Los Angeles times, July 27, 1990
History / 'A Night to Remember'
New Investigation of the Titanic Focuses on the Scapegoat
By Mark Fineman, Times Staff Writer
LONDON—The requests of dying men are not always east to carry out. And Capt. Stanley Lord’s must rank among the most difficult.
In 1912, as history records it, Lord and his ship stood idly by while the Titanic went down less than 10 miles away with 1,503 men, women, and children. Two commissions investigated the incident, and both ruled that Lord was negligent.
But until the day he died, in 1962, Lord insisted that he was innocent of any wrongdoing. He said his ship, the Californian, was at least 30 miles away when Titanic hit an iceberg and sank. Few listened to him.
Among the few who did was Leslie Harrison, who at the time was secretary of Britain’s Mercantile Marine Assn., which represents merchant ship captains. Not long before Lord died, at the age of 82, he asked Harrison to do what he had been unable to do: clear his name.
Now, at age 78, and after almost three decades of trying. Harrison may be on the brink of doing just that.
On the basis of Harrison’s lobbying and new evidence that has come to light, the British government has reopened the investigation into the sinking of the Titanic.
In an interview at his home in Liverpool, Harrison said that shortly before Lord died, he gave Harrison the documents that he had not been allowed to introduce at the British and U.S. inquiries in 1912. Since Lord appeared at the inquiries as a witness, not a defendant, he was not permitted legal counsel or the opportunity to introduce evidence. Harrison turned this evidence over to the authorities.
The captain, Harrison said, had been under the weight of the Titanic burden for four decades, but the release of the 1958 film “A Night to Remember,” which portrayed Lord as a villain, convinced him that he had to shard the burden.
“He had come to tell me he’d been falsely accused of letting 1,500 people die,” Harrison said.
Harrison, himself a nautical navigator, spent a month examining Lord’s documents and charts, and “I determined that he was dead right,” he said.
But when Harrison set out to champion Lord’s cause, he met some resistance from his colleagues. As some observers have put it, there was fear that history would lose the perfect scapegoat for a disaster attributable in large measure to the inadequate number of lifeboats on the Titanic.
Harrison decided to plead Lord’s case in book form. After numerous rejections, a small publishing house brought out “A Titanic Myth—the Californian Incident” in 1986. Only 1,700 copies were printed, and Harrison reckons that he realized less than $500 from it, along with more criticism from his colleagues.
The keystone of Harrison’s premise—and Lord’s defense—is that the official investigations into the Titanic disaster placed both the Titanic and Californian at the wrong place at the time the Titanic hit the iceberg. But Lord’s evidence, which consisted of his charts, logs, and other materials, was probably not enough to prove his case, even if it had been admissible. The issue was not the Californian’s exact position by whether it was close enough to see distress rockets fired by the Titanic. Despite Lord’s denials, the inquiries concluded that his ship had been close enough.
Then, five years ago, an American oceanographer, Robert D. Ballard, located the Titanic on the ocean floor at a place where no one, except perhaps Lord and Harrison, had expected it to be. It was just three miles from the position where Lord’s charts indicated he found the Titanic’s wreckage and nearly 20 miles from the Californian’s position when the distress call went out.
But other experts—among them Ballard himself, who remains convinced that Lord was near enough to have saved the 1,507 who perished—maintain that the present location of the wreck still may not be enough to clear Lord’s name because Titanic may have drifted for miles during the three hours it remained afloat.
It will now be up to a British maritime accident investigator to analyze Lord’s charts, Ballard’s findings and prevailing ocean currents the night of the accident to try to determine, once and for all, whether the Capt. Lord and the Californian might have been able to reach the sinking Titanic in time.
Image of Titanic sinking with caption "Britan is re-examining Titanic's sinking, portrayed by Willy Stower".