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Titanic: The Aftermath

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The crowd, 30,000 strong, had been gathered for hours at Cunard's Pier 54, standing silent in the fog. Out of the gloaming, at almost 8pm on 18 April 1912, emerged Carpathia, the ship carrying the survivors of Titanic's sinking.

Immediately the magnesium flashes of the photographers' cameras illuminated the dark sky. The New York press, who had been feasting on the story for days, had chartered a flotilla of tugboats to accompany the ship to its berth, hoping to snatch pictures of those on deck, while reporters bellowed question sat them through megaphones.

As the ship glided closer at a funereal pace, the rain began to slant down down in sheets and thunder and lightning ripped across the sky. The swathe of people on the pier broke down in tears or stood in silent awe as the ship made its gracious way past, stopping first at the vacant White Star pier where Titanic would have berthed to drop her lifeboats, before making her way to Pier 54.

These remarkable, sombre scenes were the cumulation of four chaotic days of rumour, intrigue and paranoia since the great liner slipped beneath the waves in the early hours of 15 April.

Ever since Titanic had transmitted her distress the air had been charged with wireless signals, while newspapers led on any snippet of information it could find, regardless of either source or veracity. "All Titanic Passengers Are Safe", was one bulletin, which led to a host of reassuring headlines that the ship was damaged but still afloat.

A train carrying relatives of those on board even left New York for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where it was reportedly being towed. As news filtered through that there would be no ship to meet, and that many hundreds had died, it was to turn around and head back to Penn Station.

Confusion gave way to anger as the extent of the tragedy seeped out. Thousands gathered around bulletin boards in Times Square, and besieged the White Star offices trying to find out whether their friends and loved ones had survived.

The fury grew as facts about Titanic were released to a hungry and incredulous public. The New York Times revealed that there wasn't adequate lifeboat provision for those on board. That fact proved to be the tipping point and the view that people had been condemned to die because of the incompetence and negligence of the British took hold.

In the Senate, Michigan Senator William Alden Smith rode this public wave of rage, calling for a formal, immediate investigation into the sinking, even though White Star was a British company. This would mean the subpoena of foreign subjects, a bold move that would ordinarily be avoided to avoid ruffling any diplomatic feathers, but in this case was granted eagerly. Smith formed a committee and decided to start his investigation as soon as possible.

On board Carpathia, Bruce Ismay, the President of White Star, who had left the sinking ship in such controversial fashion and had spent every minute since locked in his room, was unaware of all that was happening on shore. Yet he must have anticipated a furore. US naval operators intercepted messages sent by him to the White Star office in New York asking them to hold the company's ship Cedric, due to leave on Thursday, until Friday so he and the Titanic crew could return to the UK as quickly as possible.

When the response came that they could sail back on another vessel on Saturday, Ismay - using the call sign "YAMSI" - fired back: "Think most unwise to keep Titanic crew until Saturday. Strongly urge detaining Cedric, sailing her midnight if desirable."

These intercepted messages only served to stoke the flames of controversy further, giving the impression as they did of a man seeking to avoid any difficult questions. Senator Smith made his way down to the dock on the night of the 18th to serve the subpoena on Ismay himself.

Ismay's messages weren't the only disquieting behaviour from those on board Carpathia. The deluge of messages sent by the survivors to their loved ones on shore meant the sole operator was overworked, and so Harold Bride, the only surviving wireless operator from Titanic, was taken from his sick bed where he was nursing two broken ankles and put to work.

Back on land, President Taft, seeking re-election, was desperately trying to find out the fate of a favourite aide who was on board Titanic, Major Archibald Butt. Yet despite the fact the cables sent to Carpathia were from one of the most powerful men on Earth, they were ignored, as were dozens of other messages seeking information on those who had survived and their condition.

The suspicion grew that Guglielmo Marconi, whose wireless equipment played such a crucial role in the sinking and its aftermath, had instructed his wireless operators to transmit only what was necessary. As soon as the ship docked on the 18th, a reporter from the New York Times, with whom Marconi had a longstanding commercial arrangement, accompanied the Italian on board and interviewed Bride about his experiences for the princely sum of $1000.

The next morning Ismay appeared before Senator Smith in a crowded room at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. The days of chaos had come to an end, but the confusion over the sinking and its causes would remain - and still linger for 100 years.

Dan James is the author of Unsinkable, a thriller about the sinking of Titanic, published by Arrow.