Today’s tale is set in the North Atlantic ocean, around 400 miles off the coast of the then Dominion of Newfoundland. The date 15th April 1912. The time, around 2.30am. Picture our subject, a 38 year old former Navy officer named Charles Lightoller. Tonight may well be his worst day on the job.
Sitting in a lifeboat watching his expensive new ship sink below the waves, something he was assured could not happen – he must have paused to think if he bore any responsibility for the disaster. Just two and a half hours earlier the scene aboard the ship had been anarchic. The unsinkable ship, on her maiden voyage, was sinking! Torn to shreds below the waterline, she was taking on much more water than one could hope to keep pumping back out. With no chance of caulking up the gaping hole, many would die before the night was out.
As men tried to muscle their way onto the scant few lifeboats, ahead of women and children, Lightoller stood in their way, pointing an empty service revolver at their heads – cursing them for their cowardice, and threatening to murder the first man who stepped forward. Many women and children would survive because of his bravery – that is good right?
He must have questioned his culpability. It was hardly as if he was in charge at the time of the disaster. He’d only just been commanding the bridge watch, but had handed responsibility on to William Murdoch. He was asleep, in his pajamas, when it hit… something attested to by the fact he still had them on under his hastily thrown on uniform.
Lightoller must have looked on, aghast, as the ship sunk below the waves. 1,503 souls onboard would be dragged down to Davy Jones Locker that night. How could you not look on so? Only 705 passengers and crew would survive the shipwreck. Of the more prominent victims were John Jacob Astor – science fiction writer, socialite and co-founder of New York’s iconic Waldorf-Astoria hotel; the investigative journalist W.T Stead; Macy’s department store part owners Isidor and Ida Straus; Benjamin Guggenheim, the mining magnate, and Archibald Butt, a military aide to presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Various other executives, and even investors in the company drowned in the wreck. Even Thomas Andrews, the man who designed the ship, drowned in the disaster.
Lightoller was not the highest ranking member of the organization to get off safe – that honor would go to a cad named J. Bruce Ismay – a White Star executive who was one of the first to get into a life boat; and who later commented to press he flat out refused to look at the sinking ship – and was glad he hadn’t.
But still, for whatever public ire comes the company’s way, he WAS the highest ranking officer on the ship to escape; and Ismay was just some toff, born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Some rich guy who ascended to chairman on his father’s death in 1899. Ismay never steered the ship…. If anyone was likely to be a scapegoat… could it be him?
Well… here’s the thing, there are a number of reasons the RMS Titanic sank – disasters like this usually are a combination of factors. Much of which could be laid at Ismay’s feet (well maybe not the claims by William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, of Ismay ordering Captain Smith to push the ship faster than it should safely go – there is no evidence this ever happened).. Most everything else requiring executive sign off perhaps… But there is one element – often overlooked – for which Charles Lightoller does bear a little responsibility… a locker key which could have saved everyone from this mess.
You see, Lightoller was appointed second officer aboard the Titanic only two weeks before the ship was set to sail. There had been a number of changes in positions among the officer class in the lead up to the maiden voyage, leading to promotions, and demotions – and the original second officer, Davy Blair, being dismissed from the ship rather hastily on 9th April. He left, accidentally taking the only key for a locker which held the binoculars – much needed up in the crow’s nest. This was discovered while out at sea. While lockers are really only designed to keep honest people out, when brought to Lightoller’s attention he advised to leave the locker as is. When they got to New York he would buy a new pair of binoculars from his own pay-check.
Did Charles Lightoller know the risk of hitting an iceberg? It appears so. On his watch that night he gave orders to the lookout to continually watch for “small ice… (and) particularly growlers” till sun up. At congressional hearings after the disaster lookouts Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee both brought up the lack of binoculars as the main reason for the wreck. How much sooner would they have spotted the iceberg, congress asked “well, soon enough to get out of the way” was the reply.
If one is looking for a moral in this tale, maybe you could go with ‘you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette’. Yes it wasn’t great Charles Lightoller was faced with the prospect of vandalizing a locker… but which holds more value, a cheap locker or 1500 lives? Perhaps the moral is one for greedy organizations to empower your employees to make the hard decisions? Lightoller had every right to be scared of vandalizing the locker – in the wake of the tragedy, the White Star Line sent bills to the families of deceased staff asking them to pay for the brass buttons on the deceaseds’ uniforms. Maybe it is a tale about hubris; when they claimed the ship couldn’t sink you knew exactly how that tale would end. I don’t know, take you pick.
As a post note, however, I should comment briefly on that key. Davy Blair went to his grave feeling guilty for the sinking of The Titanic. At some time he gave the locker key to his daughter, who passed it on to The International Sailor’s Society. In 2007 the key was sold for £32,000.00, and has since resold to a Chinese businessman for £90,000.00.
I should also speak a little more about Charles Lightoller. He was a highly respected mariner before the Titanic, and would remain so after. He would serve with distinction in World War One, and would become a footnote in another landmark historical moment of the 20th century. In what became known as ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk’, 26th May- 4th June 1940 – Lightoller was one of thousands of civilian sailors who crossed the English Channel to rescue the Allied Expeditionary force from certain destruction at the hands of Nazi Germany.