A Survivor’s Tale: The Sinking of the S.S. Titanic

Monday, 16 April, 2012

Thanks to his extraordinary ability as a swimmer, John B. Thayer survived the sinking of the Titanic. After being picked up by the Carpathia and brought to safety, the Philadelphia student put pen to paper and devoted his account of the tragedy to his father, who’d gone down with the ship. Originally intended only for his family and friends, Thayer’s account is now available from Thornwillow in an edition limited to 5,000 copies. One moment, Thayer is sipping a pre-bedtime whiskey in the family cabin on board the luxury liner; the next, he’s clinging to an upturned lifeboat in the icy Atlantic, fighting for his life. Snippet:

“Suddenly the whole superstructure of the ship appeared to split, well forward to midship, and blow or buckle upwards. The second funnel, large enough for two automobiles to pass through abreast, seemed to be lifted off, emitting a cloud of sparks. It looked as if it would fall on top of me. It missed me by only 20 or 30 feet. The suction of it drew me down and down, struggling and swimming, practically spent.

John B. Thayer As I finally came to the surface I put my hand over my head, in order to push away any obstruction. My hand came against something smooth and firm with rounded shape. I looked up and realized that it was the cork fender of one of the collapsible lifeboats, which was floating in the water bottom-side up. About four or five men were clinging to her bottom. I pulled myself up as far as I could, almost exhausted, but could not get my legs up. I asked them to give me a hand up, which they readily did.

Sitting on my haunches and holding on for dear life, I was again facing the Titanic.

It seemed as though hours had passed since I left the ship; yet it was probably not more than four minutes, if that long. There was the gigantic mass, about 50 or 60 yards away. The forward motion had stopped. She was pivoting on a point just abaft of midship. Her stern was gradually rising into the air, seemingly in no hurry, just slowly and deliberately. The last funnel was about on the surface of the water. It was the dummy funnel, and I do not believe it fell.

Her deck was turned slightly toward us. We could see groups of the almost 1,500 people still aboard, clinging in clusters or bunches, like swarming bees; only to fall in masses, pairs or singly, as the great after part of the ship, 250 feet of it, rose into the sky, till it reached a 65- or 70-degree angle.

Here it seemed to pause, and just hung, for what felt like minutes. Gradually she turned her deck away from us, as though to hide from our sight the awful spectacle.

We had an oar on our overturned boat. In spite of several men working it, amid our cries and prayers, we were being gradually sucked in toward the great pivoting mass. I looked upwards — we were right underneath the three enormous propellers.

For an instant, I thought they were sure to come right down on top of us. Then, with the deadened noise of the bursting of her last few gallant bulkheads, she slid quietly away from us into the sea.

There was no final apparent suction, and practically no wreckage that we could see.

I don’t remember all the wild talk and calls that were going on on our boat, but there was one concerted sigh or sob as she went from view.

Probably a minute passed with almost dead silence and quiet. Then an individual call for help, from here, from there; gradually swelling into a composite volume of one long continuous wailing chant, from the 1,500 in the water all around us. It sounded like locusts on a midsummer night, in the woods in Pennsylvania.

This terrible continuing cry lasted for 20 or 30 minutes, gradually dying away, as one after another could no longer withstand the cold and exposure.”

Recalling his rescue, Thayer concludes his memoir thus: “It was just about this time that the edge of the sun came above the horizon. Then, to feel its glowing warmth, which we had never expected to see again, was something never to be forgotten. Even through my numbness I began to realize that I was saved — that I would live.”

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