The Titanic's biggest heroes and worst villains

Rendering of the Titanic on the ocean next to a photo of  J. Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line
J. Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line was criticised for escaping the Titanic on the last lifeboat, rather than going down with the ship

On 10th April 1912, the Titanic set off from Southampton on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic. Already a month behind schedule, the luxurious ocean liner bound for New York was due to complete the crossing in just six days. However, tragedy struck four days into the journey.

The sinking of the Titanic is still one of the biggest non-military maritime disasters in history. Though the story of the Titanic is widely known, what is less known is the stories of the real people involved in the voyage and the after-effects of the sinking.

Here are some of the heroes and villains of the Titanic story and how their actions would go down in history for better or for worse.

Hero: The Carpathia

The RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Carpathia departed from New York on 11th April 1912. Shortly after midnight, only a few days into her trip, the ship received a distress signal from the Titanic saying it had struck an iceberg. As soon as he received the distress call, Captain Arthur Henry Rostron rerouted the Carpathia and began preparing to onboard survivors.

The Carpathia was just under 60 miles away from the Titanic, but despite the danger that icebergs posed to the ship, Captain Rostron diverted the Carpathia at full speed to assist as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, due to the distance between the two ships, and the speed at which the Titanic was going down, the Carpathia didn’t arrive until an hour after the Titanic had sunk.

Villain: The Californian

At 6:30 on the evening of the 14th, a nearby ship, the Californian, had sent out an iceberg warning to a nearby ship, the Antillian. They had spotted three large icebergs to their south. The Titanic’s on-duty wireless officer, Harold Bride, picked up the transmission for the Antillian and passed it up to the captain. Despite the warning, the Titanic continued on full steam ahead.

Later that evening, after encountering an ice field, the Californian opted to stop for the night and wait for the morning when visibility conditions were safer. At 10:20pm, the Californian spotted the Titanic on the horizon and sent out another iceberg warning to the ship, just 20 miles away. The transmission was received by the on-duty wireless operator, Jack Phillips, who was busy sending a backlog of passenger telegrams. Frustrated that his work was interrupted, Phillips sent the Californian a terse message asking them to stop sending any further transmissions until he had caught up on the backlog.

Surprised at the somewhat rude response, the Californian’s wireless operator turned off his machine for the night and went to sleep. Just under an hour and a half later, the Titanic would start sending out SOS alerts to advise that they had hit an iceberg and required rescue. Had the Californian received those transitions, they would have been able to provide rescue to the passengers of the Titanic before the ship had sunk and prevented the substantial loss of life.

Hero: Joseph Bell

When the iceberg was first spotted, engineering received the command to set all engines in reverse in an attempt to avoid the collision. As the events unfolded, the situation for those working in the bowels of the ship became increasingly more dangerous. If the cold water of the Atlantic came in contact with the boilers, it would have created a thermal explosion that would send the ship down considerably faster.

Chief engineer Joseph Bell, along with his team of lead engineers and electricians, worked furiously to reroute the power to ensure that the lights stayed on throughout the evacuation and reverse-engineered the pumps to slow the speed at which the ship sank.

Bell and the engineers who chose to stay below deck slowed the sinking by as much as an hour and a half, allowing more time to launch lifeboats.

Villain: Joseph Bruce Ismay

Joseph Bruce Ismay was the chairman and managing director of the White Star Line at the time of the disaster. Aboard the Titanic for her maiden voyage, it is believed that Ismay was putting pressure on Captain Edward Smith to beat the record for the quickest crossing of the Atlantic. While there is no explicit evidence to show that Ismay had ordered the crew to push through the iceberg warnings, his actions during and after the evacuation of the Titanic, led to his being brandished as a coward.

Despite having been active throughout the night assisting passengers into the lifeboats and urging them to safety, Ismay faced heavy criticism for his own evacuation. Aboard lifeboat C, the ninth and last lifeboat launched from the starboard side, Ismay had claimed that when he climbed aboard the boat, there were no women or children left nearby. However, witness reports state that Ismay’s assessment was incorrect and that a majority of the passengers near lifeboat C were third-class passengers from the Middle East.

The Carpathia, already carrying her own passengers, had rescued 705 survivors from lifeboats. Despite the limited space, once aboard the Carpathia, Ismay insisted that he be given a private room to quarter in. He refused to leave the cabin until the Carpathia was docked in New York. Despite being a passenger aboard the Titanic, the public opinion was that Ismay should have emulated Captain Smith by going down with the ship, leaving the space he took for the women and children that remained aboard.

Hero: Charles Lightoller

Second Officer Charles Lightoller was the senior member of staff aboard the Titanic to survive. As the officer in charge of the evacuations, Lightoller maintained the ‘Birkenhead Drill’ principle of women and children being the first to be evacuated - despite it not being maritime law. He only allowed men aboard the lifeboats if they were needed to ensure the safety of each lifeboat.

As the ship began her final descent into the ocean, Lightoller assessed the situation from the bridge to see if there was anything further he could do. Seeing water rushing up the deck, Lightoller realised that there was nothing more to be done and dove from the bridge's roof into the Atlantic. Amazingly, he managed to avoid being sucked down with the ship and survived by clinging to an overturned lifeboat. When the Carpathia arrived the next morning, Lightoller was the last to be pulled from the water.

Lightoller would go on to serve as a commanding officer in the Royal Navy during WWI and was twice decorated for gallantry. His heroism didn’t end there, though. Despite being retired, when the call to assist in the evacuation at Dunkirk came through, Lightoller voluntarily provided his yacht to help the soldiers trapped on the beach.

Villain: Harland and Wolff

During the British inquiry into the disaster, shipbuilders Harland and Wolff were accused of using sub-standard materials to cut costs.

The Titanic was a cutting-edge ship designed to be made almost entirely of steel. However, due to her design, some of the rivets couldn’t be placed using machinery and had to be placed by hand. As steel rivets would be impossible to place by hand, these rivets were to be made of wrought iron instead.

There were over three million wrought iron rivets in the hull of the Titanic, but all of them had been made of a lower grade standard than was necessary. The high levels of slag that remained in the rivets would have made them incredibly brittle at cold temperatures. This brittleness would have caused the rivet heads to pop off as the Titanic encountered the iceberg and weakened the integrity of the steel plating on the hull of the ship - accounting for the speed at which she took on water.

Had the rivets been of a higher grade of iron, the damage to the Titanic might have been significantly lower and slowed her sinking, or even prevented her from sinking altogether.