Fiume, Austro-Hungarian Empire
Allowing the strangeness of the name to roll off my tongue, I was relishing the thought of serving as an attaché to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This empire was a combination of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary. While it would not be my first trip to Europe, it would certainly be the first in my new role. Several years of serving faithfully in every situation had continuously put my name and face in front of those at higher levels. As my positions rose, so did my pay and responsibilities. I knew that serving as an attaché should put me in line for a possible Ambassadorship in another twelve years — maybe ten if I was fortunate.
My ship was leaving on March 28th, but due to the carelessness of track workers, a section of rail had caused a derailment on the route between Chicago and New York. Sitting idly on a sidetrack, I went to the radio car and prepared a telegraph to my superior.
“TRAIN DERAILMENT. STOP. TWO WEEK SHIPPING DELAY. STOP. PORT CALL TRIESTE ITALY. STOP. ARRIVE TRIUME APRIL 20. FULL STOP.”
Proud of my ability to save money for the government, I extended the yellow paper to the clerk. Noting my words, he looked at me for a moment before proceeding to tap out the message. Telegraphs had been around for several decades but the speed at which a message could be delivered still amazed me.
Eventually, we arrived at New York’s Penn Station. Sure enough, I called a special number and they told me the SS Invernia had left two days prior.
With a sigh, I paid a porter to transfer my bags to the Vanderbilt Hotel . Government workers, who were in transit, could stay in any one of the rooms that had been permanently reserved for those with appropriate clearances. There were not too many clearances higher than that of an attaché seconded to the US Embassy in Fiume.
My stay was uneventful and early in the cool, foggy New York morning. It was Thursday, April 11th. Taking a taxicab down to Pier 54, I boarded the RMS Carpathia. The ship was well equipped and it was not long before I was settled into my First Class Cabin. Nobody could say traveling as an attaché did not come with a few privileges. Of course, I felt it was about time after some of the accommodations I had lived through for the first ten years of my career.
As the ship pulled away from the dock to the normal fanfare, I looked briefly over to toward the Statue of Liberty and then back towards Manhattan. I could not help but wonder how long it would be before I ever saw the shores of America again. There was no way I could know that it would be exactly one week later.
With one final flourish of the ship’s horns, we headed east across the Atlantic. Being a person who likes to stay fit, I spent time each morning and evening walking around the upper and lower decks that graced the exterior of the ship. Sadly, the weather was not that conducive to enjoying some of the normal deck activities as I had on previous trips. Bundling up with my wool coat against the sharp, biting, wet cold wind that swirled across the decks like a whirling dervish, it was all I could do to speak amiably with each crew member who passed me. They always paid me with deference when they learned who I was, or rather, what my new position entailed, and even Captain Rostron had made it a point to invite me to take my evening meals with him.
Having concluded a wonderful meal on Sunday evening, I made my adieus to those sitting at my table and retired for the night. Shortly after midnight, I woke suddenly aware that something was not quite right.
Straining to see in the darkness, I got up from my bed and stumbled over to the door where I managed to find the switch that would light up my cabin. Finally coming fully awake, I realized that the ship was leaning to port and the noise of the engines had increased to a pitch I had not heard over the last 3 days of the trip.
Pulling on my clothes, I quickly grabbed my coat and walked out to the main deck. The crew acted like madmen as they scrambled around coiling ropes and removing items from each of the decks.
From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the First Officer on the deck right above me. Dashing between crewmembers, I climbed one of the deck staircases and approached the man.
“I say man, what is happening in the middle of the night that is causing such a rush?”
Turning to face me, the First Officer’s bloodshot eyes told me that he had been too long without sleep. Speaking in his strong British accent, he responded.
“Mr. Hurley, sir, I am not at liberty to say. However, you are welcome to approach the bridge and speak to the Cap’n.”
No other words were said and I set my mind to finding the stairs that would lead to the topmost deck. Gaining permission from the Officer of the Watch, Captain Roston solemnly informed me that a sister ship was in trouble.
“May I ask which ship, Captain?”
“It is the newest ship of the White Star Line, RMS Titanic.”
“Ah, Captain Roston, I have read of this ship. It is said that she is unsinkable, and that…”
My voice trailed off as I saw the strange look that crossed the captain’s face.
“Mr. Hurley, we are steaming ahead faster than the RMS Carpathia has ever gone, but we may be too late. The radio operator for the RMS Titanic has signaled that the she is already taking on water at the bow. The unsinkable ship will sink before the night is out!”
“What can we do to help?” My voice sounded very distant even as I spoke the words.
Relaying orders, I promised to gather as many passengers as possible to help with the rescue efforts that were already underway.
Turning to leave, I hesitated to ask one more question. “Captain Roston, how many people will need to be rescued from RMS Titanic?”
“Mr. Hurley, the radio operator signaled that there are just over 2,200 souls on board. We will have our work cut out for us.”
Even as I write these words, tears fill my eyes for nobody on board the RMS Carpathia could have been prepared for what we would see over the next few hours. I had the privilege of a good position and of having seen many places. However, words fail me in a vain attempt to fully describe the scene.
It took us three and one-half hours to arrive to the last radioed location of RMS Titanic. Along the way, we steamed forcefully through massive icefields and I can remember passing at least one-half dozen full size icebergs that towered over our ship.
When we arrived, there was an eerie calm that descended over our ship. Crew and passengers realized immediately that the RMS Titanic had gone below the waves forever. Yet, there were no screams coming from the debris that floated by on both sides of our ship. Even the children and babies on board each lifeboat were mostly silent. There were a few whimpers from the freezing survivors as we pulled up beside the first lifeboat.
At 4:10am, I helped some of the crew to winch up the lifeboat. I don’t think anybody really thought about it, but no other ships made an appearance to help. For almost five bone-chilling hours, we were able to locate twenty lifeboats. Sadly, most were not even half full. There was only room though to keep thirteen of the boats and the rest were left floating empty in the North Atlantic.
Looking up at Captain Roston at one point, he was shaking his white beard sadly. I could only imagine that he was wondering why there were not more survivors. When the final tally was made by the stewards, the RMS Carpathia had managed to rescue 706 living souls.
Around us in the light of day, the horrors of over 1,500 people floating in the icy waters threw a blanket of gloom over each survivor and those already on the RMS Carpathia. From my position, I observed men, women, and children floating like dolls in a bathtub. Clothes in disarray and many in bedclothes, there was nothing that could be done. All hope was lost for those who had trusted in the engineering abilities of mere man.
There were 700 of us on the RMS Carpathia when we left Pier 54 and there were now 1,406 on board. Comforts were forgotten and each of us provided food, drink, and clothes to the ragtag survivors.
The Captain called for the chaplain and a short service was held in which those who remained in death’s repose were committed to the safekeeping of God. While we maneuvered through over 25 more dangerous icebergs, the ship’s bells tolled as a death knell and the ship fell silent that freezing afternoon of April 15th.
Turning back to New York, the Captain pushed the engines as hard as they would go and on April 18th, at 9:25pm, we arrived back to the shores of Pier 54.
My heart ached as I watched each passenger disembark, I wondered at the brevity of life. First, Second, and Third Class passengers mingled on deck with almost total disregard for their social status. All of us had shed tears and sought to bring comfort to those bereaved souls, but life would never be normal for any of them ever again.
One week later, I left again on the RMS Carpathia and eventually made it to Trieste, Italy and then on to my post in Fiume in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but my life would never be the same. I never took another day for granted and life became precious to me all because I boarded a boat and arrived at an unplanned destination.