A desperate drama played out in the Marconi wireless telegraph rooms of the doomed Titanic on the night it sank more than 100 years ago, killing about 1,500 people.
Now, the story of the ship’s wireless operators has been highlighted by a controversial proposal to return to the scene and retrieve the historic radio equipment.
Here is a recap of what happened — followed by pictures and diagrams showing the rooms where it all took place.
Twenty-five-year-old Jack Phillips was on duty in the Marconi room when the luxury ocean liner, which was on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912.
Captain Edward Smith walked down to the room and told him to call for help.
Phillips sent out three letters in Morse code — C.Q.D., which was an internationally known distress call — and the letters M.G.Y., the code call of the Titanic. He did this about a half-dozen times.
Captain Smith came back down to see how things were going. The other wireless operator, Harold Bride, 22, tried to lighten the mood with some humor.
“Send S.O.S.,” Bride said to Phillips. “It’s the new call, and it may be your last chance to send it.”
Phillips and Bride laughed. Smith laughed, too. The Titanic was considered a state-of-the-art ship, and some had claimed it was unsinkable.
But as time went by, any joking subsided. The messages that Phillips sent in Morse code became more urgent.
“We require immediate assistance” ... “Have struck iceberg and sinking” ... “We are putting the women off in boats."...."Engine room getting flooded."
Bride strapped a life jacket to Phillips’ back as he worked.
When Captain Smith came down one last time, he said: “Men, you have done your full duty. You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it’s every man for himself.”
But Phillips stayed and kept sending messages.
Water was coming into the cabin. Bride went into their sleeping quarters to get their money together. While Phillips frantically sent what would be the last signals from the sinking ship, another crew member slipped into the room and tried to steal Phillips’s life jacket. A fight ensued. Bride grabbed the thief, and Phillips hit him until he fell to the floor.
They could hear water washing over the boat deck above.
“Come, let’s clear out," said Phillips.
Phillips and Bride left their post and tried to escape. The unconscious crew member remained on the floor, and soon after that, the Titanic slipped below the surface.
Phillips died in the sinking, but Bride lived to testify to an inquiry investigating what happened to the ship.
Now, more than a century later, a robot submarine may dive to the wrecked ship to retrieve the machinery the young men used to transmit their final messages. (RMS Titanic Inc., the company that hopes to undertake the mission, faces opposition from a local historical society, saying it’s tantamount to disturbing a gravesite.)
Here’s what RMS Titanic Inc. wants to do to retrieve the “world’s most famous radio.”
The Marconi suite on the Titanic was made up three interconnected rooms: the Marconi operator’s room (where Phillips sent the ship’s last messages); a bedroom where the operators slept; and the “silent cabin" (also known as the 'silent room’) that contained the transmitting equipment. The walls separating these compartments have long since disappeared.
Court documents show that RMS Titanic Inc. plans to use a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to enter the ship and retrieve artifacts from the “silent room” area where the Marconi equipment is located. The plan calls for cutting into the deck plating and removing a piece so the ROV can access the interior of the ship.
“An overhead skylight originally ventilated the sleeping quarters and operator’s office," the document states. “This has now become the preferred point of entrance into this part of the wreck.”
David Gallo, who retired from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and serves as a consultant to RMS Titanic Inc., said the procedure would not have much of an impact, because the deck plating is thin and already perforated. It’s “a quarter inch of steel that’s already eroded away,” he said.
Gallo said the goal is to save an important piece of history from being lost forever. "It’s an iconic piece of machinery,” Gallo said in a telephone interview. “It was the voice of the Titanic.”
In the court documents, the company argues that the Marconi wireless telegraph should be salvaged because it’s only a matter of time before it will be inaccessible.
“The physical condition of that deckhouse is rapidly approaching the point where it can no longer protect this [artifact] and will in fact help to bury it in rubble until Boat Deck itself caves in, carrying the Marconi apparatus deeper into the remains of the wreck, where it could lay unseen forever," the court documents state.
The following photos from those court documents show what the wireless equipment looked like in 1912 and what they look like at the bottom of the ocean.