People & Events
When the "Republic" and the "Florida" collided off the coast of Nantucket on January 23, 1909, the "Republic's" wireless operator, Jack Binns, broadcast the distress messages that saved the day. But without Jack Irwin, the shore-based wireless operator who received the distress calls and helped direct rescue efforts, all might have been lost.
On the day of the collision, Jack Irwin was working a solo midnight-8 am shift at the Marconi wireless station on Nantucket. Since there were very few ships scheduled to send in reports, Irwin had spent most of his shift quietly, reading and napping in a chair. But at 5:30am, Irwin received an unexpected message from the "Republic." "I heard faint signals and paused to listen," Irwin later recounted. "...it flashed upon me in a second that there was a ship in distress."
Irwin issued a call to all ships with which he was in communication, directing them toward the "Republic," which had begun to sink. The "La Lorraine," a French vessel, answered first. It was 180 miles away from the "Republic." Then the "Baltic," only 80 miles from the sinking ship, responded. It changed course and headed for the scene of the disaster.
For the next seventy-two hours, Irwin, who was joined by three additional operators at 8am, turned his wireless into a relay station between the sinking "Republic" and the rescue ship "Baltic." Thick fog shrouded the seas, severely hampering the "Baltic's" search for the accident site, but Irwin's persistence paid off. The two ships eventually found each other, and all but two of the "Republic's" passengers, a man and woman who had died in the collision, were safely returned to shore.