Jack, North Atlantic, April 15, 1912
The first thing Jack noticed when he got outside: his exhales were exploding in the night air like ragged puffs of smoke.
He pulled up the collar of his woolen overcoat, dug his hands in his pockets, and began making his way forward to the deck’s end, where a crowd of passengers had gathered.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” he said, pushing his way through the throng. When he got to the wooden railing, he saw an unimaginable sight: the bow of the ship was nearly submerged.
Black water sloshed around the base of the forward mast, which now resembled a tree trunk inundated by a river flood.
Jack sighed fiercely. Beyond the bow, the North Star was shining brightly. But that wasn’t what drew his attention. On the horizon, the lights of a distant steamer bobbed merrily…a ship that, infuriatingly, hadn’t responded to any of Jack’s distress messages. He knew that another vessel was, at that very moment, racing through the night to reach them, but it was clear she would arrive too late.
Once again, Jack felt the bile rising in his throat.
There was loud shouting from behind, and he turned to see three teenagers pushing their way to the railing. They were Italians, by the look—and sound—of them. One of the boys jostled Jack as he passed, jabbering excitedly at the sight of the sunken bow.
Jack turned and made his way back to the hatchway.
“Anything?” he asked as soon as he entered the Marconi Room. His assistant Harold, a thin boy with an unruly shock of thick hair, shook his head.
“Made contact with the Baltic but she’s too far away.”
Returning to his chair, Jack relieved him at the key.
“How—” Harold started to ask, but Jack cut him off wearily.
“The foredeck’s awash,” he told him. “She can’t last much longer. You better put on some more clothes—and your lifebelt.”
Slipping his headphones* over his ears, Jack continued keying out the distress message.
C-Q-D C-Q-D C-Q-D…
CQD was the International code for “Attention all Stations: Distress.”
DE, in the parlance of wireless operators, stood for “from”
…M-G-Y M-G-Y M-G-Y.
MGY were the call letters for the ship: the RMS Titanic.
As the minutes crawled by, Jack was dimly aware that Harold was again hovering behind him. The boy had put his overcoat and lifebelt on, and was standing there with Jack’s lifebelt in his hands. Knowing it would be impossible to slip the vest over Jack’s head while he was wired to the headphones, Harold finally gave up. He placed the vest on the back of Jack’s chair.
At that moment, the ship’s captain poked his head into the cabin. “Abandon your post, men,” he said.
Jack looked up from the Marconigraph. “Sir?”
“You can do no more,” the old man said, looking at his hands. “So I release you from your duties.”
The captain’s face was ashen and his eyes puffy. It looked like he was fighting back tears. “You’ll want to get on deck then,” he said. “and look after yourselves.”
“But, sir—” Jack stammered.
“That’s the way of it, at times like these,” the old man said as he left the room.
Jack paused for a moment, then turned back to the Marconigraph.
C-Q-D C-Q-D C-Q-D
As he resumed transmitting, a loud, ripping sound emanated from below, followed by a small jolt, which prodded Harold into action.
“I’ll get our things,” the boy said, hurrying off to the adjoining bedroom.
Jack didn’t answer. He was concentrating on the wireless key, focusing his attention solely on the zap of electric spark that occurred with each stroke of his key.
M-G-Y M-G-Y M-G-Y
Suddenly, Harold was yelling, “Get off, get off!”
Jack turned with a start to see a strange crewman just inches from him. The man, a stoker or coal trimmer, was one of Titanic’s many below-deck workers. Tall and lanky, his face and clothes were covered with a mixture of coal dust and sweat.
Jack stared at the boy, who had striking blue eyes and dirty blond hair. He hardly looked older than a teenager.
“He’s trying to steal your lifebelt!” Harold shouted.
Jack gasped incredulously when he noticed that the boy’s grimy hands were indeed clutching the lifebelt Harold had left on his chair.
In a flash, Jack threw down his headphones and jumped up, the chair toppling in the process. He lunged for the belt; however, the crewman refused to release it.
“Give it back!” Jack shrieked. But the stoker said nothing, his fingers merely tightening claw-like around the vest. Jack couldn’t know that the boy had grown up in a Scandinavian country where the water was too cold for swimming, so he’d never learned—and thus considered Jack’s lifebelt his only hope for survival.
Jack would’ve recognized the fear and desperation in the boy’s eyes, had he been seeing clearly. But he was not seeing clearly. On the contrary, he was suddenly and completely filled with rage.
Seeing the look on Jack’s face, Harold sprang into action. He lunged forward and grabbed the stoker from behind, pinning his arms to his side. But still, the boy refused to relinquish the vest.
Jack, his anger boiling over, began pummeling and pummeling him—until the stoker finally let go. Jack snatched back his vest and tossed it onto his worktable.
Since the boy was now grunting and writhing violently against Harold in an attempt to free himself, Jack exploded with righteous anger. He lashed out again and again, until his fist came in contact with the stoker’s jaw. There was a loud crack, and Jack suddenly felt like his hand was on fire. Intense pain began shooting down his arm, too, but he was barely aware of it. He merely pounded harder—until the boy fell, slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, against Harold.
Although Jack wasn’t aware of it, the “knock-out punch” wasn’t solely the result of his fisticuffs; Harold, who’d been struggling to keep his balance on the tilting deck, had pushed the stoker forward at the precise moment Jack launched his final blow—catching the boy, between them, like a vice.
Now, however, Harold finally released his grip, and the stoker dropped to the faux-tile floor with a thud.
“He should’ve known where his own lifebelt was!” Harold exclaimed, once he was able to catch his breath.
Jack glanced at the stoker’s motionless body for a moment, then turned his attention to the overturned chair. His hand shrieked in pain as he pulled it back upright. He reattached his headphones, and sat back down at the desk.
As he reached for the wireless key, Jack realized his index finger had broken. It was swollen, and he was unable to close it around the key. He pushed down anyway, and there was a zap of connection. He tried gripping the key a different way, but his hand continued to throb. It was useless.
Jack, defeated, took off his headphones and lowered his head to the table.
But soon there was another terrified shout from Harold. “Jack, the water’s coming!”
Jack nodded and slowly got up. He reached down and picked up his lifebelt, raising it over his head with difficulty.
“Can you give me a hand with this?” he asked, in a strangely calm voice.
Harold hurried over and quickly tied the belt’s straps. “I’ve got your money and your papers,” he said.
“Put ‘em in my pocket,” Jack said. “Don’t think I can do it.”
Jack put his hand reflexively to his head and noticed his hat wasn’t there. But he couldn’t will himself to look for it. “Let’s go,” he said, carefully stepping over the body of the stoker, who was still splayed out on the floor.
Jack and Harold met the flood of water halfway down the hall. As they splashed through the freezing liquid, it had a reinvigorating effect on Jack. But the going was now treacherous. They were forced to grip the side railing for support. Jack held on with his left hand only. His right hand was still in agony.
The ship was groaning all around them. Suddenly, there was a sharp jolt, accompanied by a terrifically loud crash from somewhere up front. The wheelhouse had apparently given way.
The hatchway up ahead now resembled a small waterfall.
“Dear God, please don’t let her sink while we’re in here,” Jack implored as he and Harold quickened their pace.
_ _ _
Approximately one hour and forty minutes later, the prayers of 705 men, women and children (mostly the latter two groups) were answered when the rescue ship Jack summoned arrived to pluck them from the icy water.
But a far greater number—some fifteen hundred people—weren’t so lucky. They became victims of a shipwreck that, even today, remains one of the most haunting and notorious of all time.
Jack Phillips was among them.
He’s considered by some to be a hero of the disaster. Others call him a villain, claiming he’s at least partially responsible for the fate that befell the doomed liner.
Since Jack wasn’t around to defend himself…and the stories told by those who did survive were conflicting (or, at the very least, “selectively” edited), it’s widely assumed that the truth about what actually happened could never be known.
At one point in my life, I would’ve been of a similar opinion. But then, through an improbable set of circumstances, I stumbled upon the truth about Jack’s story…and realized it was up to me to tell it.
_ _ _
*In Jack’s time, headphones/earphones were called “telephones.” However, to avoid confusion, I’ve opted to go with the current vernacular.