right there hearing them tell their story to you for the first time. This book is avaiable at all major book stores or on-line book stores.


Published in: on Tuesday, June 10, 2008 at '10:13 pm'  Comments (1)  
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