Luckily for the crew of the freighter St. Cuthbert — and for newspaper readers in New York and Chicago — the White Star ocean liner Cymric was burrowing westward to Boston through a blinding squall on the morning of Monday, Feb. 3, 1908, when an inferno came into distant view through the snow.
It was the St. Cuthbert, a floating incendiary device whose cargo holds had been badly packed in Belgium with fusel oil solvent, parrafin wax, matches and other flammable materials. A tremendous explosion had torn through the 5,000-ton steel vessel at midnight on Saturday, destroying half the bridge and enveloping the ship in flame and poisonous fumes. More than a dozen crew members who tried to escape on Sunday perished when their lifeboat was swamped by the high seas. And St. Cuthbert was still ablaze.
Now at last — 200 miles off Cape Sable, Nova Scotia — Cymric had arrived providentially. But the winds were so ferocious that Capt. William Finch could do no more than stand by for nine awful hours, knowing that to launch a rescue effort would doom his own crew. Finally, seeing a break in the storm, Captain Finch sent a single lifeboat to St. Cuthbert under the command of the first officer.
The waves were still mountainous enough that the lifeboat seemed to disappear from view. Finally, it re-emerged on the lee side of the St. Cuthbert.
“Nobody descended for 10 minutes,” the account in the next morning’s New York Times said.
“Then a heavy figure was lowered, followed by another. Then 12 men descended the ladder. Horror stricken the passengers and crew of the Cymric saw the inmates of the returning boat, blackened with smoke. Two of the rescued men were frightfully burned on the face and arms. The bodies of the two helplessly beat against the ship’s side when they were hoisted by a loop under the arms.”
This reads like an eyewitness account. It was.
Among the passengers on the Cymric was a correspondent for The Chicago Tribune. As soon as the liner close enough for the signal from the short-distance Marconi wireless telegraph to reach shore, he dispatched his account. It was relayed to Chicago through land lines.
“Having sent the news he remembered that The New York Times was interested in anything connected with wireless telegraphy, and accordingly sent a query by wireless to find out if the paper wanted the story,” Elmer Holmes Davis wrote in “History of The New York Times, 1851-1921.”
“It did, and it got it,” Mr. Davis wrote.
In fact, The Times received so much that it had to cut the correspondent off at 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday, when the final edition closed. The story, without a byline, led the paper under the headline: “15 Lost From Burning Ship / The Cymric Saves Capt. Lewis and 36 Men From the St. Cuthbert Off Cape Sable / Wireless to The Times / Dispatches from the Cymric, Five Hundred Miles Away, Describe the Rescue.”
The account resumed in Wednesday’s paper. It described a San Francisco stowaway, James Collins, who clambered to the top of a mast only to be tossed into the “seething hold” when the mast fell.
Today, scoops are measured in seconds. Sometimes minutes. But in 1908, The Times had a full day to pat itself on the back for the exclusive story, which it managed to do without mentioning the name of the correspondent or that he was also in the employ of The Chicago Tribune.
“This correspondent’s dispatch was the first news of the disaster that reached land and was the first account printed,” The Times said on Feb. 5. “No other newspaper in New York yesterday containing a word on the burning of the St. Cuthbert until after the first edition of The Times was printed. It was also the first wireless report sent from the scene of a great calamity at sea.”