How I was saved from the Titanic: A Titanic survivor’s story (1912)

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Charlotte Collyer and daughter - Titanic survivors

Titanic lifeboats at night

At that distance, it was impossible to recognize anyone on board, but I could make out groups of men on every deck. They were standing with arms crossed upon their chests, and with lowered heads. I am sure that they were in prayer.

On the boat deck that I had just left, perhaps fifty men had come together. In the midst of them was a tall figure. This man had climbed upon a chair, or a coil of rope, so that he was raised far above the rest. His hands were stretched out, as if he were pronouncing a blessing.

During the day, a priest, a certain Father Byles, had held services in the second-cabin saloon; and I think it must have been he who stood there, leading those doomed men in prayer. The band was playing “Nearer My God to Thee” — I could hear it distinctly. The end was very close.

The very end

It came with a deafening roar that stunned me. Something in the very bowels of the Titanic exploded, and millions of sparks shot up to the sky, like rockets in a park on the night of a summer holiday. This red spurt was fan-shaped as it went up; but the sparks descended in every direction, in the shape of a fountain of fire. Two other explosions followed, dull and heavy, as if below the surface.

The Titanic broke in two before my eyes. The fore part was already partly under the water. It wallowed over and disappeared instantly. The stern reared straight on end, and stood poised on the ocean for many seconds — they seemed minutes to me.

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It was only then that the electric lights on board went out. Before the darkness came, I saw hundreds of human bodies clinging to the wreck or leaping into the water. The Titanic was like a swarming bee-hive, but the bees were men, and they had broken their silence now. Cries more terrible than I had ever heard rang in my ears.

I turned my face away, but looked ’round the next instant and saw the second half of the great boat slip below the surface as easily as a pebble in a pond. I shall always remember that last moment as the most hideous of the whole disaster.

Many calls for help came from the floating wreckage, but Fifth Officer Lowe told some women who asked him to go back that it would certainly result in our being swamped. I believe that some of the boats picked up survivors at this time; and I was told afterward by more than one trustworthy person that Captain E J Smith of the Titanic was washed against a collapsible boat and held on to it for a few moments. A member of the crew assured me that he tried to pull the Captain on board, but that he shook his head, cast himself off, and sunk out of sight.

For our part, we went in search of other lifeboats that had escaped. We found four or five, and Mr Lowe took command of the little fleet. He ordered that the boats should be linked together with ropes, so as to prevent any one of them from drifting away and losing itself in the darkness. This proved to be a very good plan, and made our rescue all the more certain when the Carpathia came.

He then, with great difficulty, distributed most of the women in our boat among the other craft. This took perhaps half an hour. It gave him an almost empty boat, and as soon as possible he cut loose, and we went in search of survivors.

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I have no idea of the passage of time during the balance of that awful night. Someone gave me a ship’s blanket, which served to protect me from the bitter cold; and Marjorie had the cabin blanket that I had wrapped around her. But we were sitting with our feet in several inches of icy water.

The salt spray had made us terribly thirsty, and there was no fresh water and certainly no food of any kind on board the boat. The sufferings of most of the women, from these various causes, was beyond belief. The worst thing that happened to me was when I fell over, half fainting, against one of the men at the oars. My loose hair was caught in the rowlock, and half of it was torn out by the roots.

I know that we rescued a large number of men from the wreckage; but I can recall clearly only two incidents.

Not far from where the Titanic went down, we found a lifeboat floating bottom up. Along its keel were lying about twenty men. They were packed closely together, and were hanging on desperately; but even the strongest were so badly frozen that, in a few moments more, they must have slipped into the ocean.

We took them on board, one by one, and found that of the number, four were already corpses. The dead men were cast into the sea. The living groveled in the bottom of our boat, some of them babbling like maniacs.

A little farther on, we saw a floating door that must have been torn loose when the ship went down. Lying upon it, face downward, was a small Japanese. He had lashed himself with a rope to his frail raft, using the broken hinges to make the knots secure. As far as we could see, he was dead. The sea washed over him every time the door bobbed up and down, and he was frozen stiff. He did not answer when he was hailed, and the officer hesitated about trying to save him.

MORE: Liner Titanic strikes iceberg, sinking head down (1912)

“What’s the use?” said Mr Lowe. “He’s dead, likely, and if he isn’t there’s others better worth saving than a Jap!”

He had actually turned our boat around; but he changed his mind and went back. The Japanese was hauled on board, and one of the women rubbed his chest, while others chafed his hands and feet. In less time than it takes to tell, he opened his eyes. He spoke to us in his own tongue; then, seeing that we did not understand, he struggled to his feet, stretched his arms above his head, stamped his feet, and in five minutes or so had almost recovered his strength. One of the sailors near to him was so tired that he could hardly pull his oar. The Japanese bustled over, pushed him from his seat, took the oar, and worked like a hero until we were finally picked up. I saw Mr Lowe watching him in open-mouthed surprise.

“By jove!” muttered the officer. “I’m ashamed of what I said about the little blighter. I’d save the likes o’ him six times over, if I got the chance.”

The Carpathia rescues

After this rescue, all my memories are hazy until the Carpathia arrived at dawn. She stopped maybe four miles away from us, and the task of rowing over to her was one of the hardest that our poor frozen men, and women, too, had had to face. Many women helped at the oars; and one by one the boats crawled over the ocean to the side of the waiting liner. They let down rope ladders to us; but the women were so weak that it is a marvel that some of them did not lose their hold and drop back into the water.

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When it came to saving the babies and young children, the difficulty was even greater, as no one was strong enough to risk carrying a living burden. One of the mail clerks on the Carpathia solved the problem. He let down empty United States mail bags. The little mites were tumbled in, the bags locked, and so they were hauled up to safety.

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We all stood at last upon the deck of the Carpathia, more than six hundred and seventy of us; and the tragedy of the scene that followed is too deep for words. There was scarcely any one who had not been separated from husband, child or friend. Was the lost one among this handful of saved? We could only rush frantically from group to group, searching the haggard faces, crying out names and endless questions.

No survivor knows better than I the bitter cruelty of disappointment and despair. I had a husband to search for, a husband whom, in the greatness of my faith, I had believed would be found in one of the boats.

He was not there; and it is with these words that I can best end my story of the Titanic. There are hundreds of others who can tell, and have already told, of that sad journey on the Carpathia to New York.

Friends in America have been good to us, and I intend to follow out our original plan. I shall go to Idaho, and make a home in the new world of the West. For awhile I thought of returning to England, but I can never face the sea again. And besides that, I must take my little Marjorie to the place where her father would have taken us both. That is all I care about — to do what he would have had me do.

* * *

Today, this story would probably be bylined with something along the lines of “as told to,” as it was probably ghostwritten based on Mrs Collyer’s account — a very common occurrence then and now. In any case, the family received a reported $300 for sharing their tale.

After Charlotte and Marjorie Collyer both survived the sinking of the Titanic, they completed their journey to Idaho. However, it was soon apparent that the heart had gone out of their move, and the mother and daughter soon returned to England. Sadly, that wasn’t the end of their woes. In 1914, Charlotte succumbed to tuberculosis. Marjorie grew up and married, but before she died in 1965 at age 61, she had been widowed, and her only child died young. In 1955, she wrote of life post-Titanic, “Since that time I have been blessed with bad luck and often wonder if it will ever give me a break, but it just seems to be my lot…”

NEXT: Follow-up: Titanic survivor Charlotte Collyer (1912)

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