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How to Survive the Titanic

The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay

by Frances Wilson

Hardcover, 328 pages, HarperCollins, List Price: $26.99 |


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Excerpt: How To Survive The Titanic

Chapter 1: Chance

I took the chance when it came to me. I did not seek it.

-J. Bruce Ismay, New York World

Ah! What a chance missed! My God! What a chance missed!

- Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

On the night his ship struck the iceberg, J. Bruce Ismay dined in her first-class restaurant with Dr William O'Loughlin, surgeon of the White Star Line for the previous forty years. The two men had shared similar meals on similar crossings, Ismay in his dinner jacket, O'Loughlin in his crisp white uniform. In another part of the dining room a dinner party was taking place in honour of the Captain, E. J. Smith. It was Sunday, 14 April 1912, and the Titanic, four days into her maiden voyage, was heading towards New York where she was due to arrive early on Wednesday morning.

After coffee and cigarettes, Ismay retired to his stateroom and was asleep by 11 p.m. He was aware that they were heading into an ice region because at lunchtime that day Captain Smith had handed him a Marconigram from another White Star liner, the Baltic, warning of 'icebergs and large quantity of field ice' about 250 miles ahead on the Titanic's course. Ismay had casually slipped the message into his pocket, taking it out later that afternoon to show two passengers, Mrs. Marian Thayer and Mrs. Emily Ryerson, and handing it back to Captain Smith shortly before supper so that the warning could be displayed in the officers' chart room. Ismay was not concerned about ice when he turned out his light; it must have been the calmest night ever known on the North Atlantic. The sky was a vault of stars, the sea a sheet of still black, the Titanic — the largest moving object on earth — was 46,000 tons of steel and the height of an eleven-story building. To stand on the deck that night, a passenger later said, 'gave one a sense of wonderful security'.

The collision occurred at 11.40 p.m.; the ship's speed was 22 knots and it took ten seconds for the iceberg to tear a 300-foot gash along her starboard side, slicing open four compartments. The sound, one woman recalled, was like the scraping of a nail along metal; to another it felt as though the ship 'had been seized by a giant hand and shaken once, twice, then stopped dead in its course'. Ismay awoke, his first thought being that the Titanic had lost a blade from one of her three propellers. He put on his slippers and padded down the passageway to ask a steward what had happened. The steward did not know, so Ismay returned to his room, put an overcoat and a pair of black evening trousers on top of his pyjamas and, still in his slippered feet, went onto the bridge where Captain Smith told him they had struck a berg. Was the ship damaged? Ismay asked. 'I am afraid she is,' the Captain replied.

The crew were now stirring and a quiet commotion had begun, with stewards knocking on doors to tell the passengers to collect their lifejackets and come up on deck. When Joseph Bell, the Chief Engineer, appeared on the main staircase Ismay asked for his opinion of the damage. Bell said that he thought, or he hoped, that the pumps would control the water for a while. Ismay briefly returned to his room, but he was soon back on the bridge and heard the Captain give the order for lifeboats to be prepared, and for women and children to go first. He then walked along the starboard side of the ship where he met one of the officers and told him to start getting the boats out. It was now five minutes after midnight. I rendered all the assistance I could, Ismay later said. I helped as far as I could. Staying on the starboard side throughout, he called for women and children to fill Lifeboats 3, 5, 7 and 9 (Lifeboats 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14 and 16 were located on the port side). When thirteen of the standard boats were away (2, 4 and 11 had yet to be launched), Ismay helped to load Collapsible C, which was one of the Titanic's four Engelhardt canvas-sided life-rafts. Twenty-one women, two men, fourteen young children and six crew were given seats: forty-three passengers so far in a boat which allowed for a maximum of forty-seven. Chief Officer Wilde ordered Collapsible C to be lowered. The deck was flooding and the ship listing heavily. I was standing by the boat, Ismay said. I helped everybody into the boat that was there, and, as the boat was being lowered away, I got in. He got into the fourteenth boat to be launched and the third-to-last boat to leave the Titanic on the starboard side.

Ismay later claimed that he had left in the last boat on the starboard side. Other versions of his departure from the ship exist, none of which agree. In the US inquiry, which began in New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel five days later, and the British Board of Trade inquiry which opened in London the following month, every man called to the stand had to account for his own survival. Many witnesses were also asked to describe the actions of Ismay: 'Did you see Mr Ismay?', 'What was Mr Ismay doing?' Those — mainly women — who were not invited to give evidence, related their tales of Ismay to the press. Many, like Mrs Malaha Douglas, who was returning home from a furniture-buying trip in Europe with her husband — the heir to Quaker Oats — remembered Ismay getting into the first boat to leave. One of the ship's firemen, Harry Senior, agreed. 'I saw the first boat lowered. Thirteen people were on board, eleven men and two women. Three were millionaires and one was Ismay.' Mrs Charlotte Drake Martinez Cardeza, travelling with fourteen trunks of new clothes from Paris, said that Ismay was the first person to climb into the first boat to leave and that he selected his own crew to row him away. Mrs Cardeza's son Thomas, on the other hand, who was in the same boat as his mother, told a reporter that the women in their boat, one of the last to leave, had begged Ismay to join them. '"Mr Ismay, won't you come with us? We will feel safer." "No," Ismay said, "I will remain here and not take the place of any women."' It was only under pressure, Th omas Cardeza recalled, that Ismay was eventually persuaded to climb in. Edward Brown, a first-class steward, remembered Ismay standing, not on the deck to help the women and children into Collapsible C, but inside the boat itself, ready to receive them. But according to Georgette Magill, aged sixteen, Ismay got into the 'last boat' of all, and only then because he had been ordered to do so by Captain Smith himself.

One reason for the conflicting accounts of Ismay's actions was the chaos of the night. It was, a passenger recalled, 'too kaleidoscopic for me to retain any detailed picture of individual behaviour'. Added to which, very few people, apart from some members of the crew and a small circle of first-class passengers, knew who Ismay was or what he looked like. It was simply not possible to see where amongst the crowds various individuals were standing and into which of the boats they were climbing. Port and starboard were two separate neighbourhoods. The Titanic was a sixth of a mile long and the decks were like avenues; the corridors inside were even named after streets such as 'Park Lane' and 'Scotland Road'. It took Second Officer Charles Lightoller, who had spent twenty years at sea, several days before he could find his way from one end of the ship to the other by the shortest route.

Those who did know Ismay had different versions of his departure from the Titanic, all of which served their own interests. August Weikman, the ship's barber, swore in an affidavit that Ismay was 'literally thrown' into Collapsible C by an officer: 'Mr Ismay refused to go, when the seaman seized him, rushed him to the rail and hurled him over.' Weikman, who was rescued from a floating deckchair, had been given a first-class barber's shop on every new White Star liner and, as Ismay's personal barber, considered himself a friend. Lightoller, another loyal White Star Line employee, agreed that Ismay had been 'thrown' into a boat by Chief Offi cer Wilde.

But Ismay always denied the suggestion that he was obeying orders when he jumped into Collapsible C — a fact that would have entirely exonerated him from the accusation of cowardice.

Quartermaster George Rowe, the seaman put in charge of Collapsible C, said under oath that no one invited or ordered Ismay to jump in, and that Ismay had jumped in before, and not after, the boat had started to be lowered. 'The Chief Officer wanted to know if there were any more women and children,' Rowe told the US inquiry. 'There were none in the vicinity. Two gentleman passengers got in; the boat was then lowered.' But forty years later, in a letter to Walter Lord who was compiling eyewitness accounts for his book, A Night to Remember, Rowe recalled it differently. In his revised account, he only noticed Ismay's presence when the boat had nearly reached the water level, and he had no idea how or when the owner had left the Titanic. 'We had great difficulty in lowering as the ship was well down by the head . . . it was then that I saw Mr Ismay and another gentleman (I think it was a Mr Carter) in the boat.'

Excerpted from How To Survive The Titanic by Frances Wilson. Copyright 2011 by Frances Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Harper.