How I was saved from the Titanic: A Titanic survivor’s story
by Charlotte Collyer
A survivor of the most dramatic marine disaster in the world’s history — told exclusively to readers of the San Francisco Call’s semi-monthly Magazine Section
Of the many shocking things that I remember in connection with the lost Titanic, there is one impression that will never leave me. It is the irony of the faith that I had in the big ship. “She is unsinkable,” I had been told, “she is the safest boat afloat.”
I had never been on an ocean voyage, and I was afraid of the sea. But I listened to the people who said: “Take the new Titanic. She can not come to any harm. New inventions have made her safe; and then, the officers will be extra careful on her first trip.” That sounded as if it must be true; and so Harvey, my husband, and our eight-year-old daughter, Marjorie, and I decided to go to America that way. Marjorie and I are here, safe, but we are alone. For my husband was drowned, and with the Titanic there went to the bottom of the Atlantic all that we had in the world.
A Titanic survivor tells: Our story before the Titanic
I must first tell how we came to leave England. We lived in Bishopstoke, a little village near Southampton, Hampshire. My husband kept a grocery store; in fact, although only thirty-five years old, he was the principal grocer in the village and was liked by all the neighbors.
He was clerk of the parish, by which I mean that he was that member of the church vestry who helped the vicar to keep his accounts, to fill on marriage licenses, birth certificates, and so forth. He was also in charge of our chime of bells, which are more than one hundred years old, and are thought to be among the best in England.
Some friends had gone a few years before to the Payette Valley, in Idaho. They had bought a fruit farm, and had made a success of it. They wrote us wonderful accounts of the climate, and advised us to join them.
We did not think that we would go; but last year my health began to get very poor — my lungs are weak — and in the end, we made up our minds to sell our business, and to buy a farm in the same valley where our friends had settled. I can never forget that it was for my sake, and for the sake of Marjorie, that my dead husband decided to do this. He would have been better off in England.
The day before we were to sail, our neighbors in Bishopstoke made much of us. It seems as if there must have been hundreds who called to bid us goodbye; and in the afternoon, the members of the church arranged a surprise for my husband. They led him to a seat under an old tree in the church that they knew.
It took more than an hour, and he was very pleased. But, somehow, it made me a little sad. They gave the solemn old tunes, as well as the gay ones, and to me it was too much of a farewell ceremony. Why cannot people help those who are going away to forget that they are leaving behind the things that they hold dear? It is a question that I often ask myself.
The next morning, we went to Southampton; and there my husband draw from the bank all his money, including the sum we had received for our store. It came to several thousand dollars in American money, and he took all it all in bank notes. The clerk asked him if he did not want a draft; but he shook his head and put the notes in a wallet which he kept, to the end, in the inside breast pocket of his coat.
We had already sent forward the few personal treasures that we had kept from our old home; so that, when we went on board the Titanic, our every earthly possession was with us.
We were traveling second cabin, and from our deck, which was situated well forward, we saw the great send-off that was given to the boat. I do not think there had ever been so large a crowd in Southampton, and I am not surprised that it should have come together.
The grand ship Titanic
The Titanic was wonderful, far more splendid and huge than I had dreamed of. The other craft in the harbor were like cockle-shells beside her, and they, mind you, were the boats of the American and other lines that a few years ago were thought enormous. I remember a friend said to me, just before visitors were ordered ashore: “Aren’t you afraid to venture on the sea?” But now it was I who was confident. “What, on this boat!” I answered. “Even the worst storm couldn’t harm her.”
Before we left the harbor, I saw the accident to the New York, the liner that was dragged from her moorings and swept against us in the channel. It did not frighten anyone, as it only seemed to prove how powerful the Titanic was.
I don’t remember very much about the first few days of the voyage. I was a bit seasick, and kept to my cabin most of the time.
But on Sunday, April 14, I was up and about. At dinnertime, I was at my place in the saloon, and enjoyed the meal, though I thought it too heavy and rich. No effort had been spared to serve even to the second cabin passengers on that Sunday the best dinner that money could buy. After I had eaten, I listened to the orchestra for a while; then, at perhaps nine o’clock, or half-past nine, I went to my cabin.
I had just climbed into my berth when a stewardess came in. She was a sweet woman, who had been very kind to me. I take this opportunity to thank her; for I shall never see her again. She went down with the Titanic.
“Do you know where we are?” she said pleasantly. “We are in what is called The Devil’s Hole.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“That it is a dangerous part of the ocean,” she answered. “Many accidents have happened near here. They say that icebergs drift down as far as this. It’s getting to be very cold on deck, so perhaps there’s ice around us now!”
She left the cabin, and I soon dropped off to sleep. Her talk about icebergs had not frightened me; but it shows that the crew were awake to the danger. As far as I can tell, we had not slackened our speed in the least.
It must have been a little after ten o’clock when my husband came in and woke me up. He sat about and talked to me, for how long I do not know, before he began to make ready to go to bed.
And then, the crash!
Titanic survivor tells of striking the iceberg
The sensation, to me, was as if the ship had been seized by a giant hand and shaken once, twice; then stopped dead in its course. That is to say, there was a long backward jerk, followed by a shorter forward one. I was not thrown out of my berth, and my husband staggered on his feet only slightly.
We heard no strange sounds, no rending of plates and woodwork; but we noticed that the engines had ceased running. They tried to start the engines a few minutes later; but, after some coughing and rumbling, there was silence once more. Our cabin was so situated that we could follow this clearly.
My husband and I were not alarmed. He said that there must have been some slight accident in the engine room, and at first, he did not intend to go on deck. Then he changed his mind, put on his coat and left me. I lay quietly in my berth with my little girl, and almost fell asleep again.
In what seemed a very few moments, my husband returned. He was a bit excited then. “What do you think!” he exclaimed. “We have struck an iceberg, a big one; but there is no danger. An officer just told me so.”
I could hear the footsteps of people on the deck above my head. There was some stamping, and queer noises as if ship’s tackle was being pulled about.
“Are the people frightened?” I asked quietly. “No,” he replied. “I don’t think the shock waked up many in the second cabin, and few of those in the saloons have troubled to go on deck. I saw five professional gamblers playing with some of the passengers as I went by. Their cards had been jerked off the table when the boat struck; but they were gathering them up, and had started their game again before I left the saloon.”
This story reassured me. If those people at their cards were not worried, why should I be? I think my husband would have retired to his berth without asking any more questions about the accident, but suddenly we heard hundreds of people running along the passageway in front of our door. They did not cry out; but the pattering of their feet reminded me of rats scurrying through an empty room.
I could see my face in a mirror opposite, and it had grown very white. My husband, too, was pale; and he stammered when he spoke to me. “We had all better go on deck, and see what’s wrong,” he said.
How a Titanic survivor escaped the ship
I jumped out of bed, and put over my nightdres, a dressing gown and then an ulster. My hair was down; but I hurriedly tied it back with a ribbon. By this time, although the boat had not made any progress, it seemed to have tilted forward a little.
I caught up my daughter, Marjorie, just as she was, in her nightgown, wrapped a White Star cabin blanket around her, and started out of the door. My husband followed immediately behind. Neither of us took any of our belongings from the cabin; and I remember that we even left his watch lying on his pillow. We did not doubt for an instant that we would return.
When we reached the second-cabin promenade deck, we found a great many people there. Some officers were walking up and down, and shouting: “There is no danger, no danger whatever!” It was a clear starlight night, but very cold. There was not a ripple on the sea. A few of the passengers were standing by the rail, and looking down; but I want to say that, at that time, no one was frightened.
My husband stepped over to an officer — it was either Fifth Officer Harold Lowe or First Officer Murdoch — and asked him a question. I heard him shout back:
“No, we have no searchlight; but we have a few rockets on board. Keep calm! There is no danger!”
Our party of three stood close together. I did not recognize any of the other faces about me, probably because of the excitement. I never went near the first-cabin promenade deck, so did not see any of the prominent people on board.
Danger aboard the Titanic
Suddenly there was a commotion near one of the gangways, and we saw a stoker come climbing up from below. He stopped a few feet away from us. All the fingers of one hand had been cut off. Blood was running from the stumps, and blood was spattered over his face and over his clothes. The red marks showed very clearly against the coal dust with which he was covered.
I started over and spoke to him. I asked him if there was any danger.
“Dynger!” he screamed, at the top of his voice. “I should just sye so! It’s ‘ell down below. Look at me! This boat’ll sink like a log in ten minutes.” [Sic, in a supposed Irish dialect.]
He staggered away, and lay down, fainting, with his head on a coil of rope. And at that moment I got my first grip of fear — awful, sickening fear. That poor man with his bleeding hand and his speckled face, brought up a picture of smashed engines and mangled human bodies.
I hung on to my husband’s arm, and although he was very brave and was not trembling, I saw that his face was as white as paper. We realized that the accident was much worse than we had supposed; but even then I, and all the others about me of whom I have any knowledge, did not believe that the Titanic could go down.
The officers now were running to and fro, and shouting orders. I have no clear idea of what happened during the next quarter of an hour. The time seemed much shorter; but it must have been between ten and fifteen minutes, I saw First Officer Murdoch place guards by the gangways, to prevent others like the wounded stoker from coming on deck.
How many unhappy men were shut off in that way from their one chance of safety I do not know; but Mr Murdoch was probably right. He was a masterful man, astoundingly brave and cool. I had met him the day before, when he was inspecting the second cabin quarters, and thought him a bull-dog of a man who would not be afraid of anything. This proved to be true; he kept order to the last, and died at his post. They say he shot himself. I do not know.
Confusion and clamoring
Those in charge must have herded us toward the nearest boat deck; for that is where I presently found myself, still clinging to my husband’s arm, and with little Marjorie beside me. Many women were standing with their husbands, and there was no confusion.
Then, above the clamor of people asking questions of each other, there came the terrible cry: “Lower the boats. Women and children first!” Someone was shouting those last four words over and over again: “Women and children first! Women and children first!”
They struck utter terror into my heart, and now they will ring in my cars until I die. They meant my own safety; but they also meant the greatest loss I have ever suffered — the life of my husband.
The first lifeboat was quickly filled and lowered away. Very few men went in her, only five or six members of the crew, I should say. The male passengers made no attempt to save themselves. I never saw such courage, or believed it possible. How the people in the first cabin and the steerage may have acted, I do not know; but our second-cabin men were heroes. I want to tell that to every reader of this article.
The lowering of the second boat took more time. I think all those women who were really afraid and eager to go had got into the first. Those who remained were wives who did not want to leave their husbands, or daughters who would not leave their parents. The officer in charge was Harold Lowe. First Officer Murdoch had moved to the other end of the deck. I was never close to him again.
Mr Lowe was very young and boyish-looking; but, somehow, he compelled people to obey him. He rushed among the passengers and ordered the women into the boat. Many of them followed him in a dazed kind of way; but others stayed by their men. I could have had a seat in that second boat; but I refused to go. It was filled at last, and disappeared over the side with a rush.
There were two more lifeboats at that part of the deck. A man in plain clothes was fussing about them and screaming out instructions. I saw Fifth Officer Lowe order him away. I did not recognize him; but from what I have read in the newspapers, it must have been Mr J Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the line.
The third boat was about half full when a sailor caught Marjorie, my daughter, in his arms, tore her away from me and threw her into the boat. She was not even given a chance to tell her father good-bye!