This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Most people who boarded the luxury ocean liner didn’t survive the trip. For some, the only thing separating survival and drowning was a split-second decision.
Now, 100 years after the tragedy, a Seattle woman wonders what she would do if she had been in her relative's shoes on the night of the sinking.
Kathleen Kemly grew up in the '60s. Every year in school all the kids had to learn about the Titanic. It was part history unit, part morality lesson. “I think they wanted to impress upon us the hubris of saying this is an unsinkable ship and how nothing is really impossible to destroy,” Kathleen says.
Kathleen came home from school and told her mother they were studying the Titanic. That’s when her mom revealed a surprising family connection to the infamous sinking. “I found out I had a great aunt who was actually on the Titanic,” Kathleen says. “Kind of gave me a whole new cred in the classroom.”
Kathleen tried to get her Great Aunt Winnie to talk to her class. Winnie had been eight years old when the Titanic sank — the same age as most of Kathleen’s classmates. “But, then we found out Aunt Winnie was quite shy and retiring and didn’t like to talk about it,” Kathleen says.
But, years later, Kathleen got a tape in the mail. It was a recording of Aunt Winnie telling her story. She popped it into a tape player and a crackly voice filled the room: “My father came to America from England about a year and a half before us. He sent for us, and we booked passage on the supposedly unsinkable Titanic.”
“It was really exciting to hear her voice and to think about all those years ago, how it must still be so vivid in her head,” Kathleen remembers. Listening to that tape inspired Kathleen to begin researching and digging beyond the few familiar details of Aunt Winnie’s story that she had heard growing up.
In her research, Kathleen discovered that Winnie’s family wasn’t even supposed to be on the Titanic. Her mother had booked tickets on another ship. But that trip was canceled during a coal strike and Winnie’s mom was issued replacement tickets on the Titanic.
“She really wasn’t happy about that,” Kathleen says. “So she went down to the shipping office and said, ‘I want to be on a boat that was tried and tested and true.’ And they said. ‘No, no, no. Don’t worry. This will be great. This is a brand new ship. It’ll be wonderful. You’ll be fine.’”
The night of April 14, 1912, Winnie’s mother and two-year-old sister went to bed early. They left the door ajar because the fumes from the fresh paint made Winnie feel seasick. The family was sound asleep in their second-class cabin when, at 11:40 p.m., the Titanic shaved an iceberg in the north Atlantic.
Winnie and her slumbering family felt nothing.
A bit after midnight, a woman popped her head inside their room. She told Winnie’s mom that there had been an accident and that everyone should get up on deck. But Winnie’s mother wasn’t alarmed. She stayed in bed and didn’t wake her girls. She had no idea that the front of the boat had already filled with 25 feet of water. Or that the band was already playing as lifeboats were being lowered into the freezing Atlantic.
A Slow Start
“After a while, she decided to get up and just kind of took her time, fussin’ around,” Kathleen says. “She put on a skirt. But she still had her nightgown on and wasn’t really moving.”
Then, there was a loud knock on the door. It was the steward of the ship. He popped his head inside the door and was appalled to see Winnie’s mom still in her night clothes with both children fast asleep.
"For God's sake!" he cried. "Get up! Don't stop to dress. Just get your life belts on. The ship has struck an iceberg. It's sinking!"
Just A Few Life Boats Left
So, Winnie’s mother woke up her girls and bundled them up quickly. They hurried up five flights of stairs to reach the first open-air deck. Winnie’s mom pushed her way to the edge of the railing and looked out over the water.
“What she sees is so frightening because the portholes that line the boat are slanting sickeningly into the water,” Kathleen says. "And the water is so dark and so cold, and the night is so cold. That’s when she realizes this is serious and she has to get her family into a lifeboat as quickly as she can.”
But there was a problem. There were about 1,800 people still stranded on the Titanic. Many of the life boats had already left. The ones that remained were filling quickly. A crew member had already fired warning shots to keep several men from trying to climb into the boats.
Winnie’s Mom pushed her way to the closest life boat: number 11. It was almost full. As they approached, the sailor loading the boat stopped them. “We have room for the children only,” he said.
Winnie’s mom was forced to make a critical decision in that moment. She pulled her daughters close and, according to Kathleen, said, “No. We all go, or we don’t go at all.” She was risking the life of her children for the sake of the whole family.
“It was kind of gutsy and, on the surface, maybe a little self-serving for her to say ‘I’m going, too,’” Kathleen says. “What’s brave in those circumstances? Is it being completely selfless and saying, ‘Yes, just take my kids. Get them off of here. I’ll wait’? Or is it to make sure you’re with them. I’m not sure what the right answer is.”
But in those dark hours of night, almost everyone on the Titanic was forced to make huge decisions with no clear right answers. Decisions that would be life-changing. Life-ending. The sailors hadn’t woken up that morning thinking they would have to split families apart — decide who would live and who would drown.
“They weren’t going anywhere,” says Kathleen. “For them, it was just this terrible, urgent moment to have to tell people, ‘You can live and you can’t.’ That must have been terrible.”
We All Go, Or We Don’t Go At All
The sailor who was loading life boat 11 now had his own decision to make. Would he let Winnie’s mother into a life boat that was already filled beyond its tested capacity, or would he direct the whole family stay together on the Titanic?
He tossed in Winnie. He threw in her two-and-a-half-year-old sister. And then, finally, he let their mother on.
Kathleen reports, “As soon as she was on, the crew member said, ‘That’s it. No more can get on this boat. Launch it.'”
Life Boat Away
The crackly voice on Aunt Winnie’s tape continues, “After we were lowered, they told us to row fast, away from the suction of the ship. Later we heard explosions and saw the lights of the ship going out and the cries of the people.”
Winnie saw the stern of the Titanic rise up vertically into the night sky. And then, it was gone. Over 1,500 people, including mothers, fathers and babies — whole families were left dying in the freezing water. Winnie and her family were horrified. But alive. “I think my mother was very brave in keeping us together on that ship,” Winnie says.
What Would You Do?
Now, 100 years later, Kathleen still wonders whether it was right for Winnie’s mom to make that choice, to risk surviving or sinking together as a family. “It’s scary to think that you might have to make a decision like that someday,” she says. “I always wonder how I’d do. You never know. It’s never black and white. You never know what really the right answer is, and I think you can only go with what your gut instinct tells you to do at the time and hope that it’s right.”
Aunt Winnie lived to be 95 years old and was among the last five living Titanic survivors. Kathleen Kemly is a Seattle children’s book illustrator and is currently working on a picture book about Aunt Winnie.
Thanks to George Behe and the Titanic Historical Society for assistance with this story.