S1E1 – Show Notes

David Blair, of Titanic fame, smoking a pipe.David Blair was in a hurry to leave the ship that day.

He had spent the better part of two years keeping a close eye on the progress that the White Star Line was making on the Titanic. He read the newspaper articles and pored over every internal memo he could get his hands on. This was a big moment for his company. He could see it. And he knew that as the respected chief officer aboard her sister ship, he would be in the running for a position aboard Titanic, this monolith that everyone was calling unsinkable.

So when the telegram arrived on March 26th, just two weeks before Titanic’s maiden voyage, asking that he join the company’s top crewmen as second officer, he gladly accepted.

Sure, going from chief to second officer was a demotion, but this was the most luxurious new ocean liner in the world. She would entertain the wealthiest and most respected people of her day.

And her captain, Blair knew, would be retiring after the ship had returned to England. If he was able to hold his own amongst this crew, there would surely be a First Officer position with his name on it. It was really only a temporary demotion.

And as the company expanded after Titanic–as the ships got larger and more luxurious–he would be a shoe-in for a captain position aboard one of them.

Blair accompanied the ship as she left her home in Belfast for the first time, and he stood in the bridge as Captain Smith tested out her features in the week leading up to her maiden voyage. He paid close attention as they learned how she’d respond if you threw her engines in reverse, or what sort of turn she could make using only the propellers. He learned her layout and he made himself at home in his cabin. This was his new ship. This was his new workplace.

And he was immensely proud to be a part of such an historic moment for not only the company, but for the world.

Then, on April 9, the day before Titanic was set to make her maiden voyage, Captain Smith called an early morning meeting on the ship’s bridge. When Blair arrived at the control room, he was greeted by a familiar face, albeit a new one to the Titanic.

Henry Tingle Wilde had been the Chief Officer aboard Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic. As Chief Officer, he had served under Captain Smith in the year leading up to the Titanic’s maiden voyage. Now, as the Olympic began operations under a new captain, Smith had requested Wilde’s company as Chief Officer aboard the ship.

This meant that some staffing changes were in order, as the previously-assigned Chief and First officers were demoted.

David Blair’s heart sank as he realized what was happening. The ship with which he had been familiarizing himself for over a week–the one that he’d been hoping would be his big break for the last two years–no longer needed him. The best he could hope for upon her return was a second officer position. A demotion. He was asked to gather his belongings and disembark that day.

So David Blair was in a hurry to leave the ship. And who can blame him? He was frustrated, and rightly so. Hadn’t he earned his spot aboard the Titanic? Hadn’t he put in the time, and made all the right connections to to ensure he would make this voyage? Hadn’t White Star Line stated that it would be an honor to have him aboard? Where had he gone wrong?

He had a lot to think about as he gathered his possessions from his cabin. He pulled his uniforms and bedclothes from the closet and threw them into his trunk, not bothering to fold them. He took his wife’s photo from the desk and threw it in on top of his clothes. He grabbed his keys, paused for one last look around the cabin that was meant to be his, and disembarked without a word to anyone.

David Blair leaving Titanic

(The photo above is alleged by some to show David Blair leaving the Titanic. If the rumors are true, David Blair is the man walking toward the camera. Photo from Wikimedia.)

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that Blair got off lucky. He was spared, if not his life, then at least the horrors that everyone aboard the ship would experience just five days later. His dismissal was a blessing or a fortuitous coincidence or an act of divine intervention–whatever it is you call the luck of someone who barely managed to escape being in the wrong place and the right time. He got off lucky.

Or well, he almost did. You see, David Blair’s involvement in Titanic’s narrative doesn’t end the morning he left her for the last time.

On April 23, just over a week after Titanic sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic, taking 1,500 people with her, a United States Senate committee convened for its fourth day of investigations into the accident. On this day, a man named Frederick Fleet was called to the stand.

Fleet had been one of the two lookouts on duty the night Titanic sank. He had been the first to see the iceberg, only 1500 feet ahead of them. He had rang the bell and telephoned down to the bridge, yelling “Iceberg, dead ahead!” and then he watched for 37 seconds as the chunk of ice grew larger and larger the closer they approached. He braced himself as the Titanic smashed into the berg on her starboard side, but was pleasantly surprised to find that he barely felt the impact. Maybe, he thought, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. It wasn’t until he had been relieved of his post 20 minutes later that he learned the true extent of what had happened. He was the first person to become a part of this story and he was one of the 32% on board who had survived to tell the tale. Now, he needed to answer for it.

The Senate had begun its investigations only a day after Titanic’s passengers had finally reached New York. Because of the number of American citizens who had been lost, Senator William Smith felt that the US government had a duty to get to the bottom of what had happened.

Upon interviewing Fleet, the story of what had truly passed that night finally came to light.

Fleet, a 24 year old Irishman, sweated nervously as he took the stand. He answered Smith’s questions to the best of his abilities, knowing full well that the blame for the accident would likely fall on his shoulders.

The question everyone wanted to know was, why hadn’t they seen the iceberg earlier? On a clear night in the North Atlantic, it should have been possible for the lookouts to spot the berg from 12 miles away, giving them a full half hour to correct their course and avoid a collision. Yet Fleet had failed to spot it until they had just over 30 seconds to respond. How could this be possible?

But Fleet didn’t have the answers that Smith was looking for. He himself didn’t know how the iceberg had managed to sneak up on them in the way that it did. As one of the two men who had experienced the scenario, he was more dumbfounded than anyone. His responses came across as largely inadequate, with plenty of “I don’t knows” and “that I cannot answers.”

It wasn’t until Senator Smith brought up one small detail that Fleet found a way to displace the blame.

You see, normally a White Star ship would be equipped with a set of binoculars for the lookout crew, but the lookouts aboard the Titanic weren’t given any. They’d had them from Belfast to Southampton, but after Southampton, they’d seemingly disappeared. The lookouts who were expected to warn the bridge of any impending obstacles had been left to rely on their own eyesight to do so.

This was Fleet’s way out, whether he was conscious of his displacement of blame or not. By arguing that he would have been better equipped to spot an iceberg in the distance if he had been given binoculars, he was able to put the White Star Line at fault while clearing his own name.

So that’s what he went with.

But what had happened to the binoculars when the ship had reached Southampton? Under whose supervision had they been left?

David Blair had been in a hurry to leave the ship that day. He had collected his uniforms, and his wife’s photo, and he had grabbed his keys. The keys he had been given when he arrived on the ship. The key to a crew locker that most likely held the binoculars the lookout crew were meant to be using.

And so, for the rest of his life, David Blair wondered if his one tiny mistake, committed in an moment of absentmindedness, brought on by the sheer disappointment of having been snubbed during his biggest career opportunity, could’ve saved all those lives.

He had been in a hurry to leave the ship. And who can blame him?

[Pause]

Now, it’s impossible to tell whether or not David Blair’s mistake actually led to the sinking of the ship. Any argument one way or the other would be based purely on conjecture.

Fleet believed that he could have spotted the iceberg sooner if he had been properly equipped, but it still doesn’t explain why it only appeared at 1500 feet.

On a normal night, even without binoculars, crew should have been able to spot it from a distance, But April 14th, 1912 was not a normal night in the North Atlantic. There was no moon to light the iceberg, so the lookouts were relying on spotting a black mass against a starlit sky. The sea was calm and there were no waves splashing against the iceberg’s side to create a visible spray.

And most importantly, binoculars aren’t meant for spotting things from a distance. They limit the range of view. They’re meant for identifying objects that have already been spotted.

But that didn’t stop the headlines from placing the blame on Blair when his descendants put the key up for auction in 2007. His actions were questioned and criticized 52 years after his death. 95 years after the ship sank.

Keys that were put up for auction by David Blair's descendants.

(Above photo shows the keys David Blair mistakenly removed from the Titanic. Photo via Express.)

But if any of us had been in his position–had experienced the disappointment he felt in that moment–we probably would have done the same.
About Omitted:

Omitted is a history podcast, focusing its first season on the Titanic. The podcast is written, produced, and edited by Corey Constable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *