The sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912 was a defining event of the first half of the 20th century, and the nearly 1,500 souls that were lost continues to fascinate us. The 2012 centennial anniversary brought renewed interest worldwide; the disaster played a major role in the plot of the PBS phenomenon Downton Abbey; and the Costa Concordia grounding reminded us that human error can still cost lives.
In writing my 2012 nonfiction book Titanic, Voices from the Disaster, I explored some of the stories of ordinary people whose lives were changed that fateful night. Here are three passengers who traveled in first, second, and third class.
First-Class Passenger: Jack Thayer
Jack Thayer was a 17-year-old high school senior from an upper class family returning from a trip to Paris with his parents. In the confusion following the collision with the iceberg, Jack became separated from his parents. Jack and a young man he’d met on board named Milton Long stayed together as the ship’s bow sank lower. Just before the Titanic sank, they decided to jump from the rail. Milton went first. Jack never saw him again.
From the icy water, Jack looked up to see Titanic’s second funnel topple into the sea close by, creating suction that pulled Jack underwater. When he surfaced, he found himself close enough to climb up on top of Collapsible B, a lifeboat which had ended up in the water upside down. From his precarious perch, Jack witnessed the last moments of the Titanic as the stern rose, then sank under the dark, cold water.
At first it was quiet. Then the cries began. Jack said that it soon became “one long continuous wailing chant, from the fifteen hundred in the water all around us…”
The terrible cries faded away. The other lifeboats did not return. It was, Jack said later, “The most heartrending part of the whole tragedy…”
Of the 2,208 people on board the Titanic, 712 survived. Jack was reunited with his mother on board the rescue ship, the Carpathia, early the next morning. It was only then he found out that his father hadn’t survived.
Jack went on to a successful career; he married and had two sons. But it’s hard not to wonder if the horror of that night ever left him. In 1945, at the age of 51, Jack Thayer committed suicide after his son, Edward, was killed in World War II.
Second-Class Passengers: The Collyer Family
Harvey and Charlotte Collyer and their eight-year-old daughter, Marjorie had left home in England. They were heading to a new life on an Idaho farm to improve Charlotte’s health. When the Titanic stopped briefly in Queenstown to pick up more passengers – and drop off any mail that passengers had written — Harvey sent a cheery postcard to his folks, saying in part:
“My dear Mum and Dad, It don’t seem possible we are out on the briny writing to you. Well dears so far we are having a delightful trip the weather is beautiful and the ship magnificent …We will post again at New York…lots of love don’t worry about us.”
When the ship struck the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on Sunday night, April 14, Harvey left the cabin to investigate. Upon his return he told a sleepy Charlotte, “‘What do you think…We have struck an iceberg, a big one, but there is no danger, an officer just told me so.’”
But, of course, there was danger. Later, Charlotte clung to Harvey’s arm, unwilling to get into a lifeboat. All around her the sailors were shouting, “‘Women and children first!’”
Suddenly a sailor grabbed Marjorie and threw her into a boat. Charlotte had to be physically torn from her husband. Harvey tried to reassure her: “‘Go Lotty, for God’s sake be brave and go! I’ll get a seat in another boat.”
A week later, safe in New York with her young daughter, Charlotte broke the news to her mother-in-law. “My dear Mother, I don’t know how to write to you or what to say. I feel I shall go mad sometimes but dear as much as my heart aches it aches for you too for he is your son and the best that ever lived…Oh mother how can I live without him…he was so calm…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.”
Charlotte died from tuberculosis two years later.
Third-Class Passenger: Rhoda Abbott
Rhoda Abbott was returning to America with her two teenage sons, Rossmore and Eugene. The family managed to reach the boat deck by climbing a steel ladder onto the stern and walking on the slanting deck over ropes left from lifeboats which had already been launched.
Collapsible C, one of the lifeboats with canvas sides, was being loaded – but only with women and children. At 16 and 13, the Abbot boys would be considered too old. Their mother stepped back to stay with her children. As the boat was being lowered, J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, jumped in.
In the final moments, Rhoda and her boys jumped from the deck. She managed to get into Collapsible A, the only woman in that boat. Her beloved sons were lost. It took a long time for Rhoda to recover from the effects of injuries and exposure she suffered that night. She never recovered from the loss of her sons and died, alone and poor, in 1946.