When the Titanic sunk in 1912, a legend was made. In over 100 years since, we have still not ceased to be absolutely fascinated with this story. The ship was said to be unsinkable – a marvel of modern engineering, the biggest passenger ship in the world and one that would change the way everyone travelled.
But, as we now know, it was all a lie. Whether by negligence, by arrogance, or by honest human error, the Titanic hit an iceberg in the dark of the night. It tore a hole in the ship that was too large to be prepared, and water quickly started to flood into the lower decks. Though some effort was made to recover the ship, it quickly became obvious that there was nothing to be done.
Amongst many other failings, the White Star Line had failed to supply enough lifeboats for all of the passengers on board. In a panicked reaction to this realization, the crew of the ship locked the doors to the third-class hallways, stopping many foreign and poor passengers from ever having a chance of getting out. Then they enforced a strict policy of only women and children getting into lifeboats, with a man allowed here and there to help row or look after the other passengers.
When the ship went down, only around 700 out of the 2,200 on board survived. Among the survivors were many women and children, some of whom were too young to recall what really happened. Many also did not want to talk about the traumatizing disaster. Of the witness accounts that we do have, some are truly mind-blowing.
15. Charlotte Collyer – “Go Lotty, For God’s Sake Be Brave And Go!”
Charlotte was travelling in second class with her husband, Harvey, and her daughter, 8-year-old Marjorie. They had left home in England for a new life in Idaho, hoping that the air there would improve Charlotte’s failing health. They had sent a cheerful postcard when the Titanic stopped in Queenstown. When the iceberg struck, Harvey was told by an officer that there was no danger, and so they were late to get into a lifeboat. Charlotte did not want to leave her husband, and she had to be physically pulled away by stewards to get into the boat with Marjorie. He told her, “Go Lotty, for God’s sake be brave and go! I’ll get a seat in another boat.” Tragically, not only did Harvey lose his life, but Charlotte also lost hers to tuberculosis just 2 years later. She later wrote, “The agony of that night can never be told…I haven’t a thing in the world that was his, only his rings. Everything we had went down.”
14. Elizabeth Shutes – “The Men’s Hands Were Too Cold To Hold On”
40-year-old Elizabeth Shutes was on board the Titanic to serve as a family governess. After the ship hit the iceberg, she was ordered to the Sun Deck, where she found safety on a lifeboat. However, as her tale shows, safety was by no means guaranteed for those who found themselves in the boats. “Our men knew nothing about the position of the stars, hardly how to pull together. Two oars were soon overboard. The men’s hands were too cold to hold on…Then across the water swept that awful wail, the cry of those drowning people,” she said. At that point, there was no way that Shutes could have known that she would eventually survive – and the night’s ordeal must have been terrifying before they were finally picked up by the Carpathia. She later gave interviews reflecting on the way the Titanic’s makers had prioritized luxuries for their passengers over safety and the addition of extra lifeboats.
13. Laura Mabel Francatelli – “I Felt A Strong Arm Pull Me Onto The Boat”
Laura Francatelli was a 30-year-old secretary on board the Titanic, travelling from London. She gave a witness account of the moment when the passengers in her lifeboat were saved by the Carpathia. “Oh at daybreak, when we saw the lights of that ship, about 4 miles away, we rowed like mad, & passed icebergs like mountains, at last about 6:30 the dear Carpathia picked us up, our little boat was like a speck against that giant. Then came my weakest moment, they lowered a rope swing, which was awkward to sit on, with my life preserver ’round me. Then they hauled me up, by the side of the boat. Can you imagine, swinging in the air over the sea, I just shut my eyes & clung tight saying ‘Am I safe,?’ at last I felt a strong arm pulling me onto the boat…” Her account demonstrates that women had to fend for themselves: despite being prioritized as lifeboat passengers because of their frailty, they were the ones who had to row to safety.
12. Jack Thayer – There Were Only Widows Left
Jack Thayer was just 17 when he took the first class sailing with his parents. He got separated from them in the confusion after the iceberg hit, and found a friend named Milton Long. He and Milton jumped from the railing just before the ship went down. Jack never saw Milton again; however, he himself was incredibly lucky. Only around 40 people who jumped into the sea were rescued, but he was one of them, having come up near an overturned lifeboat. The men who had already found it pulled him up. “The trip back to New York was one big heartache and misery,” he wrote. “It seemed as if there were none but widows left, each one mourning the loss of her husband. It was a most pitiful sight.” Later in life, aged 50 – the same as his father had been when he died in the water – Jack lost his mother and son in the same year. He committed suicide.
11. Rhoda Abbott – Stayed Back With Her Sons Who Were “Too Old” To Board A Lifeboat
Rhoda was travelling with her two sons, 16-year-old Rossmore and 13-year-old Eugene, coming home to the US. She was offered a place on Collapsible C, but her teen sons were too old to be considered children – so she stayed back with them. That was the boat that J. Bruce Ismay was vilified for jumping into as it was being lowered to the water. Rhoda and her sons were left to jump into the water instead. She managed to make it to Collapsible A, where she was the only woman in the boat. Why the only woman? Because her two sons never made it. They were separated in the water and never recovered. Rhoda, too, never quite recovered from the tragedy of that night. She died alone and poor in 1946. Her fortunes never came back after a long convalescence from the injuries and exposure she suffered in the jump, which might never have been necessary if her sons – hardly men at that age – were allowed to accompany her.
10. Rose Icard – “Listen…It Sounds Like Water Is Flowing Into The Ship”
Rose Icard was a maid for the first class American passenger Martha Stone, and she was rescued by a lifeboat when the disaster struck. She wrote a letter which has since been translated to reveal what she experienced that night. The hit of the iceberg was so sharp that it actually threw her out of bed. She wrote, “We were intending to find out what was happening, when a passing officer told us ‘It is nothing, return to your cabin.’ I answered, ‘Listen to that loud noise, it sounds like water is flowing into the ship.'” She was sent back to retrieve her employer’s precious jewellery, but she survived after getting lost in the hallways and coming back to the deck by accident as they were loading the lifeboats. She also wrote, “There had been sublime gestures, a stranger undid his safety belt to give it to an old woman who couldn’t find a spot in any boat, and told her ‘You’ll pray for me.'”
9. Caroline Brown – “You Go First…”
Caroline Brown was one of the lucky survivors from the Titanic who in fact was very close to losing her life instead. The last boat to leave the Titanic was known as Collapsible D, and 36-year-old Edith Evans was the next in line to board it. As her turn came, she instead pushed Caroline forward, saying, “You go first. You have children waiting at home.” Edith unfortunately did not survive the sinking of the ship, but Caroline did thanks to her actions. She later said, “It was a heroic sacrifice, and as long as I live I shall hold her memory dear as my preserver, who preferred to die so that I might live.” This was a wonderful example of the heroism of the night. There were plenty of examples of cowardice, too – but those like Edith showed that self-sacrifice is a true sign of the valiant in times of extreme peril.
8. Mr. Hoffman’s Sons – Mom Sees Kids In The Newspapers
On Collapsible D, and only just escaping with their lives, were a pair of French children. The two boys were placed onto the boat by their father, who was only known by those on the Titanic as Mr. Hoffman. The children could not speak English, and so they were only known as the “Titanic Waifs” in newspapers since they could not explain their identities. Finally, their mother recognized them and sailed to New York to get them. It turned out that Mr. Hoffman was really Michel Navratil, who had been in the middle of divorcing his wife. He decided to abduct the boys and take them to the US so that she could not claim them, but the plan did not work out well for him. He perished on the Titanic after pushing them onto the lifeboat. In some ways, it was karma coming back to bite him for his abduction.
7. Dr. Washington Dodge – People Had To Be Shot
Dr. Washington Dodge was a man from San Francisco with a good professional reputation, and when he survived the crash of the Titanic, he had plenty of details to report to the press. He told of the crew saying that the ship was in no danger after hitting the iceberg, and of a calm beginning to the night. Then as the sixth or seventh boat was lowered into the water, so he says, “the excitement began”. He described terrible scenes: “Some of the passengers fought with such desperation to get into the lifeboats that the officers shot them, and their bodies fell into the ocean.” He was also one of the witnesses who told of Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Strauss and their refusal to leave one another, choosing instead to die together. Dodge was saved in the thirteenth boat, brought on board by a steward to help with the boat’s passengers – 20 to 30 children and a small number of women.
6. Elin Hakkareinen – “All Of The Doors Were Locked”
Elin Hakkareinen was a third class passenger, travelling with her husband, Pekko. They were to start a new life in America. Pekko got out of bed to check out what was happening when a shuddering ran through the ship, but when he didn’t return after an hour, Elin found herself unable to leave. She recalled, “I grabbed my purse and life jacket and ran out to the passageway. The door was locked! All of the doors were locked.” A steward helped her and some other passengers to escape up to the lifeboats, and though she frantically looked for her husband even in the icy waters, she never saw him again. She was given compensation for the loss of everything she owned – her whole life in her luggage – as well as her husband: a total of $125. She said, “I slowly realized the last words I might ever hear from my husband were, ‘I’m going to see what has happened.’ I remember standing at the railing for hours, looking out to the open sea and hoping upon hope that I would discover just one more lifeboat.”
5. Archibald Gracie – “I Jumped With The Wave”
One man who wrote a book about his experiences was incredibly lucky to have survived. When a wave swept over the Titanic just before the final plunge, he was the only survivor left on the deck. “I jumped with the wave,” said he, “just as I often have jumped with the breakers at the seashore. By great good fortune I managed to grasp the brass railing on the deck above and I hung on by might and main. When the ship plunged down I was forced to let go and I was swirled around and around for what seemed to be an interminable time.” He found his way to a cork life raft floating in the water. “When dawn broke there were thirty of us on the raft, standing knee deep in the icy water and afraid to move lest the creaky craft be overturned. Several unfortunates, benumbed and half dead, besought us to save them… but we had to warn them away. Had we made any effort to save them we all might have perished.”
4. Benjamin Peacock – Never Met His 9-Month-Old Son
Benjamin was an example of the tragic nature of the disaster, and how it broke apart families. He himself was not on the Titanic, but he was waiting in New York to meet his wife, his two children, and two brothers. One of the crewmen was also a friend of his. It was left to that sailor to greet Ben at the dock, where he told him, “They have all gone down.” It happily turned out that Benjamin’s brothers were late in sailing, having booked onto the Titanic, and so they missed out on the disaster. His wife, 4-year-old daughter, and 9-month-old son – who he had never even met – were not so lucky. It was only when a list of the steerage passengers was published that he was sure they were on the ship, and then sure that they had been lost. Horrifyingly, the money that he sent to his wife to book her passage reached her just a day before the Titanic set sail, and so she, too, was nearly saved.
3. Frederick Snyder – Ship Sailing After Titanic Hears The News, Man Kills Himself In Panic
This tale comes from a man who survived the Titanic – but not by jumping into the sea. Frederick Snyder was saved because he was delayed by 3 days in setting off on his journey, which meant that he missed the Titanic and instead took passage on the Mauretania. But the part that will shock you is that the Mauretania’s passengers learned of the disaster while still at sea. He described a pall lying over the whole ship as they finished their journey. After the news came, one of the Mauretania’s passengers committed suicide by jumping overboard. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to sail on, knowing of the recent disaster, fearing a repeat occurrence on your own vessel, and perhaps also fearing that the people you were set to meet in New York would never have made it. It would have made for a terrifying journey.
2. William Carter – Family Of 4 Separated And Reunited
Joseph Carter gave a press interview about the fate of his nephew, William Carter, who had been on the boat with his wife Lucille and two children – a 14-year-old and a 10-year-old. The wife and children were put into one of the first lifeboats, and though they were separated, William managed to catch the attention of another lifeboat after leaping into the sea. He ended up on the infamous 10th boat with J. Bruce Ismay. Though they escaped with their lives, this was not the end of the story for the Carters. They were left more or less destitute as their belongings went down with the ship. William was forced to wear his evening clothes until arriving in New York on the Carpathia, as was his wife, while their children only escaped with an extra set of clothes that the maid grabbed as they were leaving the cabin in haste.
1. Mrs. Peter Reniff – Party Of 8 Down To 1
Mrs. Peter Reniff was travelling in a party of 8 family members and friends when the Titanic went down. Her husband, two brothers, a cousin, and several friends were all lost. Cruelly, one – Miss Emily Rugg – was on the list of people to have been picked up by the Carpathia. When the ship docked, however, she was nowhere to be found on board. Mrs. Reniff was so ill when she returned home that no one dared tell her of the deaths of her party, and she was led to believe that another ship had picked them up until she was well again. She said of her fellow passengers, “One of them told me that when the Titanic sank he was drawn down into one of the funnels and that he was shot out again when the air rushed from the ship. He said that he swam sixteen miles before he was picked up.”