The Time Travel Journals: Shipbuilder, Chapter 43

Statue in Cobh, Ireland, representing the many Irish who left for America through Cobh port.
Statue in Cobh, Ireland, representing the many Irish who left for America through Cobh port.

Chapter 43

April–May, 1912

Subpoenas awaited the crew and guarantee group at Liverpool, and that meant traveling to London rather than the homes they had been longing for. Many passengers were suing, and the Americans had already begun an inquiry; Britain dared not lag behind. Although the ship was owned by an American company, most of the crew was British. The Wreck Commission was convened immediately, and presided over by Lord Mersey, whose first order of business was to obtain witnesses.

Captain Smith, bridge crew, Bruce Ismay, and the guarantee group, were required immediately. Lord Pirrie, already in London and still in poor health, would no doubt be required to testify at some point.

 I cannot tell you what it means to have the pictures you sent with Ham, Tom wrote to Casey, as he rode the train to London. He gave me your package right away and I have devoured it, feeling as if I am starving. The photograph is my constant companion; I must look at it a hundred times a day. To see your precious smiles, the three of you blowing kisses–Casey, how do you think of these things? How do you understand so clearly what my heart needs?

I worry that my little Terry will not remember me, that when I come home, I’ll be a stranger to her. If I am, then I will simply try every day to help her remember. When you write that she sleeps with my shirt and my picture held in her arms, I sit in wonder. How can she understand? But you say it helps her and I know you remind her always how much I love her. Do you know that you are the glue that makes the whole world stay together?

I have Jamie’s drawing in my pocket. I am a father drifting loose, but these gifts are like an anchor. I hold them and look at them often, hearing their voices and seeing them in my mind. I can picture Jamie sitting at his desk, drawing his picture, his tongue poking out as he concentrates. He is always so intense when he draws, so careful. I can tell that he actually wrote the message. I’m sure you helped him spell it, but to see the letters in his own hand makes me nearly burst. You see how silly I am? All children learn this, yet I am overcome.  

Casey, I feel so furious, so bitter. All I want is be with you, to hold you and hold our children, and to just be home. I feel that I have reached some limit, that duty no longer holds me under its sway. I am not myself, dear, and that worries me. Have I lost that part of me that holds honor as precious? Have I become selfish and shallow, feeling that I have given all I can, and having it refused, I have nothing more to offer?

I know they need answers. People died. Others lost money and valuables. Some of them lost everything they had. And I remind myself that we have accomplished only half of our goal. It is not enough that we saved most of the lives. The rules must change. People must change and learn that all our lives are precious. These hearings are a necessary part of that, and until I have finished all my part, I cannot rest. So I will set myself to get through this, to get it done and then return to Dunallon, and my heart’s desire as quickly as possible.

I beg you, continue to write. Send me all the little things you can think of. Hold me to the earth a little longer, Casey, and then I will be home and can hold you myself.

I love you,



He was in London for two weeks, and had to testify for five days. His first session lasted nearly all day, with questions about the ship’s design and construction. He had to explain nomenclature, how to read a blueprint, nautical measurements. It went on and on. And then he’d have to explain it again when someone else stepped up to question him. Tom had always been told he was a patient man, but this was beyond his capacity. Before the first day was over, he was convinced they weren’t looking for true answers. Rather, they wanted a particular answer to support their own agendas.

He wanted nothing to do with a whitewash. He did not expect Harland & Wolff to accept accusations of building an inadequate ship. At most, Lord Pirrie was guilty of short-sightedness for rejecting Tom’s own scenarios for accidents. But that was for Lord Pirrie to answer, and Tom would not let them trick him into accusations. He explained the designs, he explained how construction proceeded from the designs. In this, he had many supporters. The workforce of Harland & Wolff was held in the highest regard by the shipping industry. The commission would not be able to blame the firm for shoddy workmanship.

He was asked to explain the damage to the ship and the reasons for his prognosis. They spent several hours having him explain why he made no effort to repair the damage, but none of them seemed satisfied with his answers. What would they have wanted him to do? He couldn’t understand them by this point–he was tired and depressed with describing the injuries to his ship. Good Lord, did they actually think that he would not have done everything possible to save her? That he uncaringly let her die?

They finally let him go as they adjourned for the day, but then he had to work his way through the reporters. He had been told to not discuss the collision with them, and could only tell them he was very tired and needed to rest. This was the truth, and they let him go after a few minutes.

After Tom had testified for two days, they put Captain Smith on the stand. He testified all that day. He touched on Tom’s actions during the evening of the fourteenth, including their conversation on the boat deck, but he left out any mention of a “premonition.” Tom realized this was probably wise. Another experienced sailor might understand about premonitions and the feeling of pending disaster one could get while at sea, but this commission would not understand, and the reporters would create a sensation with it. They would never live it down.

So when they put him back on the stand and had him describe his actions that night, he also left out that part. He was relieved to do so, since he knew it was no premonition he had, but actual foreknowledge. How could he ever tell them that?

Before letting him go, in the middle of his second week there, they asked him what could have been done differently. He was desperate for good to come of this, and he spoke earnestly.

“Differently? I am on record as asking for a double hull and for higher watertight bulkheads. I fought hard for the number of lifeboats we had, and you all know that number greatly exceeded the requirements in place.

“What do we need to do differently? Sirs, we need to grow up. As industrialists, as traders, as businessmen, we need to act like adults. I have children, sirs, as do many of you. Children do not understand danger. They plunge ahead without regard for their environment because they don’t know any better. But we do know the dangers. We have no right to build bigger and bigger ships that carry more and more people, without also putting in place the protections we know are needed. We need to change the rules. We need safer ships.”

They let him go home then, although they warned him he might have to return for further questioning. The rest of the guarantee group had been allowed to leave after the first week. He booked his passage and sent a telegram to Casey telling her when he would be home. He had stayed with the Pirries of course, and his last evening in London, he shared a meal with his uncle, who was confined to bed. They had talked often during the week, and Lord Pirrie was philosophical about the commission’s possible verdict.

“I’ve no doubt they’ll put some blame on White Star and possibly myself, since we chose not to heed all of your warnings, son,” Lord Pirrie told him. “I expect that poor Captain Smith will take the brunt. But when it comes down to the finish, the real blame will rest with the Board of Trade and the shipping industry as a whole. Your final speech to them was right on mark, Tommy. Already, every line has added more lifeboats to their ships. Bruce plans on sending the Olympic and other ships back to the yard to be fitted with a second skin, and certainly the Britannic will be built with it. You’ll have to handle that, Tommy. It will be a huge job. There are other rules to be changed as well. It will all happen, son. I’m sure of it.”

“It’s a start, Uncle Will.” Tom moved his uncle’s empty tray to the bedside table and stretched the kinks out of his back.

His uncle watched him with concern. Tom seemed to look much older than his thirty-nine years. Lines etched his mouth, the skin around his eyes was puffy and drooping, new gray speckled his hair. He was subdued, somehow, as if the joy he usually carried with him had been misplaced. Perhaps he just needed more time to put this all behind him. It would do him good to get home, too.

Lord Pirrie reached for Tom’s hand and patted it. “There’s a lot to do, lad, but take some time when you get home. I imagine your wife has been through hell these last few weeks. She’s a good girl, Tommy. Take care of her for awhile.”

Tom’s soft smile touched his eyes as he returned the hand pat. “I’ll do that, Uncle Will. You follow your doctor’s orders and get better, all right? I’ll take care of things at the yard.”