04/11/2012 04:30 EDT | Updated 06/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Cable ships accepted grim task of recovering victims from Titanic

HALIFAX - The morbid task of recovering the remains of the Titanic's passengers didn't fall to those who responded first and rescued the living, but with cable ships that arrived a week later.

The Mackay-Bennett was the first ship dispatched by the White Star Line on April 17, 1912, to start the recovery process.

Not knowing what awaited the sailors, the ship was only equipped with a cargo of ice, 125 coffins and embalming supplies for 70 bodies.

An embalmer and a priest’s assistant joined the regular crew, working for six days recovering and identifying remains.

Starting the recovery on the morning of April 21, the crew recovered 51 bodies on the first day.

Several logbooks recorded what crew members saw. Clifford Crease, a mechanic, wrote: "Bodies in good state but badly bruised by being knocked about in the water."

Quickly realizing they did not have enough supplies for a week of recovery operations, the ship's captain made the decision to bury many bodies at sea. Passengers who were no longer recognizable or identifiable by their clothing were given a service before burial.

Priority was given to bodies that the crew identified as first- or second-class passengers by their clothing or identification. First-class passengers were given priority in the embalming process and placed in the wooden coffins, and second-class passengers were wrapped in canvas.

A second cable ship, the Minia, was dispatched shortly after the Mackay-Bennett sent a message on the number of bodies it was recovering. Arriving April 26, it transferred embalming supplies to the Mackay-Bennett and remained on site until May 3, recovering only 17 bodies.

After recovering 306 bodies, burying 116 at sea, the Mackay-Bennett returned to Halifax on April 30 with 190 bodies.

The crew earned double pay for their time at the wreckage.