The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

16. Three Bells

To the north, the steamer Californian was stopped in the ice, her captain lying down in the chart room, her wireless operator asleep, the latter having being told off minutes earlier by Phillips on the Titanic for interrupting the Cape Race traffic with an ice warning. To the south, the steamer Parisian, her captain on the bridge, was headed eastward; the captain later said the night was so clear and sparkling that he kept mistaking stars for steamer lights. And somewhere off the bow of the Titanic Fate had arranged for another ship, her identity unknown, seemingly stopped, a single white light clearly visible, beyond reach but there.

What became known as "the light off the port bow" has never been irrefutably identified. After midnight, it would be seen for hours by many who variously guessed her type, or surmised that it, too, was a star, like those bedeviling the Parisian. With the conditions of that night, a ship prudently stopped in the ice, like the Californian, would not have been unexceptionable; it is likely that if she was there after midnight, stopped, she was there before midnight, stopped. For all the efforts of all the years since positively to identify this ship it might as well really have been the Flying Dutchman.

Lookout Fredrick Fleet

Fleet said he did not see any lights (Fleet said a lot of things) but if the light off the port bow was already there at 11:40 pm, Murdoch would see it because he would be looking for it. The reason goes back to his own experience on the Arabic, and to that June 30, 1910, collision between the Baltic and the Standard: they had collided bow on, at 11:54 at night, at 41°50'N, 49°50'W. The Standard had been cutting far north to shorten her route, and in so doing endangered New York bound liners. There was no reason whatsoever to believe that other ships would not do exactly the same thing. At 11:40 pm, the Titanic was nearing the same general latitude as the Baltic in 1910: 41°46'N, 50°14'W.

Murdoch knew how suddenly ships appeared ahead, and while he did not want to strike ice, he did not want to strike another ship even more. If he needed any reminder, he had had one when the Rappahannock, eastward bound for Great Britain, had emerged from the rain squall late the night before, abeam and very close indeed; it would be surprising if the sudden appearance of the Furness liner had not strengthened an omnipresent awareness of the danger of ship collisions. A light meant determining whether or not a ship was stationary, and if not, its direction and nearness; in essence, looking to port rather than ahead.

It was an additional, final worry for a man with a gnawing inner anxiety. Something engendering acute concentration had captured William Murdoch's attention at just this moment, because the peace of the bridge was disturbed by the sharp ring of three bells from the crow's nest: Fleet had seen the iceberg.

Everyone who survived from the bridge remembered the three bells something dead ahead. On the starboard boatdeck, Boxhall peered forward to see what was coming; he saw nothing in the darkness and kept walking towards the bridge, curious. Quartermaster Olliver glanced up from his lamp trimming instantly, and looked to see what it was; he did not see anything either, so he walked onto the bridge. Quartermaster Hichens heard the bells, too, but encased in the wheelhouse could see nothing beyond the bridge area. Murdoch did not move; he said nothing.

Immediately after the three bells the telephone from the crow's nest rang. Sixth Officer Moody answered at once: "What did you see?" Fleet replied: "Iceberg, right ahead." Moody professional courtesy overriding the moment said "Thank you". He then turned to Murdoch, out on the wing, and shouted: "Iceberg right ahead." Hichens and Olliver now knew what it was they could not see. Quartermaster Robert Hichens:

"The chief officer rushed from the wing to the bridge, or I imagine so, sir. Certainly I am enclosed in the wheelhouse, and I can not see, only my compass. He rushed to the engines. I heard the telegraph bell ring; also give [sic] the order 'Hard astarboard,' with the sixth officer standing by me to see the duty carried out and the quartermaster standing by my left side. Repeated the order, 'Hard astarboard. The helm is hard over, sir'." (Page 450)

It was Moody, running into the wheelhouse, who had repeated the order and confirmed that Titanic's steam powered wheel had been spun as far as it could go. Hichens was wrong about Olliver coming back inside, though Olliver stayed on the bridge, fascinated. Murdoch ran to the watertight door control, pressed the warning button, threw the lever; in 15 seconds, the watertight doors on the lowest level would be locked in place. Boxhall, not hurrying, had reached the bridge, saw Murdoch throwing the watertight door lever. He had no idea what was going on. (Murdoch may now have given a counter command: "Hard aport".) Hichens had no idea what Murdoch was doing, either; Ismay would tell the Senate: "He wanted to throw his quarter up." (Page 950)

How much time had elapsed between the bells and Murdoch's reaction? Hichens in his testimony before the British Inquiry would estimate half a minute elapsed between the bells and Murdoch's command. This, however, is colloquial; it could not have been 30 seconds. By using a watch with a second hand and re enacting the sequence from Fleet sighting the iceberg to Murdoch's "Hard astarboard" command considering unknowns such as the distance Fleet had to reach to pick up the telephone, how long it took to connect with the bridge and be answered, the rapidity with which men spoke the most logical estimate is a mere 10 to 12 seconds.

Did Murdoch also react to the crow's nest bell? There is no reason to suppose he could not hear it (everyone else did); he was out of the line of sight of those who survived from the bridge area, but, based upon his prior immediate reactions to the Olympic's steam whistle and the sailing ship menacing the Arabic, it is reasonable to assume that he looked forward at once. What can be stated with certainty is that he saw nothing.