SOS STORIES, Part Four: Disaster Foretold—The Wreck of the S.S. Kentucky
In early February 1910, after stopping at a local shipyard for unexpected repairs, the wooden steamship S.S. Kentucky left Newport News, Virginia to continue its five-month voyage to the Pacific Northwest.
In the steamer’s wireless room was a telegraphist named W. D. McGinnis, who replaced the ship’s original radioman, Thomas McLarney, after McLarney had bailed on the job at the insistence of his parents. (McLarney’s mother had had a vivid nightmare involving the sinking of the ship, and was determined to keep her son safe.)
However, premonitions of disaster notwithstanding, all went well during the Kentucky's first day back at sea. But then, a fierce winter storm descended, and many of the ship’s crewmembers began to wonder if the repairs would hold.
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On the morning of February 3, a little before noon, the wireless station at Cape Hatteras, NC overheard a frantic transmission from the Kentucky. The message began with SOS, the international signal for help.
It was followed by: “We are sinking. Our latitude is 32:10, longitude is 76:30” (The ship was apparently 110 nautical miles off the coast—in an area known to sailors as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.)
The Response of the Steamship Alamo
At that same time, the passenger liner S.S. Alamo was traveling south between New York and Galveston, Texas. The ship’s wireless officer received the Kentucky’s call and immediately responded, letting the vessel know the Alamo would make for her position at all possible speed.
However, since the Alamo was dozens of miles away, it wouldn’t arrive for at least three hours.
But chillingly, after the message was sent, there was no response from the Kentucky. This meant that either the ship’s wireless room had flooded, or else the steamer had already plunged to the bottom of the sea.
When informed of the radio silence, the Alamo’s captain ordered full speed ahead. As a seasoned skipper, the man figured, if Kentucky’s crew had indeed bailed out and were adrift in lifeboats, the men were in grave danger—since the weather was stormy and their small boats could easily be swamped by the churning sea.
Three hours later, as the Alamo closed in on the Kentucky’s reported position, the captain ordered his engine crew to send massive columns of thick, black smoke into the air through the ship’s funnels. Since he had no other way of communicating with any potential survivors, the captain hoped they’d see the smoke and know that help was on the way.
What They Found When They Got There
A half-hour later, the Alamo arrived on scene. Miraculously, the Kentucky was still afloat, although the 6-ton ship was in terrible condition; it was laying low in the water, without power, its hull battered by high waves.
For the next ninety minutes, the crew of the Alamo conducted a perilous, ship-to-ship rescue, using small boats, as what little daylight they had faded into full-on darkness. However, thanks to the hard work of the crew, by 5 pm, all 46 people aboard the Kentucky were safely rescued
And it was only then that the Alamo’s captain finally learned the harrowing details of Kentucky’s predicament.
At the Mercy of the Sea
Kentucky’s skipper told the tale about how, despite the ship’s recent repairs, its wooden seams had ripped open when the storm arrived; and also about how the sea had rushed into the vessel’s wireless room shortly after McGinnis had sent his SOS, drenching the equipment, and leaving the operator without a way of sending or receiving additional messages; and also about how, for the next few hours, the only thing the crew could do was battle the rising water with electric-powered pumps, while praying they’d be found in time. (However, the pumps had failed when the ship’s electricity finally did—which occurred, thankfully, just moments before deckhands spotted the smoke of the approaching Alamo.)
After Kentucky’s captain had shared the story with his Alamo counterpart, he took a moment to commend the actions of his wireless operator, W. D. McGinnis—to whom, he said, everyone owed their lives. From all accounts, the skipper's heartfelt words were followed by a hearty round of applause from the crew.
A Voyage Doomed from the Start
And although the historical record doesn’t explicitly spell it out, it can pretty much be assumed that the conversation thereafter returned to former radio operator Thomas McLarney, and about how his mother had prophesized the disaster.
This writer’s assumption is based on the fact that, shortly after the Alamo’s wireless operator had sent out word of the successful rescue, McLarney’s story was also flashing across the airwaves. In fact, news of his mother's prediction, along with gripping survivor accounts of the disaster, appeared in evening newspapers that very same night.
The Kentucky Goes to the Bottom
After the rescue, however, no one aboard the Alamo witnessed the eventual sinking of the Kentucky. (Her captain estimated the wooden steamship “wouldn’t last until midnight.”) But by that time, the rescue ship was miles to the south, having already resumed her voyage. (Kentucky survivors were eventually dropped off in Key West, Florida, before the Alamo headed west to its final destination in Texas.)
And while there's no way of knowing how the actual sinking compared to what Mrs McLarney had seen in her dream, one thing is certain: the Kentucky's demise absolutely occurred in a way that would have alarmed an onlooker—as the ship slipped beneath the waves, alone at sea, during a dark night...with no signs of life anywhere around her.
Sadly, this writer could find no mention of what eventually happened to Kentucky’s heroic second wireless operator, W.D. McGinnis, following the disaster.
However, the future of the ship’s first operator, Thomas McLarney, is better documented online.
According to news reports from his hometown paper, McLarney went on to serve on a number of different vessels, before eventually joining the U.S. Navy during World War I. He died in 1924, apparently the result of exposure to gas poisoning during the conflict.
His mother, Isabella McNesby McLarney, the woman who’d predicted the Kentucky disaster—and warned her son away from it—lived until 1938. At the time of her death—which was just prior to the start of World War II—McLarney had been a widow for two decades, having survived both her son and husband.
But the story of her chilling premonition of disaster (and the lengths she went to to prevent her son from being affected by it) has become an integral part of the history of the SOS call.
And whether it was all just a coincidence—or whether Mrs. McLarney was somehow receiving psychic information that traveled through “the ether”—the same way radio waves travel, by the way—can never be known. But the parallels between these two invisible forms of “communication” are certainly interesting to think about.
And as for the SOS call, it subsequently went on to save the lives of tens of thousands of seafarers during the last century. (Survivors of the Titanic, Lusitania, and Andrea Doria disasters, among others, certainly owe it a debt of gratitude.)
Believe it or not, the SOS remained the official maritime radio distress signal right up until our own era. It wasn’t until 1999 that the signal was finally replaced by a computerized, GPS-based system.
But hopefully, stories about those early 20th Century sea travelers—who were saved by the cutting-edge technology of radio…and a three-letter signal that notified the world they were in peril—will be remembered forever.
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So this wraps up my 4-part, blog series, “SOS Stories.” I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it. If you have any thoughts or input, please drop me a note. I’d love to hear what you have to say!
Paul Amirault is a Hollywood TV producer and author. His first book, The Man Who Sent the SOS: A Memoir of Reincarnation and the Titanic, is now on sale.