Commentary

New Titanic Documentary Asks: Could All Lost Have Been Saved?

A sensational new TV documentary about the sinking of the Titanic suggests that a nearby “mystery ship” may have been able to rescue hundreds -- and possibly all -- of the mega-ship’s doomed passengers and crew, but declined to steam to the rescue.

According to the show -- this week’s installment of “Secrets of the Dead” on PBS, subtitled “Abandoning the Titanic” -- a freighter cruising as nearby as five miles away from the mortally damaged cruise ship was positioned to rescue hundreds of souls who went down with the ship.

But for reasons that are still not clear, the ship did not change course and attempt a sea rescue. For decades, this subject has been dogged by a central question: Which ship was it? 

The story of the Titanic mystery ship is one of those tangential tales that surround an historic event that may be well-known to historians and hobbyists, but not to the rest of us.

For that latter group, this one-hour documentary tells the Titanic story in such a way that this age-old story feels new again.

The show deals as much with the event itself as its aftermath -- particularly the subsequent official inquiries that were staged on both sides of the Atlantic as authorities sought to pin the blame for the disaster on somebody.

It is an old story that never gets old -- an ultra-modern ship deemed unsinkable is nevertheless sunk by an iceberg just three days into its first voyage. More than 108 years later, it is a story that defies belief.

On its maiden voyage from Great Britain to New York, the RMS (Royal Mail Steamer) Titanic sank in the Atlantic Ocean in the wee hours of April 15, 1912, after side-swiping an iceberg and quickly taking on water.

Of 2,228 passengers and crew members on board, 705 survived and 1,523 perished.

The story has been told over and over again in just about every type of media -- including articles, books, documentaries, blockbuster movies and a Broadway musical, among others.

Wednesday night’s episode of “Secrets of the Dead,” now in its 18th season, places the voyage vividly in the context of its times.

Among the revelations: Titanic was likely far from alone in that section of the North Atlantic that night.

The show explains that commercial boat traffic between England and the United States at that time consisted of hundreds of vessels plying nearly the same route as the Titanic at any given time.

Any number of ships were in range to receive the Titanic’s distress signals sent by state-of-the-art radio telegraph -- if the other ships possessed similar equipment (many of which did not).

The show identifies a number of ships by name that could have received the signals, and even some that were likely close enough to see other distress signals being sent by the Titanic as a series of blinking lights (the other way of sending distress signals at sea at that time).

But none charted a course toward the Titanic, including one ship that was later judged to have been in the best position that night to swoop in and rescue the ship’s passengers and crew.

This judgement cloaked the ship’s captain, Stanley Lord, in infamy for the rest of his life. But the problem was, discoveries about the disaster some seven decades later vindicated him long after his death.

Instead, it was another ship -- and its captain -- that could have affected a timely rescue, but did not.

How did this revelation come about? Watch this fascinating TV show and find out.

“Secrets of the Dead: Abandoning the Titanic” airs Wednesday (November 4) at 10 p.m. Eastern on PBS.

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