When Is A Rocket Called A Distress Signal Or Just A Flash In The Sky?

In April 1912 when the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank, the subject of distress rockets was a prime news event. To this very day, due to the United States and British Enquiries ignoring the International Regulations regarding the display of signals of distress, there is confusion. Strange as it may seem, some people including a few “experts” of the Titanic story, don’t fully understand distress signals. Sadly,it seems, no one on the Titanic that fateful night was aware of how to fire distress signals. Fourth Officer Boxhall at the United States Senate Hearing into the disaster on the witness stand told the Senators that he was in charge of firing “the distress rockets.”

This lack of knowledge, starting with the personnel of the Titanic, followed by U.S. Senator Smith and his Board of Enquiry, and the British Enquiry headed by Lord Mersey was the basis for all the misunderstanding surrounding the “distress rockets.”

Senator Smith was completely in error when he stated “on the record” that the rockets fired from the Titanic were “distress rockets.”

Lord Mersey and his British Enquiry accepted Senator Smith’s conclusions without question, and so the story of the Titanic firing “distress rockets” was born and placed in history as fact.

But what about the International Rules of the Road in effect in 1912 governing distress signals? Why were they ignored by both hearings? Were they glossed over so that they could place blame on a vessel that refused to act on these rockets (distress signals)? Many “experts” have for all these years said that Captain Lord, master of the Californian, saw distress rockets and the vessel was reported as being near enough to the sinking Titanic to have rescued some, if not all of the people on board. They claim he failed to act upon the “distress signals” his ship saw.

To his dying day, Captain Lord insisted that neither his ship’s officers or himself never saw any “distress signals” fired.

It may come as a shock to some to find out that Captain Lord was right.

The Titanic never fired any “signals of distress.” True, she fired eight rockets in a little over an hour, but these were eight individual rockets — not distress rockets.

According to information entered into the record at the British Enquiry, the Titanic carried thirty-six socket signals. The White Star Line provided these thirty-six signals to be used in case of emergency, and they were the latest pyrotechnics for maritime use. What made them different from previous illuminations was they carried an explosive device or report [a loud sound in addition to illumination] in the nose of the rocket and also sent a shower of white stars cascading down as the “socket signal” exploded several hundred feet above the ship firing them.

The 1912 International Rules of the Road governing Signals of Distress are quite clear: Article 31: Class 1, called for – a cannon or explosive device [with report] fired at one minute intervals. The device’s report was the sound of distress.

Article 31: Class 3, covered the sight of distress which is a rocket of any color fired one at a time at short intervals.

For the Titanic to fire distress signals using the rockets supplied her, the crew should have fired its socket signals at one minute intervals. It was that simple. By doing so, the rockets would be international “signals of distress.” An explosion or report at one minute intervals satisfies the sound signal requirement and the white shower of stars at one minute intervals satisfies the sight requirement. If this procedure had been followed, no one could ever question the meaning of the Titanic’s rockets.

Commencing at 12:45 a.m. Fourth Officer Boxhall had one rocket fired. During the following hour or so, the Titanic fired an additional seven rockets – for a total of eight. The average time between rocket firings calculates to be seven to eight minutes. Even at four minute intervals (as one witness mentioned), there were long periods of time when no rocket activity was seen.

This clearly indicates that the Titanic’s personnel did not know how to fire her rockets properly and never fired any “distress signals” according to the regulations set by the International Rules of the Road.

To be perfectly correct, the rockets as fired at random from the Titanic signaled to all ships within her view, “This is my position — I’m having a navigation problem — Please stand clear.”

A navigation problem is not unusual and would cause no alarm. It could simply be engine trouble, steering gear, lost or damaged propellers or even stopped in ice, but in no way could it be interpreted as a “distress signal.”

It’s no wonder that anyone familiar with International Signals of Distress had a problem on the night of the sinking. The failure on the part of the Titanic to fire its socket signals at one minute intervals is the reason that there are questions and uncertainty as to what the rockets seen near the horizon meant.

The great mystery is why the United States and British Enquiries never questioned this point. And for that matter, why didn’t any officer on the Titanic ever realize that Boxhall was firing random rockets instead of distress signals? In the confusion and pandemonium caused by the sinking of the ship one can understand how some errors were made.

But it is hard to reconcile that the both Boards of Enquiry failed to investigate the facts surrounding the meaning of the rockets fired by the Titanic.

by John G. Gillespie