Last echo of the Titanic disaster in Pattaya

The Californian is usually seen as the villain of the Titanic disaster.
The Californian is usually seen as the villain of the Titanic disaster.

There aren’t too many connections between Thailand’s premier tourist city and the sinking of the world’s biggest moving object in 1912. You might have heard of a couple of Pattaya bars and a hotel which were christened with the word Titanic in their respective titles. There was also a one million matchstick model of the ocean liner installed at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not when it opened. That’s about your lot.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown up another. Liverpool-born Timothy Gibson, now 69, had been a retiree in Pattaya for several years but returned to UK last month for urgent medical treatment. But he is the grandson of James Gibson, the apprentice watch officer on the Californian, which lay about 20 miles from the Titanic during the sinking. The Californian has usually been blamed for ignoring the stricken Titanic’s distress signals and failing to go to the rescue.

James Gibson was on duty with second officer Herbert Stone on the fateful night in April 1912. They both saw a ship in the distance firing what appeared to be white rockets but were unable to rouse the snoozing Captain Stanley Lord who told them the mystery lights were probably company signals. At subsequent courts of inquiry in New York and London, the Californian was adjudged to be guilty of inaction though no criminal proceedings followed.

Apprentice Gibson had a subsequent maritime career with the Royal Navy and Cunard before becoming a shore relief officer at Liverpool docks. He died in 1963. Grandson Timothy said, “My grandfather always denied that the vessel which he and Herbert Stone saw through binoculars was the Titanic. He always said it was a small tramp steamer with a few deck lights whereas the brightly-lit Titanic would have been unmistakable.”

Timothy added, “There was likely a third or even a fourth vessel in that ice floe on the night in question. The Californian lay stopped all night, but the ship seen from the sloping decks of the Titanic was seen clearly to be moving.” But if there were other ships in that area of the north Atlantic they have never been properly identified. The vast majority of Titanic historians think Captain Lord was culpable, arguing that he should himself have gone on deck or at least raised the off-duty radio officer.

Herbert Stone died in 1959. In late life, Captain Lord mounted an unsuccessful campaign to clear his name after the movie A Night to Remember portrayed him in an unflattering light. But he died in 1962. A reopened British inquiry in 1992 concluded that the Californian likely did see the Titanic’s distress rockets but was too far away to have saved lives.