The Film & More|
On January 23, 1909, two ships--one carrying Italian immigrants to New York, the
other American tourists to Europe--collided in a dense fog off Nantucket
Island. In an instant, more than 1,500 lives suddenly became dependent on a
new technology, wireless telegraphy, and the efforts of a twenty-six-year-old
wireless operator who bravely tapped out distress signals form his sinking
"Rescue at Sea", a story of courage, luck and heroism.
Produced by Ben Loeterman, the film features interviews with descendants
of passengers and crew, recollections of the young hero, Jack Binns and
surprising revelations of the connections between this event and a later
disaster at sea: the "Titanic". David McCullough narrates, and Matthew
Broderick provides the voice of Jack Binns.
Just before the turn of the century, a young Italian inventor Guglielmo
Marconi, came to America to show off his new invention; a telegraph machine
that didn't require wires. The editor of "The New York Herald", James Gordon
Bennett, invited Marconi to demonstrate his new technology by relaying updates
on the America's Cup yacht races off the coast of New Jersey to public bulletin
boards outside the "Herald's" midtown offices. What impressed Americans most,
Marconi later said, was the extraordinary speed of his wireless. The news
bulletins were sometimes less than thirty seconds behind the yachts.
Inspired by Marconi, boys throughout America were quick to try the new
technology themselves. The young amateurs formed a club and convened their
first meeting in New York on January 2, 1909. They were "the hackers of the
early twentieth century," according to historian Susan Douglas. Books like
"The Radio Boys" and "Tom Swift and His Wireless Message" celebrated the
heroism and adventure of young boys who put on their earphones and took to "the
great void." Hundreds of young men signed up to learn Morse code and become
wireless operators, a select fraternity that called themselves "Marconi men."
Jack Binns became a Marconi man when he was twelve years old. By the age of
twenty-six, he was working for the fledgling Marconi Wireless Company, which
leased Binn's services to the White Star passenger line. In 1909, Binns was
assigned to the "Republic", a transatlantic steamship loaded with luxurious
amenities--deck chairs, on-board barber shops, even a wireless telegraphy
cabin. For up to two hundred miles, passengers could send and receive personal
greetings via wireless, track the latest stock quote, or learn the news of the
day. "Wireless was initially perceived as a frivolity," notes historian John
Maxtone-Graham, "a reassurance to passengers who might want the latest
refinement." It was not thought of as a safety feature.
The seven hundred people aboard the "Republic" included Eugene and Mary Lynch
of Boston, who were on their way to Sicily, the site of a recent devastating
earthquake. A deck below the Lynches were Henry and Hallie Davis,
grandchildren of a wealthy West Virginia senator, who were making the annual
family trek to Europe.
On the evening of January 22 at eleven o'clock, the "Republic" was steaming
through thick fog near the Nantucket lightship, a dangerous intersection known
as the Times Square of the Atlantic, where up to two dozen ships crossed each
night. As the fog thickened, the "Republic's" forty-eight-year-old captain,
Inman Sealby, left the wheelhouse to listen for the whistle of a nearby unknown
ship. As the sound drew closer, Sealby ordered a port, or left, turn and
signaled the other vessel to do the same.
The other vessel was the "Florida", in the final hours of her ten-day journey
carrying 850 passengers--most of them survivors of the earthquake in Sicily--to
a new life in America. Twenty-eight-year-old Angelo Ruspini was making his
second transatlantic crossing as the "Florida's" captain. "The 'Republic's'
form materializes out of nowhere," says historian Charles Haas. "Captain
Ruspini realizes that something is drastically wrong, and there isn't any way
of avoiding it." At 5:47 on the morning of January 23, the ships collided.
The impact crushed "Florida's" bow like a broken nose, but she was less damaged
than the "Republic", which began to sink at the rate of one foot an hour.
Young Hallie Davis recalled: "In about five minutes a man in charge of the
stateroom came with a candle, and we dressed hurriedly, and all went on deck.
This was the last we ever saw of our staterooms, our baggage and my teddybear."
The "Republic's" passengers were transferred to the "Florida", where Captain
Ruspini had to use extremely forceful measures to quell threats of rioting.
Meanwhile, it would take Jack Binns nearly an hour to make his way several
decks below to retrieve the auxiliary batteries that would allow him to operate
his equipment and contact the wireless station on Nantucket, forty-seven miles
away. Binns transmitted a message from Captain Sealby that opened with the
letters C-Q-D, code for "seeking you--danger!" His urgent tappings marked the
first real test of wireless to effect a rescue at sea.
Over the next twenty-four hours, Binns fought the bitter Atlantic cold,
transmitting message after message, listening to see if any ships had picked up
the "Republic's" distress call. Upon learning that a White Star sister ship,
the "Baltic", was within sending range, his next message read, "I'm on the job,
but the ship is sinking faster."
Binns left his wireless equipment to stand on the "Republic's" deck, in the
hopes of hearing bombs the "Baltic" was setting off to indicate her position.
"He heard it," says Binns granddaughter, Virginia Utermohlen, "because his ear
was so strained to faint sounds coming through the telegraph he could actually
tell where the "Baltic" was and what direction it was". Binns ran back to the
wireless cabin and relayed steering instructions to the "Baltic." "The last
letter had scarcely sputtered out by the wheezy spark," he later wrote, "when
the lights of the "Baltic" loomed up. It was the grandest sight that tired
eyes ever saw!"
It took eighty-three boatloads to ferry the more than 1,500 passengers and crew
of the "Republic" to the "Baltic". Never before had so many people been
transferred on the high seas without a single loss of life. By Sunday morning,
they were done. Two more rescue ships arrived and tried to tow the "Republic",
but it was obvious to Binns the ship was lost. From the rescue boat, Binns
relayed his last message: "White Star Line, New York. "Republic" sunk. All
hands saved." America had discovered a new hero.
Binns became an instant celebrity. He was offered contracts to perform
vaudeville, mobbed by chorus girls at the Hippodrome, and became the
subject--much to his chagrin--of a movie short. What he wanted was a federal
law requiring wireless on ships, but his testimony before Congress was
In April 1912, Binns was assigned the wireless post on another White Star Liner, the "Titanic." Personal circumstances intervened; he had fallen in love. More than 1,500 lives were lost on the "Titanic," the same number that, three years earlier Jack Binns had helped to save.