Over 100 years after the RMS Titanic met its demise on April 15, 1912, the story of the tragic wreck through Titanic survivor accounts continues to haunt and mesmerize people worldwide. Out of over 2,200 passengers, approximately only 700 people survived to share their stories. Many Titanic survivor stories have been lost to the passage of time. Some survivors were hesitant to share the harrowing details of this experience, never speaking publicly about the sinking of the Titanic. Others went on to share their Titanic sinking stories and rescue stories through interviews, memoirs, and speaking engagements.
These firsthand accounts talk about the chaos, the anxiety, the horror, the items that were lost, and the strange beauty of one of the most luxurious ocean liners that had ever been seen slowly sinking into the water. In the wreck and its aftermath, families were torn apart, great loves were lost, and a tremendous amount of life was sacrificed. These accounts bring us back to that terrible and fateful night, all those years ago.
Separated from his wife, Michel Navratil decided to run off with their two- and four-year-old sons and take them to America to start a new life. He bought second-class tickets for the Titanic and traveled under the alias Louis M. Hoffman.
After the ship struck the iceberg, Navratil regretted the terrible surprise that awaited their mother. One of his sons, Michael J., remembered his father's final words:
My child, when your mother comes for you, as she surely will, tell her that I loved her dearly and still do. Tell her I expected her to follow us, so that we might all live happily together in the peace and freedom of the New World.
Because the young boys only spoke French and had traveled under an alias without their mother's knowledge, it took her a month to find them. They waited unclaimed in New York until their mother recognized their picture in the newspaper and hurriedly sailed across the Atlantic to retrieve her sons.
Finnish newlyweds Elin and Pekko Hakkarainen boarded the Titanic to start a new life together in America. Elin spoke of the fun they had as third class passengers: "After a couple of days at sea we settled into a routine: attending church services after breakfast, strolling the decks, and during the evening playing games in the third-class general room."
On the night of April 14, the couple heard a suspicious scraping sound. Pekko went to go see what happened, and Elin went back to sleep. When she awoke and tried to get out of bed, the cabin was tilted at an angle. Her husband was still gone.
At that point, other passengers were awake and milling around the hallways. Elin's husband was up on the deck, but all of the third class passengers were locked below. She says, "After a few moments, I grabbed my purse and life jacket and ran out to the passageway. The door was locked! All of the doors were locked."
Eventually she was allowed up top and made her way onto a lifeboat.
We rowed away quickly, watching our ship slide beneath the surface of the water. The screams of those in the water were horrible — I remember calling over and over, "Pekko, Pekko, I am here; come this way." It was cold on the lifeboat, and I wasn’t wearing warm clothes. I didn’t know if I was falling asleep or freezing to death, but I drifted into unconsciousness.
Soon after, it was daylight, and we could see a ship in the distance — we would be rescued… and made warm. Once aboard the Carpathia, the passengers and crew did their best to console us. We were given clothes, food, and hot coffee. But with all we were given, I was still lacking. I slowly realized the last words I might ever hear from my husband were, "I’m going to see what has happened." I remember standing at the railing for hours, looking out to the open sea and hoping upon hope that I would discover just one more lifeboat.
Pekko did not survive, and Elin never saw her husband again.
Helen Churchill Candee was a feminist and single woman traveling on the Titanic alone. At age 53, she was "so attractive that at least a half dozen men in first class, including Colonel Archibald Gracie, seemed inclined to 'protect' her." She later wrote with respect about the workers who dutifully gave their lives:
A group of stokers [steam engine workers] fleeing the water-filled decks below appeared. Each face reflected the sight he had seen, the sight of coming death. Each knew what the passengers did not know... All of a sudden, the junior officer who led them gave a short, "Halt!" The men did as they were told, turned around and went back down below – to their deaths. I looked with profound admiration at the descending column of men, who could courageously relinquish their life."
Annie McGowan, 15 at the time, was traveling with her aunt from Ireland to New York. She gave her first interview of the tragedy at age 86: "Women wouldn't leave their husbands. They were screaming, and I could hear gunshots in the background. Apparently, some of the men had tried to dress like women in order to be rescued, and they were shot."
She recalls men begging to get in her own lifeboat. They said: "Let me in or I'll tip the whole lifeboat. Of course, we had to let him in."