Those survivors “endured differing ordeals, but of annoyance, discomfort, selfishness, heroism, ingenuity, and, always, bone-chilling cold there was full measure.” Just getting into the lifeboats was “traumatic,” for it meant “leaving their well-ordered haven, forsaking possessions and exchanging legendary comfort for punishing exposure.” For many it was infinitely worse: “As those at the oars rowed away, they saw the ship rear up and then heard two explosions. Next came that awful, drawn-out noise that [one passenger] never forgot, fifteen hundred of his fellow souls crying out desperately for help. . . . ‘Then arose,’ remembered first-class passenger Hugh Woolner, ‘the most fearful and bloodcurdling wail.’ George Rheims described it as ‘horrifying, mysterious, supernatural.’ From atop an overturned [lifeboat], Jack Thayer compared the sound to ‘locusts buzzing on a summer night, in the woods of Pennsylvania.’ Although he did not know it at the time, one of those ‘buzzing locusts’ was undoubtedly his father.”
The legend is that women and children were given priority as the lifeboats boarded; the truth is that the process was disorderly and became ever more so as the Titanic’s fate became indisputably clear. Few stories were stranger than that of Violet Jessop, a young stewardess who found herself in a lifeboat into which a woman, “hysterical with grief,” lowered her baby, which an officer handed to Jessop, who “clutched the infant tightly throughout the remainder of that bitter night.” Hours later, aboard the Carpathia, the mother suddenly materialized and “seized her baby” away from Jessop. “Never once in the days that followed did she attempt . . . to thank the stewardess who had saved her child’s life.” Decades later, as an old woman living in England, Jessop received a middle-of-the-night telephone call from a woman who asked, “Is this the Violet Jessop who saved a baby that night” aboard the Titanic? When Jessop said that indeed she was, “The caller laughed and said, ‘I was that baby,’ and then hung up.”
Jessop was one of the comparatively few crew members who survived. The class distinctions reflected in the different decks aboard ship persisted not only during the terrible night but in the years that followed, as monuments were erected to those who died. Thus, for example, at the Engineers Memorialin Southampton, the famous port from which the Titanic sailed, the names of all the officers who died are engraved, but “there is no acknowledgment of the scores of stokers, trimmers, and greasers who also lost their lives.” There as elsewhere, the “humbler participants” too often are ignored, a reflection of the prevailing Edwardian ethos of the day but scarcely a pretty one.
No doubt one reason the Titanic story remains vivid to this day is its capacity to catch so many people by surprise in intimate ways. Thus I was startled to read that aboard the Carpathia was a “crated Packard” automobile that “belonged to the three Fowler sisters, Baltimoreans who planned a postcruise continental motor tour.” Surely one of these was Louisa M. Fowler, a wealthy and formidable woman who in the 1920s became an intimate friend of my father’s family outside Baltimore in Catonsville and who later was known, to my siblings and me, as “Aunt Loulie.” The Packard “was a terrible nuisance” as the Carpathia’s crew unloaded the lifeboats. Presumably, though, it eventually got the Fowler ladies to Italy and ferried them throughout the continent, an obligatory event for privileged Americans of their day.