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Senate Committee on Commerce, Subcommittee on the "Titanic" Disaster

William Alden Smith, Republican from Michigan

(Titanic Disaster Investigation)

Resolution passed: April 17, 1912

Hearings held: April 19–May 25, 1912

Report issued: May 28, 1912

Chairman: William A. Smith (R-MI)

Committee members:

George C. Perkins (R-CA)
Jonathan Bourne, Jr. (R-OR)
Theodore E. Burton (R-OH)
F. M. Simmons (D-NC)
Francis G. Newlands (D-NV)
Duncan U. Fletcher (D-FL)

When the luxury liner Titanic sank in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912, with more than 1,500 lives lost, the world was stunned! How could such a disaster happen in the modern era of "unsinkable" ships? To answer that question, Senator William Alden Smith of Michigan chaired a special subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee that held hearings within days of the disaster. The hearings began on April 19, 1912, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. The next week the hearings were moved to the caucus room of the new Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. They were the first hearings to be held in that room. A total of 82 witnesses testified about ice warnings that were ignored, the inadequate number of lifeboats, the ship’s speed, the failure of nearby ships to respond to the Titanic’s distress calls, and the treatment of passengers of different classes. The hearings concluded on May 25, 1912, when Senator Smith visited the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, at port in New York, to interview some of its crew. The subcommittee hearing transcripts, issued as Senate Document 726, 62nd Congress, 2nd session, and published in 1912, are over 1,100 pages long.

The subcommittee’s final report, issued on May 28, 1912, stated, “The committee finds that this accident clearly indicates the necessity of additional legislation to secure safety of life at sea.” The committee made numerous recommendations, including revisions of statutes to require lifeboat capacity for every passenger, proper assignment and training of crew members, lifeboat assignments and drills for passengers before departure, regulation of radiotelegraphy, and safety improvements to ocean-going passenger steamships. The investigation led to significant reforms in international maritime safety to address those concerns, as well as to the creation of the International Ice Patrol, a branch of the U.S. Coast Guard that patrols the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans for icebergs.

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