In Titanic's aftermath: What happened onboard RMS Carpathia?

RMS Carpathia remains celebrated as the saviour of those who survived the sinking of RMS Titanic. But, while the story is often told from the survivor’s point of view, what was it like aboard Carpathia?

Titanic survivors on board RMS Carpathia. Credit: Picryl

On April 11, 1912, Cunard line’s RMS Carpathia gently nudged out into the River Hudson. Commencing a routine voyage, she was departing from New York on her way to Fuime – now known as Rijeka and part of Croatia.

That day’s newspaper, nestled between the forearm and chest of wealthy passengers, proudly showcased the details of White Star Line’s new vessel – RMS Titanic – and her upcoming maiden voyage.

Boarding a much smaller vessel on the other side of the world, it would have been hard for Carpathia’s ticket holders not to feel as though they were missing out.

As RMS Carpathia glided out of the port’s smooth waters, neither onshore well-wishers nor onboard passengers anticipated anything unusual throughout the Transatlantic crossing. It was simply a matter of delivering their consignment of sun-seeking passengers to the likes of Gibraltar, Genoa and Naples, en route to Fuime.

Yet, fate had other plans in store.

RMS Titanic undertaking her sea trails, prior to her fateful maiden voyage. Credit: Picryl

Carpathia and Titanic: polar opposites attract

Following a major refit, a small slice of first-class had been incorporated into Carpathia’s endeavours, with no fewer than 150 such clientele crossing with her on this occasion. From first-class to steerage, alongside the crew themselves, no one had an inkling of what lay ahead to the east.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the far larger and much-anticipated luxury liner RMS Titanic was making good progress towards America, flitting port-to-port like a debutante upon her maiden voyage, collecting passengers at Southampton, Cherbourg and Ireland’s Queenstown.

The two ships contrasted greatly – Carpathia was settled in with nine years’ service while Titanic shone like a brand-new penny. At 46,328 tons, Titanic dwarfed her older colleague by a considerable margin. Not to mention the intense publicity machine that revolved around Titanic’s every move.

If RMS Titanic were the superstar, Carpathia could be viewed as a mere celebrity. Except, that unsinkable superstar status would soon ultimately prove to be mortal.

Cunard's RMS Carpathia rightfully deserves hero status. Credit: Picryl

Destiny calls

Late into the evening of April 15, the two ships grew nearer. Onboard Carpathia, at around midnight, wireless operator Harold Cottam was almost ready to turn in for the night.

Harold was signing off later than duty called for, having just heard the abrupt brush-off of "Shut up, shut up! I am busy!" on the radio from Titanic to the British Leyland-owned SS Californian.

Titanic wished to work Cape Cod (the main signal station for Marconi messages) and send a multitude of marconigrams while she was in range of the station, most of which were short messages from Titanic’s passengers to their friends and family.

Sending messages from the Titanic was almost entirely exclusive to wealthy passengers, with considerable fees to pay for the novelty of dispatching correspondence from the Atlantic. Problem was, Cape Cod could only field so much and the airwaves were quickly becoming jammed. Through spaces reserved for emergency communications and ice warnings, the super-rich were sending pleasantries or stock-market commands.

With marconigrams overflowing, Titanic didn’t particularly wish to talk to another vessel and effectively told the ship broadcasting ice warnings – SS Californian – to get off her airwaves.

Despite this, Harold reached out to Titanic from Carpathia. He knew Jack Phillips – one of Titanic’s wireless operators – and likely figured it would be acceptable to talk.

"Good morning old man. Do you know that there are despatches for you at Cape Cod?" he asked helpfully at 12.15am (some accounts give 12.25am).

A most urgent reply battered through.

"CQD CQD SOS SOS CQD SOS. Come at once. We have struck a berg. CQD old man."

Titanic’s unexpected call was a mixture of the standard distress call CQD and SOS – Save our Souls. It was the first high-profile use of the newer signal. Titanic relayed her position as 41.46 N., 50.14 W.

Carpathia was 58 nautical miles away from the given coordinates.

An urgent stream of morse code began to fire up between Titanic’s Marconi system and numerous ships that had heard her. Meanwhile, Harold Cottam scuttled to the bridge and broke into the private quarters of Captain Arthur Rostron to raise the alarm upon Carpathia.

Captain Rostron immediately ordered Carpathia to be brought about and head towards Titanic as quickly as possible. Cottam told Titanic they were on their way, with all speed, but that they would take four hours to reach her.

All anyone could do was pray that Titanic didn’t sink before Carpathia got there.

RMS Carpathia docked in New York. Credit: Picryl

Breaching safety speeds

Despite the potential danger, Captain Rostron asked Carpathia – who usually travelled at 14 knots or under – to give all she had. Extra firemen were ordered to her boiler room while hot water and heating systems were shut off to direct all steam to the engines.

She picked up pace, speeding through the night at 17-17.5 knots. Her boilers ran over-pressurised and the engines incurred damage as she undertook her mercy dash. It was all or nothing.

At 1.10am, thanks to the cacophony of frenetic radio activity, the morse signals from all the ships in conversation with and about Titanic inevitably jammed. Unintentionally, the wireless communication had gotten out of hand.

At this point, RMS Olympic – one of Titanic’s sister ships, also on route but much further away – took temporary control with some forceful words that might have otherwise been considered rude.


There was a brief but reluctant lull. Olympic had gained a brief window to talk to Titanic herself, which she made sure to utilise. One can only imagine the horrendous feelings aboard RMS Olympic, as her crew stood among near identical and equally opulent fittings as the Titanic, while listening to their sister ship in peril. All eyes onboard would likely have been harshly pricked by tears.

CQD and SOS signals from Titanic went out with increasing urgency. Her situation was desperate.


It was one of her last clear broadcasts.

Ten minutes later, with 18 of her lifeboats dispatched but over 1,000 passengers facing no clear means of escape, Titanic finally succumbed to the icy depths of the Atlantic and one of the most sorrowful and legendary maritime disasters unfolded.

Icebergs posed a real danger to shipping back in the day. Credit: Shutterstock

Between the icebergs

In the water where Titanic had met her demise, and to the horror of the lifeboat occupants, hundreds of unprovided for passengers panicked in the icy water. They were fighting the pull under the water and against the bitter cold of the North Atlantic, just a degree about freezing.

Within the lifeboats, survivors listened to the hundreds more who were fighting for, but ultimately losing, their lives. These were people they knew – the crew who had served them, people they’d worked alongside, friends, family, husbands, wives and children.

The nearing Carpathia had raced as hard as she could towards the disaster. As she began to pass by icebergs and growlers in the ice field within which Titanic had foundered, Carpathia now frustratingly wove what must’ve seemed an efficient course towards where she was needed.

As she approached, within a few miles of the co-ordinates she’d picked up on wireless, a green light was spotted not far above the horizon. Carpathia’s crew opted to divert towards it for it was common for the starboard navigation light on a ship to be green. Given the height, it was a reasonable assumption that Titanic could still be partly afloat.

The signals from the Titanic had gone quiet – this could mean that she had sunk or perhaps the power had simply gone out. It was also possible the green light flickered from a flare lit upon a lifeboat. No other ship could be sure what the exact situation was now but there was hope as Carpathia followed the green marker.

Progressing into the area on slow, after her three and a half hour dash, Carpathia was greeted by a horrific scene. It was now 4am and what looked to be like an island of debris upon the sea marked where Titanic had gone down. Around this spot were numerous dead, many wearing their lifejackets and floating frozen in the water. The engines from Wallsend, which had given so very much, were stopped.

Titanic’s lifeboats began making their way towards Carpathia, their survivors numbed with cold, in shock and weeping. Captain Rostron ordered priority be given to the lifeboat survivors for many of the boats were overcrowded and could capsize at any time. Where a lifeboat struggled to come over, Carpathia instead picked her way through the ice to meet them instead.

Titanic survivors on board RMS Carpathia. Credit: Picryl

A welcomed rescue

As the lifeboats nudged against Carpathia’s hull, most survivors were in an unfit state for climbing to safety so, with either bosun’s chairs or canvas bags, passengers were gradually lifted one-by-one out of their lifeboats and into Carpathia.

As the sun rose, the process steadily continued. Carpathia’s passengers – who’d been asked to stay within their cabins to allow a more efficient rescue – gradually joined the rescued, assisting where they could.

By 8.30am, 703 survivors were aboard Carpathia. Six of Titanic’s lifeboats were hoisted up to the foredeck while seven more were carried overside. Carpathia’s own boats were swung out to make space but, when this ran out, the other empty lifeboats from Titanic were set adrift.

Bar sporadic orders among the crew, this lifesaving work was carried out primarily in silence. It was almost all too much to bear. In the absence of words, a total of 315 men, 336 women and 52 children were saved by RMS Carpathia.

Titanic's lifeboats stored on the deck of RMS Carpathia. Credit: Picryl

Carpathia: the human condition

Around 8.30am, when the rescue appeared to be finally complete, many questions followed on what to do next. Should Carpathia pick through the debris and corpses at sea? Should she hand over her passengers to a larger and more comfortable vessel such as RMS Olympic, who had already offered such? If not, where should Carpathia go now?

A decision was taken not to try to achieve any more on site.

By this stage, it was near impossible that anyone in the water would’ve survived such deathly cold and to wade through the area would greatly upset the survivors on board, most of whom were already struggling to keep it together.

After the last of Titanic’s lifeboats had been emptied, horrendous wails emitted from many of the women for if there were no more boats to be retrieved, neither would the presence of their loved ones arrive on Carpathia.

Among the grieving, the crew were surrounded by sheer agony as losses became truly realised and the noble gallantry of those who had held back was understood.

Beyond providing nourishment and a comfortable space, there was a limit to what the crew could do but for letting the women cry themselves out. Carpathia’s Second Officer James Bissett hoped he would never hear such utter devastation again.

To reciprocate the feelings aboard, Captain Rostron requested Carpathia’s house-flag be set to half-mast before they made a slow circuit of the wreckage.

As Carpathia did this, the first-class lounge hosted a service which honoured the dead and offered thanksgiving for the saved souls. Captain Rostron was later to say that, throughout the ordeal, he absolutely believed that the ‘hand of God was on the helm of the Carpathia’ so this was entirely fitting.

Upon completion of the service, Rostron reluctantly gave the order to "Bear away from the wreckage south-westerly."

The nearby SS Californian was instructed to remain in the area and pick up any bodies that she could.

Under her notable load of sorrow, Carpathia commenced the return to New York.

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About Gillian Carmoodie

Gillian has been a part of the heritage world for longer than she would care to admit. From piloting pre-war racers across Montlhéry and traversing the Cumbrian mountains with an Edwardian automobile, to flying a WWI Tiger Moth and obsessing over all things shipping, Gillian lives for history.

When not buried in a book or lost to the archives, you'll usually find her under the bonnet of her classic Rover or exploring the old shipyards of the North East. When partaking in work for RNLI, Land Rover or RRM, Gillian mostly runs on high-octane Earl Grey.