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A Man In Full: 4. Part Four: For Those In Peril
"Tears for the dead who will not come again
Homeward to any shore on any tide . . ."
Toll of the Sea, O.S. 1912
How can I begin to describe the sensation of plunging into water whose temperature is two degrees below freezing? It felt like a thousand blades slashing me on every part of my body, and it left me unable to draw breath, while robbing me of my ability to think. In my confusion, I made for the crow's nest, which was still above water. Only at the last minute did I realize what a foolish mistake this was, and I let go before it drew me under.
No sooner had I let go of the crow's nest than I felt myself sucked backwards by a great rush of water flowing down the ventilator shaft at the front of the forward funnel. There I lay, pinned like a bug, struggling for all I was worth and fearing every minute that the flimsy wire grating would give way and send me deep into the bowels of the ship. I could feel the ship settling ever deeper; my ears began to pop from the pressure, while the air in my lungs began to run out.
An eerie calm came over me then. As I prepared to meet my Maker, my thoughts turned to my dear wife. 'Oh, Sylvia, how I wish I could have seen you one more time before the end!'
It seemed then I heard her voice in my head. 'Don’t be afraid, Bertie. Remember the words of the Psalm: He shall give his angels charge over thee.' Suddenly, a great blast of hot air from some subterranean explosion came up the shaft, freeing me and blowing me upward.
The first thing I saw as I bobbed to the surface was the keel of overturned Collapsible B, which had floated around to the starboard after the forward edge of the boat deck went under. I swam for her with all my might and managed to grab onto one of the ropes strung along her side. I heard a loud groan of metal along with the reports of guy-wires snapping one by one as they tore loose from the deck. The pressure of water at the base had undermined the forward funnel, and it tilted slowly with the list of the ship, finally giving way and toppling onto the mass of people struggling in the water. It crashed down, missing me by only inches, or so it seemed to me at the time.
In the last moments, I fancied I saw the horror-stricken face of John Jacob Astor -- poor Astor who had so much to live for with his pretty young wife and new child on the way. My impression proved true when later the McKay-Bennet, the steamer sent out to the sinking site with a hold full of ice and all the embalming supplies the city of Halifax could provide, recovered his body, which they identified by the money in his pockets and the diamond ring on his finger. It was blackened with soot and crushed to a pulp.
The richest man on board the Titanic died alongside the poorest immigrants, and so he lay in death.
I shall never forget or forgive being asked later at the American Inquiry if the collapse of the funnel 'hurt anyone'. I daresay it did. I daresay.
The misfortune of those poor people, however, proved a godsend to me. The mighty wave raised up by the falling funnel lifted the collapsible, with me clinging for dear life to its side, and carried us some fifty yards. By the time it crested and passed on, we were well away from the sinking ship. I turned to look back over my shoulder, the frigid water forgotten while I paused, transfixed at the spectacle of Titanic's death throes.
The lights flickered once and then went off. I heard the anguished scream of tearing metal, and the ship tilted slowly upward until her bulk pointed up into the night sky like a black finger. There came a rumbling noise as if every object inside the ship had broken loose and plummeted toward the bow. She seemed to right herself for a moment, paused and then, picking up speed, sank beneath the waves with only a gulping noise to mark her passing.
With Titanic's disappearance there began the noise of over a thousand tortured souls struggling in the freezing water. Survivors in the lifeboats have gone on to describe it as the sound of locusts on a summer night or the roar of excited spectators at a sporting match. Up close it was a different thing entirely -- the pleading voices of men crying out to their God in a multiplicity of tongues and to their own mothers; the piteous screams of women, for yes, somehow there remained women who had not made it into the lifeboats; and the frightened wails of children . . .
To be in amongst that mass of suffering humanity and be utterly unable to do a thing to help them would break the heart and the will of even the strongest man. I have written elsewhere that it is best not to dwell on such things, but I will tell you here -- that sound will stay with me to the end of my days.
I turned my face away and clung, dazed, to the side of the collapsible until a rough voice brought me around. "Ere -- get off! Get away or you'll swamp us!" This was followed by a muffled thump as if solid wood had hit something soft.
I looked up to see a pair of arms waving an oar and an indistinct form making off through the water. That wouldn't do! "Get a grip on yourselves!" I shouted. "Are we men or beasts? We won't get through this unless we straighten up and pull together."
I hoisted myself up onto the bow of the boat, with some difficulty, since I was having trouble making my cold hands work. "Listen to the officer," I heard another voice yell.
The sight of perhaps twenty men sprawled over the collapsible keel and clinging to its sides greeted me. "Stand up," I directed. "We need to trim the boat or we'll capsize for sure."
As the men struggled carefully to their feet I heard the belch of trapped air escaping from beneath the boat, and I could well understand their wish to drive off any further comers with oars and fists. I suppose a lot of that had occurred before I became aware, but our only chance now was to behave as civilized men instead of savages. "Splendid," I said. "There's the ticket! You, there -- move a bit toward the center. And you, change places with that heavier chap beside you." From my spot on the bow, I spied young Mr. Bride, the Marconi operator, back at the stern.
"I say, Sparks, were you able to raise that ship whose light we saw off to the southwest?"
"Not a word, sir," he called back. "The closest ship to us is the Carpathia. She's on her way as we speak."
"How long, do you think, before she reaches us?"
"Four hours, her captain said."
My heart sank. I felt I could barely last another ten minutes, soaked to the skin in that bitter cold and balancing on a bobbing cork in the dark, but I pulled myself together and infused my voice with hearty cheer. "That's no time at all! Hang on, lads. It will fly by in the blink of an eye."
About this time, a man came paddling up whom I recognized as one of the assistant bakers, a Mr. Joughin. He took it with good grace when I told him the best we could offer was the opportunity to cling to the side of the boat and keep his head and shoulders partly out of the water, although I did note to myself that several of the men already atop the boat looked so poorly that there might be room quite soon. Although he later denied it, I suspect he'd had quite a lot to drink that night, for I could smell a whiff of strong spirits over the dank odor of the seawater and the ice, and he seemed quite content to tread water until his turn came.
By this time, the cries of those in the water had died down somewhat, a fact for which I was intensely grateful, but it also troubled me. The cold was taking its victims even more rapidly than expected. How long could we hope to hold out? I knew that any of the lifeboats with the courage to return would wait for awhile for fear of being swamped in the rush, but would they wait too long?
I heard a faint voice come out of the darkness. "Have you room for two more?" I looked to see a familiar pair of heads, one dark, one light, approaching, still swimming linked arm in arm. The two of them looked a bit worse for wear, and once they had come close enough for me to make out details in the starlight I saw that the manservant had a scrape on his cheek as if he'd collided with a piece of dislodged wreckage, but they were alive, and that lifted my spirits.
"Ahoy, Mr. Ribeiro," I replied. "We'll bring you aboard as soon as we've trimmed ourselves out a bit. Until then you may hold onto the side." I directed them to the side opposite the baker. "Try to get as much of your body out of the water as you can. You really should have worn your life vest, sir."
He gave me a look. "If I had, I'd be floating right properly back among the rest. I'll take my chances here, thank you."
Time behaves oddly in a crisis, stretching out and speeding up, depending, so I do not know how long those two were in the water, only that they were the last to leave it, even after we'd brought the baker aboard. Sometime during that eternity of waiting, I heard young Bride call from the stern, "I'm afraid we have another man dead back here, Mr. Lightoller."
"Lower him off, then." I turned to the two still in the water. "One of you two may come up now."
Ribeiro lost no time. "You, Galwyn."
"But sir," the man protested, letting out a little cough, "we dare not risk losing y--"
"That's an order," Ribeiro snapped, in a tone that sounded almost military. Then his voice gentled. "Go on, old friend. Up you get."
The valet looked unhappy, but he did as he was told, climbing stiffly up onto the keel, where he stood shivering and staring nervously at his companion in the water. For a man his size, his weight had shifted the boat surprisingly little. I thought it over for a moment and made my decision. "I think it would be all right if you came up too, Mr. Ribeiro, as long as you're careful while you do it."
He gave me a nod of gratitude. "I won't say no to that, Mr. Lightoller. This water is damned cold."
He came aboard, as slick as an otter slithering up a river bank and carefully stood up. Then his face broke into a rueful smile, almost on the verge of chuckling to himself. I gave him a puzzled look. He seemed utterly miserable and bedraggled, soaked to the skin, his long hair frozen into little tips of ice. I saw one of his ears poking through the wet strands, the tip of it not rounded as a normal man's but with a gentle point like that of an elm leaf. The poor chap was deformed, for all his good looks and wealth, and I thought to myself there was no such thing as perfection in this world. Surely there was nothing about our situation to provoke amusement. "What?" I asked him.
"You see, Lightoller?" he said. "Here we are in the middle of the dark Atlantic with the water a scant few inches from our shoes. Our prospects for rescue before we succumb to the cold and the sea are exceedingly slim, yet this is what men will do to prolong the inevitable. We will fight, claw our way up over our fellows, for even a few extra moments of breath. I imagine those poor beggars back there," he jerked his chin back in the direction of the mass of people in the water, which had mercifully grown quiet by now, "felt the same way about it."
"You have a point, sir," I told him, and returned the smile. It was either that or weep.
As the night progressed, the sea, which had been like glass, began to pick up into swells, along with the wind. The best I could do was keep an eye out for each approaching wave, yelling, "Lean right," and "lean left!" as they came in. Against the wind there was no protection, other than the shelter of our massed bodies. The Engelhardt had cork flotation compartments, but I greatly feared they had been damaged during the plunge from the roof of the officers' quarters, and it seemed, to me at least, she sank lower and lower until each incoming swell splashed our knees with spray.
Although subsequent history tells me that it was only about two and a half hours from the time the Titanic sank until the first fingers of dawn lit the eastern sky, to me it seemed like an eternity. The faint sliver of a new moon had risen over the horizon, and Venus, the Morning Star, hung beside it, brighter than all the others.
I saw Ribeiro look to the east and nudge his manservant, who had begun to shiver slightly, although the two of them stood close together, sharing the warmth of their bodies. "Look, old friend," he said, pointing at the silver crescent. "Don't lose hope."
Then he stiffened to attention and peered off into the dawn. "I think help is at hand."
I looked too and made out faint lights on the southeastern horizon. "It's the Carpathia -- she's here!" I feared, though, that it would be quite some time before she discovered our tiny raft. Did we have that long?
"No -- closer still," Ribeiro said. "Blow your whistle, Mr. Lightoller!"
How he picked out that dark boat against dark water in the twilight gloom, I will ever know, but I strained my eyes and saw what he did. It was Seaman Clench in Lifeboat 12. I pulled out my officer's whistle and blew for all I was worth. Soon they were at our side, and I transferred my men, just about done for, into the boat's remaining empty seats beside the women.
This left the boat dangerously overloaded, with some seventy-five people aboard, and slowly we began to make our way to the Carpathia, about four miles distant. A kind lady had lent me her cloak, which I accepted gratefully, for I was soaked to the skin and half frozen. Her young daughter sat at my feet gazing up at me in wide-eyed hero-worship that warmed my heart if not my body as I worked the tiller. In the brightening dawn it seemed that we sailed through an arctic wonderland, with the sky turning all shades of pink from mauve to salmon and the newly-revealed bergs glinting like diamonds as the rising sun struck them.
Ours was the last lifeboat to reach the Carpathia, and none too soon, for the sea picked up in earnest then, sending at least two waves crashing over our bows and threatening to swamp us. The captain swung the bow of his ship around to help us, and we moved into its lee, safe at last to be hauled up by rope ladder and bosun's chair.
I remained behind to oversee the unloading of the last survivor and watch as Captain Rostron brought Titanic's lifeboats aboard and stowed them on the deck. And so it must have been past 8:30 when I entered the dining saloon and spied Ribeiro and his manservant sitting on a bench against the wall, waiting patiently for a steward to see to their wet clothing.
Ribeiro hailed me down. "How many, Mr. Lightoller? How many saved?"
I shook my head. "We haven't taken an accurate count as yet, but Captain Rostron tells me it's slightly over seven hundred."
Just then, Mr. Ismay, ashen faced and silent, was ushered past by the Carpathia's doctor, who was muttering something about sedation. From the grim set of Ribeiro's lips, I could see the same thought had crossed his mind as troubled mine: the man whose business decisions had ensured that there were not enough lifeboats for all aboard had managed to find a seat in one himself.
Again, I shook my head. The Titanic's skipper had not been among the saved, nor had I expected him to be.
"What about Mr. Andrews?" he continued, referring to the Titanic's young designer, along on the maiden voyage to work out any remaining kinks.
"One of the stewards tells me he saw him last in the First Class reading room. He didn't even make a try for it. I imagine the loss of his unsinkable ship hit him hard."
"It hits us all hard when that in which we place our trust fails," he said. Just then, his valet broke out into a fit of coughing, and Ribeiro calmly removed his jacket and set it about the man's shoulders, turning back to me in just his shirtsleeves. "She was a thing of beauty, Mr. Lightoller, as are so many works of the hand. But it is a mistake to put too much faith in works of the hand, or in any kind of technology. I've seen too many fall into that trap before."
He paused and tapped his right bicep, and through the soaked linen I could make out the ghost of a strange dark mark. "Here is where you can put your trust: in the strength of human flesh and the resilience of our spirit. That is what got us through last night, not cunningly wrought metal nor Mr. Ismay's unsinkable ship. We'd all do well to remember it."
"Hear, hear," muttered his valet. "It's what's brought us this far."
One of Carpathia's stewards arrived then with blankets and most-welcome cups of coffee, and I went on about my business.
Three days later, as the Carpathia steamed into New York, a spring thunderstorm greeted us, lighting the evening sky about the Hudson with flashes of lighting and wetting the crowds waiting on the docks. The authorities, mindful of the privacy of the survivors and their waiting families, had blocked the general public from the pier.
I stood at the rail watching the passengers disembark, some to joyous reunions, others to tears and embraces in honor of those who did not walk beside them down the gangway.
I saw a pale-haired young man flanked by an equally young woman, both standing quietly but peering anxiously at the crowd of survivors. When Ribeiro and his valet started down, this woman, no more than a girl, really, broke free and ran towards him, her hat and hairpins pulling from her head and leaving her dark hair streaming out behind her in the drizzle. Ribeiro brightened at the sight of her and, leaving his man behind, dodged his way through the departing passengers with the grace of a dancer.
Much to my surprise, for I had rather assumed that Ribeiro and his manservant had a particular friendship and were neither of them the marrying sort, he and the lady met at the foot of the gangway in an embrace that lasted far longer than decorum allowed. By this time, Mr. Galwyn and the girl's pale-haired companion had caught up, and I saw the two of them greet with a hearty clap on the shoulder. Then the four of them turned and left, tall heads above the crowd, and I saw them no more.
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