Day 686: Titanic’s Scrutinized Survivors

originally published November 16, 2013

101 years ago (give or take seven months) the world bore witness to one of the nastiest maritime disasters in history. Perhaps you’re familiar with the James Cameron mega-film event or the toxic schmaltz that Celine Dion sang for it. When that iceberg jabbed its elbow into the hull of the RMS Titanic on a cold April night, it stuck a deep pin into the 20th century, marking one of those days that would be talked about for decades.

A precious few souls were able to squeeze out from under that pin and live to see another day. 705 survivors off a ship packed with 2,224 people – that’s a grizzly statistic. Most of the passengers and crew who were fortunate enough to escape a frigid, watery demise would slip into the shadows, carrying those memories through the rest of their lives. But a few names stand out.

Amid the scattering dust of a disaster, heroes and villains ooze their natural colors. The heroes are easier to spot. But many who have been demonized from that night were likely guided by their awe-struck terror and most primal survival instinct. Having never experienced a transportation cataclysm such as this (though I was on an escalator that stopped suddenly once), I hesitate to leap aboard the monorail of judgment, headed for the theme park of self-righteousness.

It’d be really easy to cram an accusatory finger knuckle-deep up the nose of J. Bruce Ismay. He was the chairman of the White Star Line and the guy who commissioned the Titanic’s construction. Coincidentally, he also survived the disaster. But does that warrant his condemnation? The “women and children first” rule was broken all over the massive liner, though many witnesses claim there were only men gathered around some of the lifeboats. I don’t know if this was the case with Ismay, so should he really be crucified for surviving?

Yes, claimed most of the world in 1912. Newspapers called him the Coward of the Titanic. People drew editorial cartoons, showing him deserting the ship. People wanted someone to blame, and J. Bruce Ismay was that someone.

Of course there were stories that he’d pushed Captain Smith to maintain full speed after hitting the iceberg, which would have caused the ship to sink considerably faster. So… if that’s true maybe he is to blame for something.

How hard should we be on Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon? Apart from being one of the most brilliantly-named and astoundingly-mustachioed gentlemen with a first-class ticket, Sir Cosmo was also the object of concentrated derision after he’d set his feet upon North American soil. Along with his wife and secretary, he was among only twelve people in Lifeboat #1, which was fitted for forty people.

Sir Cosmo also claims the area around his lifeboat was devoid of other women and children when he hopped aboard. Once he climbed in, Sir Cosmo slipped a five-pound note to the crewmen around him. Whether or not this was a bribe has been debated throughout history, but what really slams the van door on the fingers of Sir Cosmo’s reputation was the fact that the near-empty boat scooted away from the sinking ship, not turning back to save the survivors in the water.

Okay, so Robert Hichens was the quartermaster who was literally at the wheel when the Titanic bumped uglies with fate. But he didn’t really punch his infamy ticket until he’d reached Lifeboat #6. This was where he locked horns with Margaret “Unsinkable Molly” Brown, the woman who has been immortalized in her own Broadway musical, and portrayed by Kathy Bates, Debbie Reynolds and Cloris Leachman (twice). Molly wanted the boat turned back to pick up survivors.

Hichens claims he had been under direct orders to steer the lifeboat toward a light the captain had seen off the port bow. He was also afraid that the suction when the liner went under would pull their lifeboat down in a vortex of inescapable death. Molly told everyone to row in order to keep warm. Hichens tried to stop them, grasping desperately for some quaking foothold of authority. Molly threatened to toss him overboard.

Again, in a moment of peril, do we really want to judge Hichens? He clearly wasn’t the hero we’d have liked, but I’d hesitate to brand him a coward.

The story of Violet Jessup sinks deeper into the muck of the weird than any that of any other survivor. Violet, an Argentina-born stewardess and nurse, was no stranger to maritime horror.

The White Star Line constructed three vessels in its elaborate Olympic-class: the Olympic, the Titanic and the Brittanic. Violet Jessup was aboard all three.

Working aboard the Olympic in September of 1911, she was there when the ship collided with the HMS Hawke, a protected cruiser. The Olympic made it back to Southampton, damaged but still afloat. Less than seven months later she survived the Titanic disaster. Then in 1916, she was working on the Brittanic, which was acting as a hospital ship during the war. The ship struck a mine in the Aegean Sea and guess what? It sank.

Violet Jessup survived all three disasters. And somehow Molly Brown got the nickname “unsinkable”.

With Harold Lowe there is no mistaking his legacy. While fear and panic gripped most of the survivors, Harold kicked both of those responses in the nuts and saved him some lives. He was the fifth officer aboard the Titanic, and when the crisis struck, Harold was asleep. He woke up and jumped into action, helping people climb aboard the lifeboats in as orderly a fashion as could be reasonably expected. Harold was ordered aboard lifeboat #14, by which time everyone on deck was becoming aware that these lifeboats were not just a precautionary measure – the ship was on a one-way course straight down.

Harold had to fire three shots from his revolver to keep lifeboat #14 from being swarmed by terrified men as it was lowered. Once in the water, Harold gathered together a number of lifeboats and redistributed the people. He and a few crewmen took a near-empty lifeboat back toward where the ship had slipped from sight, and began calling for survivors. One of the collapsible lifeboats was sinking, so he directed his little boat toward them. Harold was the only officer to make use of the mast and sail in his lifeboat; he simply didn’t lose his head.

It’s not known how many lives Harold was involved in saving, but any number over zero is an impressive feat, especially among the dark waves of panic that were engulfing everyone that night.

It’s hard to paint someone a coward, but in a disaster like that, the heroes really do stand out.

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