A Closer Look: The Mystery Ship

SS Californian
Of all the ships known to be closest to the Titanic, one was the Leyland line's SS Californian.
She had also been traveling from England to America, but she wasn't carrying any passengers. Surrounded by icebergs and with night approaching the Californian had wisely stopped, intending to proceed on her trip in the morning when visibility would be much better. While in waiting, Californian's wireless operator began sending out ice warnings to other ships in the area, one of which was Titanic.

Captain Stanley Lord
of the Californian
Later that night, crew members aboard the Californian reported seeing a ship coming from the east. To Third Officer Charles Groves it looked like a big liner because she was brightly lit, and the Titanic was the only liner in the area. Captain Lord was of the opinion that it was another steamer similar to the Californian in size. 

At around 11pm, just shortly before the time of Titanic's collision with the iceberg, the wireless operator aboard the Californian had ended his shift and so the distress wireless signals of the Titanic could not be picked up.

Later during the night, Groves noted that the bright lights on the ship appeared to be disappearing. He assumed she was steaming away possibly to avoid ice.
 
After midnight Second Officer Herbert Stone who relieved Groves from duty saw several rocket flares being fired. He reported it to Captain Lord who was resting in his cabin. Stone also reported that the ship did not look right. It seemed as if she was in some kind of distress. On Captain Lord's orders the Californian attempted to contact the ship by Morse lamp, but saw no reply.

Survivors from the Titanic also claimed to have seen a ship's light on the horizon about five miles away. It appeared to be heading their way though it never came any closer. The Titanic likewise tried to contact the ship by Morse lamp but also saw no reply. Nonetheless, Captain Smith ordered the first lifeboats to head towards that ship, unload the passengers and return to pick up more. The light of the ship on the horizon was visible throughout the entire night, but no lifeboat ever reached it.

The Californian's wireless was turned on again at 5:30am the next morning. As they heard news of the Titanic disaster they raced to the area but it was too late. The Carpathia had already picked the survivors.

In the inquiries that followed in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster, Captain Lord claimed that:
  • The ship that they had seen was too small to be the Titanic.
  • That the distance to the Titanic he eventually estimated to have been nearly 20 miles in which case the two ships would not have been able to see each other.
  • That therefore the ship that he and his crew saw must have been another ship that did not have wireless and sailed away unaware of the disaster.

By contrast:
  • Some of his crew members believed that the ship was large enough to be the Titanic.
  • The numerous lights that made the deck brightly lit could only mean that it was a passenger liner, and the only passenger liner in the area was the Titanic.
  • Both the British and American inquiries determined the actual distance between the Californian and the Titanic to have been less than the nearly 20 miles estimated by Captain Lord.

Was the Californian the ship that was visible from the Titanic? 
Was the Titanic the ship that Californian's crew saw? 
Or was there another mystery ship in between the two, perhaps without wireless or Morse lamp, that never realized the distress in which the Titanic was in? 

History has not provided a solid answer yet, but it seems the most likely that the Californian was the ship that Titanic's passengers saw on the horizon, and the ship that Californian's crew saw with the lights slowly disappearing was actually Titanic sinking before their very eyes.

Until further evidence materializes this aspect of the Titanic sinking will remain uncertain.