New Delhi, April 13: Disaster brings people together with the spectre of shared horror and memories. The sinking of the Titanic April 15, 1912 still connects the descendants of victims and survivors 100 years on, says British journalist, researcher and writer Andrew Wilson.
‘I think the families and friends of the survivors are still moved by the disaster. During my research, I came across a survivor, Jack Thayer’s grandson Robert Macguire, who was working in London. It was extraordinary to discover that he had married a descendant of a Titanic survivor,’ Andrew Wilson told IANS in an interview.
In an e-mail interview from London, Wilson said ‘neither of them knew they had relatives on the Titanic until years after they were married’.
Wilson has authored a new book, ‘Shadow of the Titanic: Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived (Simon & Schuster)’. He digs up unusual stories of survivors.
One of them is survivor Madeleine Force Astor, a millionaire whose post-Titanic life was stranger than fiction. ‘The life of Madeleine Force Astor reads like something that could have been written by a romantic novelist, perhaps even by fellow Titanic survivor and writer May Futrelle,’ Wilson said.
She lost her husband aboard the Titanic on her way home from her honeymoon and was expecting a child. The tragedy scarred her life.
‘Who could believe that she could be a bride, a widow, an heiress and a mother all in a single year…And throw away the Astor fortune to marry a childhood sweetheart, an Italian boxer, later?’ Wilson said. Descendant Jackie Astor refuses to discuss the Titanic for it is still ‘clouded in sadness’.
The British passenger liner RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic region after running into an ice berg on its maiden voyage from Southamptom in England to New York city, killing 1,514 of the 2,224 people on board. The Titanic tragedy was said to be the worst and most expensive in the world’s maritime history.
Wilson said ‘the liner was built at a cost of $7,500,000′.
A veteran journalist, he said he tracked down the family members and friends using tried and tested – old-fashioned – journalistic methods.
‘The first step is to always check the telephone directory. If that does not work, there are other legal ways to track people down. I would often write a letter or an e-mail to the person explaining the project,’ he said.
Wilson said he had focussed on what were the most fascinating stories of survivors. ‘One of the chapters in the book deals with the dark side of survival. It tells the story of Jack Thayer, who was 17 when he travelled on board the Titanic,’ he said.
‘He lost his father in the disaster, but his mother survived. He waited until the last moment before jumping off the ship and miraculously, after being sucked under, surfaced and swam to the lifeboat. He went on to live a successful and happy life, working as a banker in Philadelphia, until his own son was shot down over the Pacific in 1943,’ Wilson said.
The thought of his son being shot down over the water triggered memories of the awful night on the Titanic, Wilson said.
‘Then his own mother died April 15, 1944 – on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. In 1945, at the age of 50, he drove to downtown Philadelphia and slashed his wrists and throat. Thayer was one of the 10 Titanic survivors who committed suicide,’ he said.
Wilson said the Titanic had received a number of ice warnings but these had been largely ignored.
‘Immediately after the disaster, laws were written so it became compulsory to provide more then adequate lifeboats on an ocean going vessel. Now, we have a radar and whole lot of sophisticated technology that prevents disasters like the Titanic,’ Wilson said.
But human error can always be a factor.
‘The Titanic disaster should show us – and the shipping and cruise industry – that no vessel should ever be labelled unsinkable,’ said Wilson, also the author of ‘Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith’ and ‘Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex’.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)