Phil Egan & Barb Swanson
In the cold, overnight hours of April 14-15 in the year 1912, James McCrie of Sarnia was dying of hypothermia.
He was one of the 1,500-plus passengers and crew who perished when the massive ocean liner RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic.
What McCrie might have noted with dimming eyes as he slipped below the frigid water has been a source of controversy for the past 108 years.
At both British and U.S. courts of inquiry held after the disaster, many of the Titanic’s survivors reported seeing the lights of another ship on the horizon. The doomed ship’s officers saw the lights as well, about five nautical miles away, and speculated it was another vessel coming to the rescue.
Both courts of inquiry ultimately determined the ‘Titanic Mystery Ship’ was the SS Californian, which had reported seeing rockets fired into the night sky – the standard signal of a vessel in distress.
The Californian was near the edge of a dangerous and considerably large ice field. She decided against proceeding further into the hazardous conditions in the dark and instead waited for daybreak.
Both courts of inquiry censured Californian for failing to come to Titanic’s rescue, and books and articles for the past century have pilloried the ship and its master, Stanley Lord, for the inaction.
But in 1992, a re-examination of the disaster by Britain’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch exonerated the SS Californian, concluding: “It is inconceivable that the Californian or any other ship was within the visible horizon of the Titanic during that period.”
A recent episode of the TV show ‘Secrets of the Dead’, titled “Abandoning the Titanic,” posited an alternate theory.
Days after Titanic went down, a Canadian Pacific vessel named the Mount Temple arrived in St. John, New Brunswick with crew and passengers relating a horrific tale.
At least nine individuals reported that Mount Temple had been within five nautical miles of the doomed White Star liner, had witnessed her frantic distress rockets, and had seen her listing and ultimately disappear beneath the Atlantic waters.
The Toronto Star reported the story at the time and crew members from Mount Temple did testify at the U.S. court of inquiry. But the court apparently perceived it had found its villain in Stanley Lord and the Californian, and the testimony of the Mount Temple crew was treated perfunctorily and dismissed.
The origin of the mystery lights seen by many on that tragic night may never be fully known. But for Sarnia’s James McCrie and many others, it was a sign of hope that never arrived.