SOS STORIES, PART ONE: Titanic’s radio operator WASN'T the first to use the famous distress sign
Ever since 1912, the letters SOS have been closely associated with the RMS Titanic. And for good reason. Titanic’s senior radio officer Jack Phillips used the Morse Code distress signal to let the world know his ship was sinking—and, after that, SOS pretty much became a household term. But Titanic wasn’t the first steamship in history to issue a distress call, and nor was Phillips the first wireless officer to specifically send an SOS.
That distinction fell to an operator at a tiny wireless station on Flores Island in the Azores, who sent out the alarm on the behalf of a British steamship that had literally crashed into his island.
In Part One of SOS Stories, I’ll share the story of this epic sea disaster—which is probably one you’ve never heard before.
Terror in the Azores
The ship in question, the RMS Slavonia, was a 500-foot-long, single-funneled steamer owned by the Cunard Line. This was the same company that operated the Lusitania, as well as Titanic’s rescue ship, the Carpathia.
On June 10th, 1909, Slavonia was on a routine voyage from New York to the Mediterranean when disaster struck. During a foggy night, the ship strayed 10 miles off course, and grounded itself on the rocky coast of the remote Portuguese island.
First Class passenger Mrs. M. Barbero Perry explains what happened next: “The vessel gave a great lurch forward, then with the rebound motion was pinned by another rock in the rear, while a great hole was pierced in the middle of the vessel.”
Within minutes, 22 feet of water filled the ship. Slavonia’s officers immediately brought the vessel’s 373 passengers and 225 crewmembers up on deck, but were reluctant to place them into lifeboats.
“It was not known where we were or how near land,” wrote Mrs. Perry (later, in a letter to her sister) “So the officers told us to be calm till dawn, unless the boat showed signs of falling to one side or the other.”
A Long, Scary Night
Since this wasn’t exactly reassuring, everyone remained seated on deck, wide-eyed and alert, for the rest of the night. It also didn’t help that the ship’s foghorn blasted continuously, as the crew attempted to alert anyone else who might be in the area.
(The Slavonia didn’t appear to have its own dedicated wireless operator aboard. Or, if it did, something prevented him from using the ship’s wireless telegraph to call out for help.)
Approximately six hours after the grounding, the sun finally rose. Slavonia’s dazed and bleary-eyed passengers and crew were treated to a surreal sight.
“To the east of us were mammoth, insurmountable rocks from 200 to 500 feet in height,” Mrs. Perry wrote, “and the boat was surrounded by several smaller ones…The impossibility of landing here was evident to all.”
However, by this time, the residents of Flores Island (who lived, according to Perry, nine miles from the wreck site, in the small village of Lagens), were aware of the catastrophe, and eager to assist in any way that they could. They launched boats from land to help ferry Slavonia’s traumatized passengers to shore.
By mid-morning, all were safely off the ship.
The Kindness of the Rescuers
Thereafter, the villagers took the passengers under their wings, welcoming them into their homes, and providing them with hot meals. They even set up mats and blankets on every available inch of floor space, so that the exhausted travelers could finally get some sleep.
However, back at the ship, the ongoing rescue operation (now involving just crewmembers) was becoming increasingly difficult, since the tide had turned, and the water surrounding the ship was more turbulent.
A Clever Plan
With the small rescue boats getting tossed around, Slavonia’s officers had to devise another method of evacuation. They ended up tying a rope around the ship’s main mast and, after securing the other end to a fixed point on land, rigged a chair that could be shuttled back and forth along what was essentially a makeshift zipline. (You can see the rope they used, as well as the wrecked ship, in the accompanying photo.)
As an aside, film fans might notice that a similar technique was utilized in the 1970s disaster flick, The Towering Inferno, when firemen set up a so-called “Breeches Buoy” between the burning skyscraper and a nearby building.
However, evacuating each of the 70 remaining crewmembers was a painfully slow process. It took the rest of the afternoon. But, in the end, everyone aboard was rescued. The disaster is notable for the fact that not a single fatality occurred.
Sending the Famous Distress Call
This is the point where the Portuguese wireless officer comes into the story. He, along with two assistants, manned a small station called Radio-Flores, which had been set up on the remote island to transmit, among other things, meteorological data. (The station’s wireless device reportedly had a range of 150 miles.)
And, although it’s not known exactly when the Radio-Flores telegraphist began sending out radio transmissions on behalf of the stricken Slavonia, what is known is that the Prinzess Irene, a passing Norwegian steamer, heard the SOS and immediately changed course to pick up the stranded passengers and crew.
The Prinzess Irene arrived on Flores Island that evening, and, by the following morning, had retrieved all of Slavonia’s castaways (although some were later transferred to a different ship).
After the Rescue
The wreck itself was abandoned and considered a total loss. Investigators at the British Board of Trade, who held an inquiry into the disaster, eventually cited the captain for his navigation issues, as well as for traveling at “an excessive speed for the prevailing conditions.”
The Board, however, recognized the role that the Portuguese wireless operator at Radio-Flores had played in the rescue. The man was issued a commendation, and his assistants were rewarded with nominal amounts of cash.
In another twist to the story, the abandoned wreck itself provided its own reward to the otherwise helpful residents of Flores Island. Every home for miles around eventually received a new hardwood floor—courtesy of the steamer’s deck.
But I’m certain that Slavonia’s passengers, at least—who'd spent an entire day sleeping on wood-less versions of those same floors—didn’t begrudge the looting. In fact, they were most likely delighted when they learned that their one-time hosts had been able to get something in return for all their hospitality.
The Wreck of the S.S. Slavonia Today
In 2015, the Portuguese government turned the site—which occupies an area the size of two football fields—into a federally protected park. (Its official name is The Archaeological Underwater Park Slavonia.) According to information posted online, the vessel’s remains are currently located 5-15 meters (16-50 feet) below the surface, and can “easily be accessed by snorkel or SCUBA diving.”
However, what eventually became of the location of the wireless station on Flores Island is unknown (at least, by this writer). But I certainly hope the site is marked in some way. Given that Radio-Flores holds such an esteemed place in maritime radio history, it would be a shame if memories of it have completely disappeared into the “ether”…which is something that the station’s most famous transmission—the world’s first SOS distress call—never did.
Paul Amirault is a Hollywood TV producer, author, and photographer. His first book, The Man Who Sent the SOS: A Memoir of Reincarnation and the Titanic, is now on sale.
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