Charles H. Lightoller, "Hero of the Titanic"
LIGHTOLLER, (Back Row -Second from Left) with the Officers of the Titanic.
Second Officer Charles H. Lightoller was the highest ranking officer to survive the sinking of the Titanic, and because of this he was immediately a target for those looking for answers. However, to many he was known as a hero for his actions that night, and his refusal to leave the ship until it sank.
During his trial in New York, which he later remarked was a “farce”, he had to defend himself against numerous claims, perhaps the most famous of all, that he sent many of the already limited lifeboats away from the ship half full. (Titanic was carrying less than half the number of lifeboats needed to save everyone on board, but the number, given the other safety aspects of Titanic’s design, made such a low number seaworthy.)
Lightoller responded that he filled it with as many women and children who could be persuaded to leave the deck, as at such an early stage in the sinking many believed that they would be safer and better off still on board the ship.
Lightoller also cited his fear that the ship would capsize, as is usual for a sinking, for the reason he didn’t full all lifeboats to capacity. Had the ship begun to tilt the lifeboats would not have been able to be lowered, so he wanted them away quickly and with those he deemed most needy i.e. women and children. The Titanic, however, remained remarkably level during the sinking. Later in the trial he said that had he known the severity of the situation he would have taken more of a chance with the boats.
It is true, however, that Lightoller allowed no more men on board lifeboats than were necessary to row and guide them, (at one point he tried to remove a 13-year-old boy from one of the boats until his father convinced Lightoller to let him stay.) Also during the sinking, several men had taken over a lifeboat and Lightoller threatened them out with an empty pistol and then filled the boat with 36 women and children.
(Personal opinion, based on limited knowledged, I’m admittedly no professor of Titanic: I know it wasn’t the best decision, but he was left with no orders*, there were still a lot of women and children on board, the lifeboats were only 15ft from the water as opposed to their normal 70ft, yes he could have filled the lifeboats more, but he thought he knew the restrictions on them and the problems that would be caused if the ship tilted too far, or even capsized. I think he did what he genuinely thought was the best thing to do at the time. I know people disagree though and I do see their point. But lest ye forget, he did a damn sight more for those passengers than the Captain did that night, that’s for sure.)
*With regards to “no orders”, according to the Ecyclopedia-Titanica, Captain Smith wasn’t seen anywhere on the ship in it’s last two hours, "His legendary skills of leadership seem to have left him, he was curiously indecisive and unusually cautious." He was last seen on the bridge giving the order to abandon ship, he made no reported attempt to save his life, or anyone else’s, and his body was never found.
By around 2:00am that night all the lifeboats had been lowered and only the collapsible’s remained. Again Lightoller and other Officers gathered around those, allowing only the remaining women and children aboard. It was at this stage that First Officer Wilde ordered Lightoller to leave with the boat, to which Lightoller replied, “Not damn likely.” and jumped back on deck.
Following this, only one collapsible remained on top of the Captain’s cabin. Lightoller climbed up, and using a borrowed pen knife, tore off the ropes and covers and sent it down to the flooded deck. Immediately after doing this, the Titanic plunged under water and he leapt free, trying to swim for safety, only to be sucked under with the ship. During the trial he said that an engine then exploded under water and the force of it threw him to the surface, where he was able to climb aboard an upturned lifeboat.
The Carpathia arrived several hours later at dawn, by which time 3 of the 31 men aboard Lightoller’s lifeboat had died. He helped the other remaining survivors from the boat, becoming the last Titanic survivor rescued by the Carpathia.
I leave you with, what is in my opinion, the most poignant quote I’ve heard from accounts of the sinking of the Titanic:
Senator SMITH: What time did you leave the ship?
Mr. LIGHTOLLER: I didn’t leave it.
Senator SMITH: Did the ship leave you?
Mr. Lightoller: Yes, Sir.