When most people think of famous ship accidents, the first that comes to mind is often the RMS Titanic, which sank on April 15, 1912. This was not the first accident involving a White Star liner, however. One hundred thirty-six years ago, two White Star line steamers collided off the U.S. coast near New York City, about 550 kilometers east of Sandy Hook, N.J. On the evening of May 19, 1877, the Britannic was en route from New York to Liverpool when heavy fog prevented the ship from spotting the Celtic, which was heading to New York from Queensland and traveling south of its normal route. Although the Celtic was proceeding slowly and both vessels blew their foghorns at regular intervals, the fog was thick enough to cause confusion about the directions from which the sounds originated.
According to the report from the June 4, 1877, Scientific American, the steamers were only four lengths apart when they became visible to one another. With little time to spare the Celtic’s commander ordered the engines be put into reverse, whereas the commander of the Britannic simultaneously gave orders to proceed full speed ahead in an attempt to pass by the Celtic’s bow. But the evasive measures were too late for disaster to be thwarted, and the Celtic’s prow slammed into the side of the Britannic, piercing three meters deep into her hull. The collision ripped a 1.4- by 0.45-meter gash in her side that extended below the waterline, causing a lower compartment to take on water. (The Celtic slammed into the Britannic twice more, but not with enough force to cause further damage to the Britannic’s hull.) The initial impact had caused the Celtic’s bow to rupture and become a twisted, mangled mess at the base. The top of the ship’s bow had rammed into the Britannic’s rails and rigging, splaying fragments of iron and toppling support beams onto the latter’s deck. The majority of injuries and deaths resulted from passengers who were not able to avoid the falling debris, rather than from drowning. However, considering the Celtic and Britannic were carrying 870 and 450 passengers, respectively, it was considered a miracle that only six people were confirmed to have died.
Whereas both ships sustained structural damage and took on water, it was eventually realized that neither was in danger of sinking. The bulkheads in both ships that separated the breached compartments taking on water from the rest of the ship prevented damage from spreading to other sections of the vessels. Nevertheless, admitting the chaos of the initial impact, the Britannic’s captain, Hamilton Perry, ordered the crew to begin lowering the lifeboats. Women and children were told to board first, but several men pushed themselves forward. Capt. Perry took out his pistol and threatened to shoot any man who tried to take a spot on a boat before it was his turn. According to a report from the New York Times, 15 firemen ran to one of the lifeboats, boarded it and lowered it into the sea. “They rowed hurriedly to the Celtic, but later on, when they found that the Britannic was not going to sink at once, they returned. As they crept up the side of the Britannic,with shame showing on their faces, the captain greeted them with the simple comment, ‘Shame on you!’ and they disappeared in the engine room.” Once it was confirmed that both ships would remain afloat, the lifeboats were recalled and passengers either returned to the Britannic or boarded the Celtic for safety.
Although the Britannic and Celtic were steam ships, they were also equipped with sails. Some of the sails, along with mattresses, were used to cover the hole in the side of the Britannic. Both ships agreed to stay close during the night, shining electric lights and firing minute-guns so as not to lose each other. Two other ships, the Marengo and the British Queen, eventually met the damaged vessels and escorted them to Sandy Hook’s harbor.
Amongst the passengers on the Britannic was two-and-a-half-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt, along with her mother, father and aunt. Screaming and crying, Eleanor had been lowered into a lifeboat against her will, and she and her family ended up on the Celtic after the collision. Once back in New York, Eleanor refused to board a different vessel with her parents bound for Europe, and developed a fear of ships and sea that remained with her for her entire life.
This particular accident proved that a large ship could take on water in a single compartment and still make it safely back to shore. The Scientific American article stated, “Ocean travelers can certainly take courage in the thought that a vessel with a hole in the side large enough for a man to walk though may still be comparatively safe, and the White Star Company may well be satisfied that by the use of this simple system nearly 2,000 lives have been saved and two magnificent vessels are still safe, and will soon be sound and ready again for further service.”
This, of course, is a bit of an ironic statement, as we know the fate that lay waiting for the most famous “unsinkable” ship of the White Star line.