Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. Rescue at Sea Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience
The Film & More
Program Description

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 ship.

"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 ignored. 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.



Film Credits



Program Description | Enhanced Transcript | Reference

THE FILM & MORE | SPECIAL FEATURE | TIMELINE | MAPS | PEOPLE & EVENTS | TEACHER'S GUIDE | Web Credits