Beginning on April 19, 1912, a special subcommittee of the United States Senate Commerce Committee held hearings to determine the cause of RMS Titanic’s sinking and where possible fault might lie.  Senator William A. Smith (R-MI) chaired this committee, which continued until May 28, 1912, when the senator visited theOlympic to interview some of her crew.  The committee heard the testimony of 82 witnesses over this period, and produced a report that was over 1,100 pages long.  The official title of the report is “Titanic” Disaster: Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Commerce, United States Senate, Sixty-Second Congress, Second Session, Pursuant to S. Res. 283, Directing the Committee on Commerce to Investigate the Causes Leading to the Wreck of the White Star Liner “Titanic.”, and was made available in paperback in 1998, after release of the James Cameron movie Titanic increased the public’s interest in the disaster.

The Senate report includes many subheadings, which itemize what was concluded to be the determining factors in Titanic’s fate.  Summaries of some of these items will be listed here, though interested parties may access the original document at http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/TitanicReport.pdf

Summaries of the United States Senate Hearings on the Titanic Disaster

  • Only Two Lifeboats Lowered during Drills: The subcommittee determined that the only lifeboat drill conducted in Southampton consisted of the lowering of two lifeboats on the starboard side and hoisting them back up within thirty minutes.  It was also concluded that many crewmembers were ignorant as to their posts for several days after the departure from Southampton, leaving them in the dark as to their responsibilities in the instance of an emergency.
  • Boat Davits and Lifeboats of the Steamship Titanic: While Titanic had the capacity to hold 64 lifeboats, she was outfitted with only 16 lifeboats and four collapsibles.  The total lifeboat capacity was 1,176, and there were enough life belts for all aboard the ship.
  • Ice Warnings: “On the third day out ice warning were received by the wireless operators on the Titanic, and the testimony is conclusive that at least three of these warnings came direct to the commander of the Titanic on the day of the accident”.  The committee determined that the Titanic crew did not heed these warnings with the necessary haste, and that the accuracy of the reports could have prevented disaster.  The ship did not reduce speed, and the weather was clear.  In fact, it was determined Titanic’s speed gradually increased over the three-day journey.
  • The Steamship ‘Californian’s’ Responsibility: The subcommittee concluded that the Californian was closer to Titanic than the 19 miles reported by her captain.  Furthermore, the crew and passengers aboard the Californian saw the distress signals, and failed to respond to respond to them “in accordance with the dictates of humanity, international usage, and the requirements of law.”  Because theCalifornian did not offer assistance, the subcommittee determined she was, in part, responsible for theTitanic’s passengers’ fates. 
  • Capacity of Lifeboats Not Utilized: Due to lack of preparation in the event of a disaster, there was much confusion aboard Titanic as she began to sink.  As a direct result of this uncertainty, the capacity of the lifeboats was not utilized, and led to the loss of lives unnecessarily. 
  • No Distinction Between Passengers: Based on the testimony of witnesses interviewed, there was apparently no preference given to passengers on the basis of their class.  Women and children were loaded into the boats first. 
  • No Suction: “The committee deems it of sufficient importance to call attention to the fact that as the ship disappeared under the water there was no apparent suction or unusual disturbance of the surface of the water.”  This indicated to the committee that those equipped with life belts or in lifeboats in the vicinity of the sinking ship would have had the ability to swim or row away. 
  • Captain Rostron: The committee greatly praised Captain Rostron of the Carpathia for his valiant efforts in rescuing the survivors of Titanic.  For more on Captain Rostron and the Carpathiacontinue here.
  • No Bodies Visible: The committee theorized that because no bodies could be found in the vicinity of the disaster after the ship sank; the bodies of those lost either did not rise to the surface or were carried away or hidden by the ice floe.