The U.S. Weather Bureau Station in Hatteras Village near the Red and White. NPS photo.

Observer staff report

Hatteras Island had a little known but pivotal role in the events of the RMS Titanic sinking 111 years ago on April 14.

On that fateful night, the Hatteras Weather Station received the first known distress message, said James D. Charlet. Had it been heeded more lives might have been saved of the almost 1,500 who perished that night.

This detail is spelled out in chapter 18 of Charlet’s book, “Shipwrecks of the Outer Banks.”

Also known as “Keeper James,” Charlet, of Salvo, Dare County, is a former history teacher and recognized authority on the U.S. Life Saving Service. He will present a program about this connection to the Titanic at 1 p.m. today (April 14) at the Hatteras Weather Bureau in Hatteras Village. It is free and open to the public.

The Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) Titanic left England four days before the fateful iceberg crash ended its brief career and left the ship still today 2.5 miles under the sea and 380 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

While the shipwreck was 1,516 miles from Hatteras, the weather station there was the first to get the distress message.

“It was the only telegraph station anywhere that received a telegram,” Charlet said in an interview. “The stunning thing is that there was any difference in the time at all.”

According to his 2020 book, the urgent telegram words “Have Struck Iceberg” came in at 11:25 p.m. to two Hatteras station operators who immediately forwarded the message to their counterparts in New York.

There, the urgency was ignored. 

David Sarnoff (later to become president of RCA), age 21, called the Hatteras senders troublemakers “clogging up the lines” and that they were to refrain from further communication. This disbelief was grounded in a Titanic PR campaign touting that the luxury ship was unsinkable. 

The Hatteras station original text, displayed in the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras Village, reads, in part:

“Received Hatteras Station at 11:25 p.m. Titanic calling C.Q.D. …At 11:35 p.m. TITANIC gives corrected position … A matter of five- or six-miles difference. He says, ‘have struck iceberg.’”

The sinking of the Titanic painting by Willy Stower.

Charlet quotes Joe Schwarzer, director of three North Carolina maritime museums, which includes the Hatteras museum, as saying the telegram was “physical evidence of the very moment when the ship was not going to be saved.”

This verifies the inaccuracy that the sending of the first CQD message happened 15 minutes later – at 11:40 p.m.

The steamship RMS Carpathia, which was 67 miles away, eventually responded to help save about 700 people. Had it gotten there 15 minutes sooner, perhaps more lives could have been saved.

Theories about what could have saved more lives are primarily three-fold: 1) massive coal fires burned too long in the ship’s bunkers and should have been extinguished before the ship launched; 2) the ship filled with ocean water from iceberg damage; and 3) time was lost when the Hatteras message was ignored by those who believed the Titanic would never sink.

The Hatteras weather station, located at 57190 Kohler Rd. beside the Red and White, opened on Jan. 1, 1902, and was decommissioned in 1946. 

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is owned by the National Park Service and operated by the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau as an information center.

‘Keeper’ James Charlet.
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