Sunday 8 April
Titanic was going down, sinking into the depths of the North Atlantic Ocean. The unsinkable ship was in fact, sinkable and utterly defeated by nature in the form of an iceberg. Henry stood motionless, perfectly still for what seemed the longest time. He watched as panicked passengers were desperately trying to board half-filled lifeboats before they were lowered to the ocean. Chaos ensued, but he noticed how the passengers were still trying to maintain their dignity. No one wanted to admit that there would be lives lost this night; no one wanted to hear how the crew had been ordered to lock passengers below to prevent a flood of people attempting to get to lifeboats; no one wanted to admit that the unsinkable Titanic was damaged beyond salvage and that they had very little time left before the ocean claimed her.
He was jolted out of wonderment by Nancy.
‘Have you seen Reggie? Henry, have you seen Reggie? I can’t find him.’ She was distraught.
‘No. I lost sight of you all coming up the stairs. I thought he was with you.’
‘He was, he had hold of my hand, and then he wasn’t there. And I can’t find him. I have to find him. I’m not leaving this ship until I do.’
‘Nancy,’ Henry needed to calm her, ‘if you stay onboard, you’ll likely not get on a lifeboat. You need to get to the lifeboat. Reggie made me promise below that I’d keep you and the children safe. Get to a lifeboat.’
‘Not without Reggie,’ she was hysterical.
‘If you don’t, you’ll all die. I’ll not have that on my conscience.’ Henry ushered the woman and her children to the nearest lifeboat. It was about to descend, half-empty.
‘Woman and children,’ Henry called out to the crewman beginning to winch the boat below. ‘Woman and children. STOP.’
He looked at Henry, unsure of the truth of the boy’s claim. Upon seeing Nancy, Elizabeth, and James, he ceased and ushered them onboard.
‘You too, boy,’ said the crewman. He pushed Henry towards the lifeboat.
‘But, my friend, her husband, the children’s father, he’s out there somewhere,’ Henry argued.
‘Lad, if you don’t go now, the boat will be inundated with less desirables trying to get to safety. It won’t withstand that, and you’ll all likely perish. I’ve no doubt your friend will have made it to another boat. Now get aboard.’
There was no time to put up a fight, despite Nancy’s hysterical cries to find Reggie. Henry knew the man would be lost. He was not on another boat. Women and children first, men left waiting on the sinking vessel.
Henry helped row the lifeboat away from Titanic. It seemed to take an eternity to reach what the crewman aboard the lifeboat described as an optimal safe distance. Henry wasn’t sure what that really was. However, according to the crewman, they were far enough away to avoid being sucked under by the ship as it fell to the ocean bed beneath. But they were not far enough away to prevent seeing and hearing the event.
‘The hull had sustained major damage,’ started the crewman, ‘and five of the sixteen watertight compartments have flooded. She’s only capable of staying afloat if she’s sustained damage to four of them.’
She was going under fast now, and the sight was nothing short of horrific. With the bow surely completely waterlogged, it pulled the ship under, leaving the stern almost vertical in the air. Henry gasped when he realised that he could see the three propellers of Titanic in the air and well out of water. But it was not the sight that would leave him permanently traumatised, rather the sound. The metal screamed beneath the weight of the flooded compartments and the now, unsupported, almost vertical stern. Screaming, groaning, agonised metal that could be heard so far away was not something that he would forget easily. Nor would the screams of those unlucky enough to still be onboard her.
From the relative safety of the lifeboat, the survivors with Henry watched as those who were unable to cling to Titanic any longer, fell from her stern into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. A woman behind him screamed.
‘Don’t worry, ma’am,’ the crewman calmly spoke, ‘they won’t survive long in water this cold. Hypothermia will take them quick.’
His words, thought Henry, were not at all comforting.
* * * * *
‘And you know the rest, of course,’ he said to his granddaughter. She nodded.
‘You were rescued by the Carpathia, and taken to New York. Seven hundred and ten survivors, one thousand five hundred and fourteen lost at sea, and only three hundred and thirty three of those fifteen hundred were retrieved and buried. The world’s largest peacetime maritime disaster,’ Charlotte filled in the numbers for the awestruck audience in Henry’s room.
‘And I can’t get out of my head, even after all this time, the screaming of the metal when she broke apart. It was unlike anything I’d heard before or I’ve heard since. An unnatural sound.’ He covered his ears with his arthritic hands, hoping that today would be the day that the screaming stopped.