Facing Death on the High Seas
I think we all learnt many things that night about the bogey called “fear,” and how the facing of it is much less than the dread of it.
Four survivors of the Titanic reported seeing William Thomas Stead at various places in the 2 hours and 40 minutes that elapsed between the time the floating palace hit an iceberg and the time it made its plunge to the bottom of the North Atlantic. All of them told of a very composed and calm man, one prepared to meet his death with dignified expectation.
Frederick Seward, a 34-year-old New York lawyer, said that Stead was one of the few on deck when the iceberg was impacted. “I saw him soon after and [I] was thoroughly scared, but he preserved the most beautiful composure,” Seward, who boarded lifeboat 7, recalled.
Andrew Cunningham, a 35-year-old English cabin steward serving Stead and several other passengers, recalled that Stead had not been feeling well all day and had supper in his room. “I did not see him again until after the accident,” Cunningham related. “Then I went to see all my passengers. He had gone on deck but soon came back. I said, ‘Mr. Stead, you’ll have to put on your life-belt.’ He said, ‘Cunningham, what is that for?’ I said, ‘You may need it.’ I put the belt over his head. We bade each other good-bye, and that was the last I saw him.”
Racing through the first-class smoking room on his way to lifeboat 9, George Kemish, a 24-year-old ship’s fireman and stoker, observed Stead sitting alone there while reading, as if he had planned to stay there, whatever happened.
Juanita Parrish Shelley, a 25-year-old second-class passenger from Montana who was traveling with her mother, saw Stead assisting women and children into the lifeboats. “Your beloved Chief,” Shelley later wrote to Edith Harper, Stead’s loyal secretary and biographer, “together with Mr. and Mrs. (Isidor) Strauss, attracted attention even in that awful hour, on account of their superhuman composure and divine work. When we, the last lifeboat left, and they could do no more, he stood alone, at the edge of the deck, near the stern, in silence and what seemed to me a prayerful attitude, or one of profound meditation. You ask if he wore a life-belt. Alas! No, they were too scarce. My last glimpse of the Titanic showed him standing in the same attitude and place.”
Certainly, Stead was not the only victim of the Titanic to face death with relative composure and calmness, although in many cases it may not have been easy to distinguish between Stead’s “dignified expectation” and the nihilist’s “stoic resignation.” One likely would have to search the eyes for hope or despair in order to discern the difference. In either case, the person might be described as brave, courageous, or, if aiding others to his own detriment, as heroic. Indeed, the stoic might be considered more brave or more courageous, though more pathetic, since he does not have the support of hope and expectation.
A third alternative in facing death is “controlled trembling,” in which the person’s inner turmoil is for the most part held in check so that it does not negatively affect or carry over to others. This individual is likely in despair with at least a modicum of hope. The fourth, and least acceptable, alternative is “uncontrolled trembling” or “panic,” in which the person is in complete despair and acts with total disregard for others in an attempt to save himself.
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity – even under the most difficult circumstances – to add a deeper meaning to his life,” wrote Viktor E. Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. “It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.
Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his suffering or not.”
It is difficult to measure the fear factor on the Titanic during the first two hours following the collision, because the preponderance of testimony suggests that very few of the passengers really believed that the “unsinkable” ship would sink. “One of the most remarkable features of this horrible affair is the length of time that elapsed after the collision before the seriousness of the situation dawned on the passengers,” Robert W. Daniel, a 27-year-old first-class passenger from Philadelphia, testified. “The officers assured everybody that there was no danger, and we all had such confidence in the Titanic that it didn’t occur to anybody that she might sink.”
Daniel jumped into the ocean before the ship went down and was picked up by one of the lifeboats. He said that “men fought and bit and struck one another like madmen,” referring to those in the water attempting to save themselves. He was reportedly picked up naked with wounds about his face, and then nearly died from the exposure to the cold before he was rescued.
Even when, an hour after the accident, the captain ordered the lifeboats to be lowered, the severity of the situation was not realized by most. It was seen as a precautionary measure. “No one, apparently, thought there was any danger,” Lady Duff-Gordon (Lucy Christiana), the wife of Sir Cosmo Edmund Duff-Gordon, was quoted in the April 19 issue of the Denver Post. “We watched a number of women and children and some men going into the lifeboats. At last one of the officers came to me and said, ‘Lady Gordon, you had better go into one of the lifeboats. I said to my husband, ‘Well, we might as well take the boat, although I think it will be only a little pleasure excursion until morning.”
Lady Gordon also recalled that a number of other passengers, mostly men, were standing nearby and laughed at those boarding the lifeboats, saying that the ship can’t sink and they would “get your death of cold” out there on the ice. That was around 1 a.m., roughly an hour and 20 minutes after the collision and an hour and 20 minutes before the sinking.
“The whole forward part of the great liner dropped down under the waves,” Lady Gordon gave her account of the final moments.
“The stern rose a hundred feet almost perpendicularly. The screaming was agonizing. I never heard such a continued chorus of utter despair and agony. The great power of the Titanic slowly sank as though a great hand was pushing it gently down under the waves. As it went, the screaming of the poor souls left on board seemed to grow louder. It took the Titanic perhaps two minutes to sink after the last explosion. It went down slowly without a ripple. We had heard of the danger of suction when one of these great liners sinks. There was no such thing about the sinking of the Titanic. The amazing part of it all to me as I sat there in the boat looking at this monster being destroyed was that it all could be accomplished so gently. Then began the real agonies of the night. Up to that time no one in our boat, and I imagine no one on any of the other boats, had really thought that the Titanic was going to sink. For a moment an awful silence seemed to hang over all, and then from the water all about where the Titanic had been arose a bedlam of shrieks and cries.
There were men and women clinging to the bits of wreckage in the icy water. It was at least an hour before the last shrieks died out. I remember the very last cry was that a man had been calling loudly: ‘My God! My God!’ He cried monotonously in a dull, hopeless way. For an entire hour there had been an awful chorus of shrieks, gradually dying into a hopeless moan until this last cry that I speak of. Then all was silent.”
Only 12 people were in the lifeboat occupied by Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff-Gordon, even though it had a capacity of 40. Seven of those 12 were crew members. It was reported by crew member Charles Hendrickson that Lady Gordon objected to the lifeboat returning to pick up those in the water after the ship went down for fear that the boat would be swamped. Several of the men agreed and Charles Henry Stengel, another first-class passenger, suggested that they should head for a light that could be seen in the distance (possibly the S.S. Californian, which did not respond to the distress signals). Thus, they rowed away while hundreds were left freezing to death in the water.
It was also claimed that Sir Cosmo offered the crew members money not to go back, but when he was called to answer this claim before a British inquiry board, he explained that one of the crew complained that he would never be paid by the White Star Line for his limited voyage, and so he offered five pounds to each crew member and kept his promise after boarding the Carpathia, the ship that rescued them. Lady Gordon also appeared before the board and denied that she heard any of the cries of those drowning and further denied that she objected to going back to pick them up.
Caroline Bonnell, a 30-year-old first-class passenger from Youngstown, Ohio, also underestimated the seriousness of the situation. She and her cousin, Mary Wick, were half asleep in their bunks when they felt the collision. They went out to the deck, saw nothing to alarm them, and then were preparing to return to their cabin when an officer told them to go below and put on their lifebelts. “We went down at once and told my aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. George Wick, what we had been told,” Bonnell was quoted in the April 19 issue of the Christian Science Monitor. “Uncle George just laughed at us. ‘Why, that’s nonsense, girls,’ he said. ‘This boat is all right. She’s going along nicely.
She just got a glancing blow, I guess.’ That’s the way every one seemed to think and we went into our stateroom, but in a minute or so an officer knocked at the door and told us to go up on the ‘A’ deck. He said there was really no danger and that it was just a precautionary measure. When we got on the deck uncle and aunt were there and I went down again to another part of the steamer and got my aunt Elizabeth. When I got back with her, there were crowds of people standing all around. Nobody seemed very excited; every one was talking and it seemed to be the general idea that we would soon be ordered back to bed.
Just then an officer came up to us and said we should go up to the next deck – the boat deck. By that time nearly every one was up. Mrs. John Jacob Astor was there sitting in a steamer chair. Her husband, Colonel Astor, was beside her and her maid was helping her to finish her dressing. There was no confusion here even yet, although we noticed that the boat was beginning to list to starboard.”
Lawrence Beesley, a 34-year-old teacher and second class passenger who later wrote a book about his experience and observations, described an initial calmness or lack of panic. “The fact is that the sense of fear came to the passengers very slowly – a result of the absence of any signs of danger and the peaceful night – and as it became evident gradually that there was serious damage to the ship, the fear that came with the knowledge was largely destroyed as it came. There was no sudden overwhelming sense of danger that passed through thought so quickly that it was difficult to catch up and grapple with it – no need for the warning to ‘be not afraid of sudden fear,’ such as might have been present had we collided head-on with a crash and a shock that flung everyone out of his bunk to the floor. Everyone had time to give each condition of danger attention as it came along, and the result of their judgment was as if they had said: ‘Well, here is this thing to be faced, and we must see it through as quietly as we can.’ Quietness and self-control were undoubtedly the two qualities most expressed.” However, Beesley was a mile or so away from the ship when it went down and was in no position to judge the mental states of those left behind during final hour or so.
Although the captain had given the order “women and children only” many men, including Beesley were able to board the lifeboats. Beesley explained that lifeboat 13 was only about half full when he heard the cry, “Any more ladies?” The call was repeated twice with no response before one of the crew looked at him and told him to jump in. After he was in the boat, three more ladies and one man showed up and boarded. “We rowed away from her in the quietness of the night, hoping and praying with all our hearts that she would sink no more and the day would find her still in the same position as she was then,” Beesley continued, stressing that the belief remained strong that the Titanic could not sink and it was only a matter of time before another ship showed up and took everyone aboard. “Husbands expected to follow their wives and join them either in New York or by transfer in mid-ocean from steamer to steamer…It is not any wonder, then, that many elected to remain, deliberately choosing the deck of the Titanic to a place in the lifeboat. And yet the boats had to go down, and so at first they were half full; this is the real explanation of why they were not as fully loaded as the later ones.”
While some of the press and the public initially looked with suspicion upon all of the 338 men saved, it became clear that some of them were picked up from the ocean, including from an overturned raft, while others, like Beesley, were invited to get in when no other women or children were around to fill the lifeboat, and still others were commissioned by those in charge to row the boats.
The person most suspect of being a coward was J. Bruce Ismay, the 49-year-old president of the International Mercantile Marine, owners of White Star Line. There were conflicting reports as to whether he was in of the first lifeboats to leave or the last and what prompted him to get in the boat in the first place. Mary Louise Smith, the 18-year-old wife of Lucien Smith, claimed that Ismay was escorted by seamen into the lifeboat she occupied, one of the first to leave. She further alleged that Captain Smith was standing nearby and that she implored him to let her husband in the boat, but he refused, even though there were only about 20 people in the boat, which had a capacity of fifty to sixty. However, Thomas Cardeza, a 36-year-old “gentleman” and first-class passenger from Germantown, Pennsylvania, testified that Ismay at first refused to enter the lifeboat, one of the last to leave, and was urged by several women to get in the boat, saying that they would feel safer if he were in it. He finally consented.
Quartermaster George Rowe, in charge of the last boat to leave the port side, at approximately 1:40 a.m., about 40 minutes before the ship foundered, testified before the American Court of Inquiry that Ismay got in his boat only after it was clear that no one else was around to board it. However, he heard no one ask Ismay to get in the boat. In testifying before the British Court of Inquiry, Ismay stated that the boat was ready to be lowered and since no one else was around on that side of the ship, he got in.
One member of the inquiry court questioned Ismay as to his duty to search for other people to fill the boats. However, board members agreed that if there were such a duty it was a moral duty and that such duties were not within the jurisdiction of the board. In Ismay’s defense, Sir Robert Finlay, counsel for White Star Company, argued that there was no duty on his part to go down with the ship, as the captain did. “He did all he did to help the women and the children. It was only when the boat was being lowered that he got into it. He violated no point of honor, and if he had thrown his life away in the manner now suggested it would be said he did it because he was conscious he could not face his inquiry and so he had lost his life.”
Some women apparently remained on the ship because the risk of boarding a lifeboat seemed greater than that of staying on the ship. “Many believed it was safer to stay on board the big liner even wounded as she was, than to trust themselves to the boats,” Albert Smith, a ship’s steward, was quoted. The lifeboats hung 70-75 feet above the ocean as crew members struggled to lower them in jolts and jerks. “Our lifeboat, with thirty-six in it, began lowering to the sea,” Elizabeth Shutes, a 40-year-old first-class passenger and governess to passenger Margaret Graham, recounted. “This was done amid the greatest confusion. Rough seamen all giving different orders. No officer aboard. As only one side of the ropes worked, the lifeboat at one time was in such a position that it seemed we must capsize in mid-air. At last the ropes worked together, and we drew nearer and nearer the black, oily water.” Shutes added that there was some reluctance to row away from the ship, as it felt much safer being near it, so certain they were that it would not sink.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published March 2012
Size: 229 x 152 mm