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The Last Witness


"It was very big, and it had just been painted," she told us. "I remember not liking the smell of fresh paint."

She recalled that one morning she didn't have breakfast with the other passengers in the third-class mess. Instead, Selma Asplund left the cabin, fetched coffee and brought it back to her husband. She gave him some pastry she had brought onboard. Miss Asplund remembered her father saying: "Let Lillian have it."

She stopped.

"They say that you'll see them in Heaven. But I am not so sure about that." Then, in a high-pitched voice full of regret, she added: "I would have had a big family if things hadn't happened." She didn't specify what happened, and I didn't press her. But I did ask if she remembered anything else.

"My father threw me in the lifeboat," she continued. "My mother said she would rather stay with him and go down with the ship. But he said the children should not be alone. She got a seat. She had Felix on her lap, and she had me between her knees. I think she thought she could keep me a little warmer that way." She remembered it was very cold.

"What happened next?" I asked.

"They wrapped me in a burlap bag or a coal sack and pulled me up onto the Carpathia," she said.

A single-stack steamship of the Cunard line, the Carpathia, was 60 miles away and headed toward Europe when it heard the Titanic's distress call. It raced to the larger ship's last location, arriving at 4:10 a.m., nearly two hours after the Titanic sank. It picked up all the survivors.

"A woman there took all my clothes off me," Miss Asplund continued. "My clothes had gotten very dirty and wet in the lifeboat. My mother was trying to find me. She was saying, 'I have a daughter!' Well, she found me. And eventually my clothes were dry, and I put them back on. They took us, the children, to the place where they take people who are sick. Well, not sick, but people who needed a little more attention. The people on the Carpathia were very good to us."

The recollection seemed to tire and sadden her.

"I think I've said enough about this," she said. She added, in a way that made the next statement no less a part of her account: "I've been here a long time. I think it's about time I left, too, and made room for someone else."


On the weekend of Easter 2005, I again went to visit Lillian Asplund. This time my son begged off, less interested in the slow accretion of information we were getting. He knew she was the last survivor with memories. But, after two visits, that didn't add up to a reason to get out of bed early on Easter morning.

Maloof had continued to get a dribble of inquiries about Miss Asplund, intercepting all that mentioned the Titanic. They came from around the world, the United States predominating. A third-grade class from West Lawn, Pa., outside Reading, wrote her every year at the teacher's suggestion.

The children asked about her life, her hobbies, her house, and never brought up the Titanic. It hardly mattered; Maloof answered the questions for her.

My last visit was on a sunny, cool and beautiful day. Our appointment time was 9:30 in the morning. A few days earlier I'd bought a pair of Easter lilies, giving one to my mother and reserving the other for Miss Asplund. But I left hers at home by mistake. As I drove to Shrewsbury I stopped at a drugstore along Route 9 and grabbed a bouquet of tired daisies and zinnias from which the clerk graciously culled the unpresentable members.

This time she was in a chair, although still in the alcove off the living room. She wore a wool hat, a lavender nightgown under a white sweater, and had a yellow towel folded in her lap. I introduced myself again; it was not clear whether she remembered me. We talked about her childhood. She covered the old territory, describing the family's return to Sweden and its return to the United States.

Then she said out of the blue, "You know about the Titanic?" She didn't wait for an answer. "My father says, 'We'll go back in this ship.' This was a special ship at that time. So that's when the accident happened. I lost my father. When he was found he was still alive, but then he died."

I had never heard this last detail. Carl O.V.G. Asplund's body was No. 142 on the list of recovered victims. The money and papers he'd put in his pockets were gone, but he was still carrying a gold watch on a chain, a locket, keys and a knife. Although a few people in the water were hauled aboard lifeboats and saved, by the time the Carpathia arrived everyone in the water was dead. It was unlikely that any rescuer had seen Carl Asplund alive.

Nevertheless, Miss Asplund had uttered the forbidden word. I turned to her lawyer and said, "I'm going to ask her a little more about this," hoping that previous compliance with his wishes, and now transparency, would make a few questions acceptable.

"Go ahead," he said.

"Do you remember getting into the lifeboat?"

"Well, yes. My mother, she was in it. My twin brother was Carl; he wasn't in it. The lifeboat was small. Well, I don't know if it was that small. We were taken and put in the boat. My mother always carried Felix. He always screamed if they took him away from her. We were in the boat, and I stood between my mother's legs so I wouldn't fall over."

I asked her if she remembered seeing her father standing at the rail -- a scene that Maloof said she'd once mentioned.

"No, I didn't see my father," she said.

"Do you remember hearing anything?"

She sighed. "I don't know. I was only 5 years old." She sighed again. "My mother didn't want me to remember anything. It's not good for me, she said. I agree with her."

I expected to feel Maloof's hand on my shoulder. I assumed I had only one question more before this wound was bound up again.

"Do you remember seeing the ship sink?" I asked.

"Yes, I saw that. It looked like a big building going down."

I queried her about events when her mother and little brother arrived back in Worcester. She mentioned the address of the house where they stayed and a few other details I'd heard before. She said plaintively, "I'd like to forget. I'd like to forget a lot. But people always remind me."

I asked her if she had any relatives in town.

"I'm the only Asplund around. I hope I'm not here too long. Because I'm quite old, you know. Ninety-eight years old."

That was it. She said she wanted to get back into bed. She was starting to wear out.

WHEN I CALLED THIS PAST EASTER, Maloof said Miss Asplund had recently been in the hospital but was now back home. "She's sleeping most of the time," he said. "She won't talk to you."

Three weeks later, she died.

She left a lot of questions unanswered, the chief one being: How much more of the Titanic's sinking might Lillian Asplund have recalled if she'd wanted to? Did she remember being roused from sleep? Being carried up the stairs from third class? What did the family do on deck? What happened to her twin brother? Why wasn't he put in the lifeboat with her? Did she say anything to the family members left behind? What happened during that cold, clear night after the ship went down and before the Car-pathia and dawn arrived?

Maybe she would have answered all these questions simply by saying, "I don't remember." What's certain now is that they won't be answered and that the eyewitness chapter of the Titanic story is closed.

Of course, it lives on in a different sort of viewer, the historical voyeur. With this important corner in the history of the catastrophe now turned, it is worth asking: Why does the Titanic so fascinate us? Why can't we let it go?

It may be because in some ways the sinking of the Titanic marked the start of the 20th century -- or at least the end of the 19th. The survival statistics -- 62 percent of first-class passengers lived, compared with 41 percent of second and 26 percent of third -- revealed a hierarchy of discrimination that no number of stories of individual chivalry or bravery could wash away. April 15, 1912, was the last time the world could pretend that people in staterooms deserved to survive at the expense of those farther below decks. It helped push nations on both sides of the Atlantic into a more egalitarian era -- our era.

It was also an event of small beginnings. It marked one of the earliest uses of the new distress call "SOS." It was one of the first international disasters covered by the press in something close to real time.

It has, from the start, been an opportunity for anyone who knows even a few details to perform what scientists call a "thought experiment." We ask ourselves: What would I do? Would I be J. Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line executive who stepped into the last lifeboat with women and children still aboard the ship? Or Isidor Straus, one of America's richest men, who went down with the ship and his wife, Ida, who chose to stay with him? The collective memory about United Flight 93 may eventually become freighted with different, but equally unavoidable, questions about character and courage.

The Titanic is also, of course, a great source of entertainment. At least 850 books have been written on the catastrophe. The 1997 film "Titanic" grossed more in the United States ($600 million) and worldwide ($1.8 billion) than any other movie. It achieved cultlike status in such unlikely places as Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

For a long time the ship was also the Great Lost Object -- a material presence out there someplace, never to be seen again. Since the wreck's discovery in 1985, this has evolved into the Titanic as the Place of Strange Dreams -- an archaeological site, beyond the reach of all but a few people, whose every relic pulsates with humanity and personal narrative.

The Internet age has allowed these, and other, Titanic meanings to live and breathe as never before.

When Miss Asplund mentioned that she remembered the smell of paint, I registered on the site and queried its chat group as to whether anyone knew how long before sailing the third-class cabins had been painted. Nobody did. But within 24 hours I learned that Winifred Van Tongerloo, a child survivor, now deceased, had once said that her mother had kept their second-class cabin door ajar because of the paint smell, and that Marian Longstreth Thayer, of first class, had instructed the maid to open the stateroom windows for the same reason.

Today, when an event nearly a century in the past is the subject of continuous conversation by people sitting at keyboards all over the world, it seems fitting that the last person who may have had something new to say about it declined to do so. Like Jacqueline Kennedy, Lillian Asplund didn't feel any need to give history her version of a momentous event.

It is in her silence that the experience's central meaning becomes known. To the people who lived through it, the sinking of the Titanic was a story of loss, anguish, grief and endurance. Very little more -- and not a bit less.

David Brown covers science and medicine for The Post's National desk

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