A Further Perspective

Rescue At Sea! — Now And Then

Before dawn on January 23, the outgoing White Star Line ship Republic had collided with the incoming Italian Florida near Nantucket in dense fog.

By 9.14.10

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On June 10, satellite phone contact was lost between Abby Sunderland, a 16-year old attempting to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe solo by sailboat, and her parents in California. Despite the loss of satellite phone contact, however, two of her three GPS distress beacons could be detected. The next day, Australian authorities dispatched an Airbus 330 from Perth to travel the 2,300 miles to the location of the signals in the middle of the Indian Ocean, beyond the authorities' normal range of search and rescue. Upon arriving near the signals, observers on the plane spotted her within minutes and established radio contact. A French ship picked her up on June 12.

This event prompted me to attempt to confirm my late grandfather's story, relayed to me by my father, that he was on the first ship to participate in a rescue at sea resulting from a radio distress signal, that he had suggested to a passenger that he should take pictures, and that, upon docking in New York, a newspaper had paid the exorbitant sum of $500 to this fellow passenger for his roll of undeveloped film.

The online Ellis Island archives show several arrivals by a James Augustus Thunder (or similar names). One arrival occurred on January 25, 1909, when "Jas. Augustus Thunder," age 29, arrived from Liverpool aboard the Baltic. I further confirmed that the Baltic arrived after it had engaged in the first rescue at sea resulting from a radio distress signal.

Before dawn on January 23, the outgoing White Star Line ship Republic had collided with the incoming Italian Florida near Nantucket in dense fog. Two Republic passengers and three Florida crew were killed instantly. (Another Republic passenger later died from his injuries.)

On board the Republic was Jack Binns, the ship's "marconi-man," that is, an employee of the Marconi Company who operated the "wireless telegraphy" patented by Guglielmo Marconi in 1896. Wireless telegraphy was to telegraphy what a cellphone today is to a landline. The ship was using the wireless telegraphy as an amenity -- passengers were able to send and receive business and social messages.

The collision threw Binns from his bunk. His cabin was crushed on three sides, flooded with cold water, and a stiff cold breeze blew threw it. Using a signal that had been established in 1902 by the Marconi International Marine Communication Company, Binns sent out a distress call with a range of two or three hundred miles. The signal was received at Siasconsett station on the island of Nantucket. That station, with its stronger signal, relayed the distress call. The incoming passenger ship Baltic and several other civilian and military ships responded.

After Binns had sent and received his initial signals, the ship lost power. Binns dove into the water in his cabin to locate storage batteries. Using his newly-rigged radio, he remained at his station all day and night on January 23.

During the day of January 23, the Republic transferred its 461 passengers and most of its 300 crew members via lifeboats to the Florida. At nightfall, the Baltic was the first of the responding ships to locate the Republic. The Baltic had been in the area of the Republic for some 12 hours, trying to find the ship in the dense fog by radio, explosions, "submarine bell" (a below water acoustic device), and a fog horn.

Because of the condition of the Florida, all of the passengers and most of the crew of both the Republic and Florida were transported that night (January 23-24) to the Baltic. This transfer required 83 boatloads and consumed 10 hours' time. The lone passenger not transferred was the injured Republic passenger who refused to be transferred a second time. The Florida had 839 passengers, all of them survivors of a 1908 Sicilian earthquake. So, with crew, some 1,650 people were transferred on the open sea, at night, in eight-foot swells, in dense fog, in the middle of winter. The Baltic itself had 489 passengers and 229 crew.

Binns and four dozen other crew voluntarily boarded the Republic for her tow by other responding ships, but later that day, about 4 p.m., all but the captain and second officer abandoned the Republic. Five hours later, the Republic sank (January 24, 9 p.m.). Its captain and second officer had remained on board the ship as it went down, the captain having climbed the masthead and swimming away at the last moment. In the dark and swelling sea, they were located. All of the Republic's cargo, including the coffins of the deceased passengers and the luggage of the Republic's passengers, sank.

For 52 hours, H.J. Tattersall and G.W. Balfour, the Marconi operators aboard the Baltic, had relayed messages between the various responding ships and land. 

Aftermath

At the time of the 1909 Republic-Florida collision, there were 180 ships equipped with wireless telegraphy. There were two more incidents in 1909 that utilized the distress signal. On June 10, the liner Slavonia was wrecked off the coast of the Azores and the distress signal was sent. No lives were lost. On October 12, the Antilles ran aground in the Bahama Islands. Again, a distress signal was sent and all passengers were saved. By 1912, 589 ships were equipped with Marconi radios. Within a year after the April 15, 1912 sinking of the Titanic, 1500 ships had them.

There were a number of connections between the Republic-Florida-Baltic and the Titanic, including:

• The Republic and the Titanic were owned by the same company.

• Jack Binns was originally slated to be the radio operator on the Titanic's maiden voyage; and

• The captain of the Baltic during the rescue, Captain Ranson, was at the helm of the Baltic when he warned the Titanic -- by radio -- that icebergs had been sighted.

Not only was the Republic-Florida rescue newsworthy because it was effected with a radio distress signal, it was newsworthy in an additional way. The radio operators of various ships involved in the rescue were in contact with land operators, so the Republic-Florida rescue became the subject of multiple editions of daily newspapers, allowing readers for the first time to learn of events at sea in nearly real time.

Did a Baltic passenger take pictures at the suggestion of my grandfather? Did this passenger sell a roll of undeveloped film to a newspaper for $500? I don't have the full answer to these questions, but I can confirm that at least one Baltic passenger took a picture of the Republic.

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About the Author
James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. attorney.