Books, films, documentaries and articles - few subjects have inspired so many writers and producers as the sinking of the Titanic. Yet, a hundred years after this tragic event, there is nothing more poignant or vivid than true eye-witness testimony, such as this amazing account of one of the survivors:
On April 10th 1912, 12-year-old Louis Garrett* and his 14-year-old sister Jamila set sail from Marseilles on what would prove to be the biggest adventure of their young lives. Although their father had planned to accompany them, he’d been prevented from boarding the ship because of an eye infection, forcing the children to make their journey without him.
“We were saddened to leave my father behind, but were excited about being on board the R.M.S. Titanic, the largest, fastest and most luxurious ship of its time—and also said to be unsinkable!”
For a young boy, it must have been an incredible experience. Amongst the 2,200 people on board were some of the world’s leading lights – rich and famous people who, seduced by Titanic’s magnificent interiors and glamorous image, considered joining the ship for its maiden voyage the “in” thing to do for anyone who was ‘anyone’.
The real star of the show, of course, was the Titanic itself, which more than lived up to its promise as a floating 5-star hotel and remarkable feat of engineering. One of a trio of ships – including the Olympic and the Britannic – it was commissioned by the White Star Line from Belfast shipbuilders, Harland and Wolff. At 269 metres long and 28 metres wide, the Titanic exceeded battleships of its day by 5,000 tons and, due to the division of its hull into 16 compartments – 4 of which could be flooded without compromising the ship – seemed to justify its ‘unsinkable’ reputation.
Certainly, as Louis looked out across the Atlantic at the start of the voyage, the sea was calm, the ship cut through the waters at a satisfying rate of knots and New York was just 7 short days away. On Sunday April 14th the weather changed. From a seasonal chill the temperature dropped so dramatically that few passengers ventured outdoors and Louis heard talk of icebergs in the area. Such danger was not anticipated, however, so full speed was maintained despite a radio message from the captain of the Californian. His warning, that icebergs had been spotted along Titanic’s route – went unheeded by Captain E J Smith. Tragically, this experienced captain’s faith in Titanic’s invulnerability was greatly misplaced.
At approximately 11:45 p.m. Sunday, April 14, Louis and his sister were awakened with a jolt. “Soon an elderly man, whom we had met on board and who took a fatherly interest in us, came to our cabin and said calmly: ‘Come out of your cabin and go to the upper deck. Don’t bother about taking your belongings for now. You’ll get them later.”
Having steerage-class tickets, Louis and his sister could access the second-class deck, but a guarded gate prevented them reaching the first-class upper deck where they’d have a better chance of getting into a lifeboat. “The only way this could be done was to climb an iron ladder from the steerage deck below up five or six decks to the lifeboats above.” This was very difficult, especially for Louis’ sister, “But with help from others we made it.”
To Louis’ horror, most of the lifeboats were gone. “The crew was permitting women and children only to board the lifeboats—there were not enough for everyone. We saw women crying, not wanting to leave their husbands; husbands begging their wives and children to hurry and get into the lifeboats. Amid this complete pandemonium and mass hysteria stood my sister and I, two immigrant children, unable to speak English, frightened beyond belief, crying and looking for help.
“The last lifeboat was being loaded. A middle-aged gentleman was with his very young, pregnant wife. He helped her into the lifeboat, then looked back to the deck and saw others wanting to get aboard. He kissed his wife good-bye, and, returning to the deck, grabbed the first person in his path. Fortunately, I was there in the right place at the right time and he put me into the lifeboat. I screamed for my sister who had frozen from fright. With the help of others, she also was pushed into the lifeboat. Who was the gallant man who performed this kind act? We were told he was John Jacob Astor IV. At that time he was 45 years old and his wife, Madeleine, was 19. They were travelling to the United States because they wanted their child to be born there. Many newspaper stories were written that told how John Jacob Astor gave up his life for a young immigrant. The Astor family records indicate that, according to Mrs. Astor, Mr. Astor had words with a crewman who tried to prevent him from helping his wife into the lifeboat. He did so anyway. And, as I said, he kissed her and, returning to the deck, began helping others into the lifeboat.
'I was happy to be in the lifeboat, but I still had a feeling of sorrow for the ones left on the Titanic. Looking back at that big, beautiful ship, I could see it from a different perspective and, with some of the lights still on, I could see the size and beauty of the ship. In the stillness of the night and with sound travelling so well over water, we could hear the band playing on deck and people singing ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ The crew rowed away from the ship as far as they could. There were fears that a suction would develop when it made its final plunge into the ocean depths. That did not happen, nor was there an explosion as some thought there would be. The waters were unusually calm that night and it was a good thing, for most of the lifeboats were loaded down with people.
'The Titanic sank about 2:20 a.m. April 15, 1912, according to the records. I saw it slide down into the ocean to its horrible finish. The moment it sank left a memory of something that haunts me till this day. It was the eerie sound of the people groaning and screaming frantically for help, as they were hurtled into the icy water. Almost all died from the cold water. The sounds lasted for about 45 minutes and then faded away.
'An SOS had been sent out about midnight. It was received by the S.S. Carpathia of the Cunard White Star Line. It was about 58 miles (93 km) away and immediately turned around from its course, which was heading for Gibraltar, and proceeded full steam ahead to the rescue. It arrived at about 4:30 a.m. Interestingly, the S.S. Californian was only 20 miles (32 km) away from the spot where the Titanic sank, but the radio operator did not pick up the SOS signal because he was off duty. Later reports showed that the Californian did see flares in the night, but thought the passengers on the Titanic were shooting fireworks in celebration of the maiden voyage.
'The Carpathia completed the rescue operations about 8:30 a.m. Our lifeboat was among the last to be rescued. After being taken aboard, bundled up, given hot tea and made comfortable, I was happy to be alive, even though I had a coat and shoes much too large.
'Later the captain of the Carpathia called all the survivors to come on deck and see the iceberg. My 12-year-old mind recorded it as being as high as a two-story house, much wider and with a huge chimney. The ship delivered us to New York before continuing its trip to Gibraltar, a very kind act on the part of the management of the Cunard White Star Line. We arrived in New York at 8:30 p.m., Thursday, April 18, and were taken to the Cunard White Star docks.
'Looking back at those long hours in the lifeboat, it now seems miraculous that we reached the safety of the Carpathia. The bitter cold was almost unbearable. We huddled together to keep warm. People were kind to one another. I remember how windy it was there on the deck of the Carpathia. The winds had picked up to several knots per hour. Fortunately the winds held off just long enough for the rescue mission. Had the waters not remained calm and smooth during that time, it is doubtful that the rescue operations would have been so successful.”
Despite the intense cold, Louis knew of only one person in his lifeboat who died of hyperthermia. "The body was wrapped in a sheet and slipped overboard.” Except for a few crew members who manned the oars, most of the occupants were women and children. According to Louis, “There was one young couple with a baby who ‘put one over’ on the crew. The wife was very shrewd; she dressed her young husband as a woman, covered his head with a shawl and gave him the baby. He was in one lifeboat and she was in ours. Both were rescued by the Carpathia.
“On our arrival in New York, we expected to be taken to Ellis Island to clear immigration procedures. However, this was waived because of the pain and suffering already endured by the survivors. We were turned over to the Red Cross to be united with our families. My older brother, Isaac, was in New York and our meeting was mixed with joy and sadness. My father was still in France. However, we concluded that had he been on the Titanic with us, he would not have survived because of the women-and-children-only rule. Maybe even our being survivors would have been affected. We would have found it hard to leave Dad on board the Titanic and be seeking our own safety. Fortunately for him, he arrived safely three months later on another ship.”
The sinking of the Titanic continues to fascinate and appal in equal measure. 100 years on, two major exhibitions in the UK – one at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum near Belfast, the other at the Liverpool Maritime Museum – marked the sad demise of “the most famous ship in history”.
Unable to match the speeds of rival shipping line, Cunard, White Star aimed to attract wealthy travellers with Titanic’s magnificent interiors, unashamed luxury and impossible glamour. Even so, the company’s main target group was the huge number of European immigrants – between 1900 and 1914 almost 900,000 a year crossed the Atlantic to the United States, providing handsome profits for the industry. Tickets for the Titanic cost £79 for first class; £13 second class, and £8 for third. Naturally, cosseted first class cruisers were discreetly insulated from the hoi polloi below!
The horrific death toll was due to a series of errors: Several iceberg warnings from other ships were either ignored or not received; the lookouts didn’t spot the iceberg soon enough for evasive action to be taken; and there was only room in the lifeboats for 1,170 of the 2,200 passengers and crew. Of the 16 lifeboats and 4 collapsible boats on hand, many were not fully loaded and made no effort to find survivors who’d fallen into the sea. Consequently, 1,500 people perished – 700 crew and 800 passengers.
As for Louis Garrett, he settled in Jacksonville where he lived peacefully until his death on 31st May 1981, soon after giving this interview.