At 12:15 am, Jack Phillips was ordered to begin sending calls for help. “CQD,” he transmitted, “CQD.” The CQ indicated a General Call, the D meant Disaster.
For the next two hours and two minutes, the Marconi operator and his assistant, Harold Bride, furiously repeated their emergency dispatches. It was April 15, 1912: the Titanic was in desperate and immediate need.
“Come at once. We have struck a berg. It’s a CQD,” one message read. “We are putting passengers in small boats. Women and children in boats. We cannot last much longer. Losing power,” another exclaimed.
The radio range for the communications was over 350 miles — although the Twitter-like messages were garbled and confused, they were received. For reasons historians have exhaustively explored, help did not arrive in time.
Survivor Bride later recalled Phillips’ courage: “I will never forget the work of Phillips during that last awful 15 minutes. I suddenly felt a great reverence to see him standing there, sticking to his work while everybody was raging about.”
The final wireless message was dispatched just three minutes before the ship went dark and sank. Phillips perished with more than 1,500 others: his body was not recovered.
The emergency alarms sent by the operators on the Titanic are among the most notable distress messages ever recorded — but distress signals, heeded or unheeded, are as old as life on the planet. The pleas for assistance on the Titanic are writ large in history, but they certainly aren’t unique.
Dinosaurs, for instance, were highly communicative, clamorous in fact. Through flicks of their tails, hoots, coos, scents and other verbal/non-verbal communication, they warned each other of danger, scared off predators and attracted mates.
Paleontologist Thomas Williamson has said: “The Mesozoic must have been an amazing place made all the more noisy and colorful by the communication of dinosaurs.”
It’s been long known that even some plants have the ability to caution each other when an attack is imminent — if a caterpillar is on the prowl, plants pass the word along, making their leaves hard to chew, and generally less desirable for consumption.
“This is an early warning system, very much like military defense, but then more effective,” researcher Josef Stuefer has stated. “Each member of the network can receive the external signal of impending herbivore danger and transmit it to other members of the network.”
Humans have always been able to apprise each other of developing problems. Going back to primeval periods, people used watchtowers, bells and bonfires to express awareness of threat.
Prior to electronic communication, one of the most celebrated forewarnings in American history occurred in April of 1775. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1861 poem, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, commemorated the event:
“Listen my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere…
If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern in the belfry arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.”
Inaccuracies in Longfellow’s poem matter not — nor do the stylized elements in Grant Wood’s dramatic painting of the same incident (pictured below).
Widespread telephone usage, which really began soaring in the United States by 1910, was the game changer in emergency communication.
The development of 911 originated in 1957 when the National Association of Fire Chiefs began pushing for a crisis alert line. Eleven years later, AT&T inaugurated the 911 system — it was identified as an easily remembered series of numbers and it had never been previously issued.
One of the more painful 911 episodes occurred on September 11, 2001: from 8:46 am, when the first terrorist plane struck the World Trade Center, until 10:28 am, as the second of the Twin Towers collapsed, 130 calls were placed to 911 from inside the towers.
Today, 98 percent of the United States and Canada are served by 911 — it receives over 240 million calls per year, 80 percent of them coming from mobile devices.
Emergency numbers vary by country. For instance, the United Kingdom is now serviced by 999. For a few years in the 1930’s, the emergency code there was Whitehall 1212, the main switchboard number at Scotland Yard.
This survey, of course, does not include the innumerable watchdog systems every country has in place: maritime, aviation, mountain safety, all have safeguards.
Remember the words of Thomas Jefferson: “Let the eye of vigilance never be closed.”