The last lifeboat had been lowered, the captain had released the Marconi operators of duty, and Jack Phillips, Titanic’s senior wireless operator, continued to send messages for the next ten to fifteen minutes. Junior operator, Harold Bride, watched him standing over the key, unable to leave his post. Water began to flood the Marconi room. When the operators finally abandoned their post Bride watched Phillips run aft in an attempt to save himself. At that moment he heard the band playing ‘Autumn’.
When Carpathia docked in New York at the Cunard Pier with Titanic’s survivors on Thursday, April 18, 1912, New York Times’ managing editor Carr Van Anda, by stroke of luck or genius, found his way on board. With Mr. Marconi he visited the Marconi room and interviewed Titanic’s surviving wireless operator, Harold Bride. The interview was published the next day, and was reprinted by public demand on April 28.
In the printed interview, which seemed to be a verbatim retelling of his oral account, Bride first described his time on board Carpathia.
“When I was dragged aboard the Carpathia I went to the hospital at first. I stayed there for ten hours. Then somebody brought word that the Carpathia’s wireless operator was “getting queer” from the work. They asked me if I could go up and help. I could not walk. Both my feet were broken or something, I don’t know what. I went up on crutches with somebody helping me. I took the key, and I never left the wireless cabin after that.” (Van Anda)
When Bride’s story turned to the Titanic he explained that the wireless had broken down on Sunday, April 14, early enough in the day for Phillips to fix it. Bride was asleep when Titanic struck ice and felt no jolt. When Captain E. J. Smith stuck his head in the door of the wireless room and informed them that the ship had struck ice it was the first they were aware of the problem. Phillips, Bride and Captain Smith shared a laugh when the first C. Q. D. and S. O. S. messages were sent.
Although his story was not told completely in chronological order, it is interesting to note that his first mention of the band came after the Captain had released Bride and Phillips of duty, saying it was “Every man for himself.”
BAND PLAYS RAG-TIME
“From aft came the tunes of the band. It was a rag-time tune, I don’t know what. Then there was ‘Autumn.’ Phillips ran aft, and that was the last I ever saw of him alive.” (Van Anda)
Bride was washed off the bow holding on to an upturned collapsible lifeboat that was never properly launched.
“I had only one thing on my mind – to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down. They were playing ‘Autumn’ then.” (Van Anda)
Bride described the harrowing night balancing on the upside-down lifeboat with a number of men, and then his dedicated work on Carpathia sending wireless messages of grief to family and friends. In conclusion his thoughts returned to the two things that stood out most to him about the night Titanic sank.
“The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while still we were working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing ‘Autumn.’ How they ever did it I cannot imagine. That and the way Phillips kept sending after the Captain told him his life was his own, and to look out for himself, are two things that stand out in my mind over all the rest.” (Van Anda)
To analyze Bride’s memories of the band’s music, it would seem as though the operators worked in isolation for most of the sinking, with only occasional visits from the Captain to update them on the situation for the purpose of sending accurate messages. The band was performing at the top of the Grand Staircase, aft, just a turn or two down the corridor of the officers’ command rooms, and beyond one closed door which separated the staircase where passengers traversed and the area where officers worked. With the doors to the staircase and the Marconi room closed the operators would not have heard the band’s music.
However, near the end it is likely that the doors were left open, the decorum relaxing as the state of the situation worsened. Bride’s exact wording was, “I heard it first while still we were working wireless…” which suggests it was after they had been released. It was an upbeat number that he couldn’t name.
“From aft came the tunes of the band. It was a rag-time tune, I don’t know what.” (Van Anda)
Songe d’automne is about six minutes long if performed to the end. From Bride’s account we can gather that his memory of watching Phillips running aft was tied in with hearing Songe d’automne, perhaps the music near the beginning of the piece.
“Then there was ‘Autumn.’ Phillips ran aft, and that was the last I ever saw of him alive.” (Van Anda)
As he floated away from the ship he was still able to hear the band playing this number.
“… it was still on deck playing ‘Autumn.’ ” (Van Anda)
According to Nader’s theory on the science of memory* it is the act of recalling and discussing memories that leaves them open to adaptation. Bride was separate from the other survivors for the duration of the voyage on Carpathia. It was unlikely he had discussed his memories with anyone until asked by Van Anda in the New York harbour. This point adds weight to the accuracy of his account.
- Titanic and the Science of Memory
- Titanic’s Final Number: Three Note Theory
- Titanic’s Final Number: Logistics, proximity and a good ear
- Harold Bride’s account reprinted in full in the New York Times on April 28.
- Harold Bride’s statement.