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harrowing tales

Survivor stories


Shadow of the Titanic By Andrew Wilson Simon & Schuster, 391 pages Best Price: Rs 395 (21% off) at shopping. indiatimes. com

A hundred years after the Titanic sank in the abyss of the Atlantic Ocean, its sepulchral appeal still endures. Is it because the $7m, 46, 000 tonne ship was a miracle of modern shipbuilding? With its Turkish baths, gymnasium, library, smoking room, reading and writing room, a range of restaurants, oak paneled walls and carefully segregated first, second and third living quarters, the liner was the last word in luxury and functionality. Was it because its watertight doors had led many to believe that it was a "practically unsinkable" ship? Or was it because of an air of hubris that surrounded the vessel before it struck a 100ft tall iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York on 15 April 1912? (That fateful night it was cutting through the Atlantic's waters at a near top speed despite ice warnings from other ships. ) The iceberg ripped a gaping 300ft hole - or a series of holes - along the starboard side of the ship. Despite the millions spent on the liner, a key binocular which could have spotted the iceberg was mislaid and the ship had only 16 lifeboats (plus four folding boats) which could provide space for only 1178 of its 2228 passengers. Before the night was over, 1502 passengers died in the icy waters of the ocean, the majority of them men. A total of 705 passengers survived the disaster.

The first account of the harrowing tales of the survivors was written in the 1950s by historian Walter Lord. More than half a century later, the Titanic still offers handsome pickings for journalists, filmmakers and archivists. Andrew Wilson's Shadow of the Titanic is the latest addition to the memorabilia. The book, writes Wilson, a journalist, aims to show the impact of the disaster on the lives of the survivors through unpublished stories, letters, diaries and memoirs. He serves up a mixed bag of stories, some rivetting and the others tedious. Some of them are stretched to force the argument that almost everything that happened in the lives of survivors was possibly shaped by or linked to the tragedy.

Wilson's story begins on the night of the tragedy. Hysterical passengers dressed in nightclothes and evening dresses scramble to get on to lifeboats, a scene which one survivor, writer Helen Churchill Candee, later described as a "fancydress ball in Dante's Hell". "The sinking of the Titanic, " Wilson writes, "was so shocking, so negative, so alien to the securities of Edwardian society that almost as soon as the disaster was reported, myths began to spring up like fragments of driftwood from the sea. " Many of these often dodgy narratives were stories of self-sacrifice;others were most honest accounts of lives overturned by a cruel twist of fate.

Most of the survivors were women, especially in the second and third class who lost husbands, brothers, fathers and sons. Some like Marjorie Dutton, who was eight when the ship sank and was headed to America to start a new life, wrote she had become penniless, unable to pay her mortgage in England, and struggling to even buy food. "If it had not been for the Titanic affair, " she wrote, "I might have now been in America in different circumstances. " Others like Constance Williard aged prematurely and became a silent inmate at a sanatorium in California, feeding her cats and disintegrating slowly.

The story of one man though is particularly ironic. J Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, which owned the ship, had survived the disaster in rather ignoble circumstances, accepting a place on a lifeboat rather than going down with the ship. Wilson writes that Ismay was rejected by society and became a recluse - "more a spectre than a man" - trawling the parks of London to meet the have-nots, and travelling secretly in trains.

Other stories were more upbeat - and controversial. Within four weeks of the sinking, first class passenger and silent screen star Dorothy Gibson had made the first film about the disaster, starring herself and wearing the same dress she wore on the ship, slaking the public thirst for disasters. The lives of Dorothy and her mother, another Titanic survivor, were also marked by "illicit love, passion, ambition, intrigue, accusations of spying, internment in a concentration camp".

It is mostly - and unsurprisingly - a tragic story on the aftermath of a catastrophic accident. Renee Harris, a Titanic widow whose husband owned a Broadway theatre, was wracked by guilt about leaving her husband on the ship to die, She married four times after the incident but said she "really only had one husband", who died in the disaster and whose body was never found in the ocean. Harris ended up living in a one room New York welfare hotel. Titanic's last-living survivor, Millvina Dean, who was nine weeks old when the ship sank, died, aged 97, three years ago. It is possibly time to put the memories to rest.

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