The great RMS Titanic disaster, even though it occurred over one hundred years ago, has retained a fascination for many of us. Last Sunday I spent a great portion of the afternoon reading The Truth About The Titanic, by survivor Colonel Archibald Gracie IV.
Col. Gracie was one of the last people to exit the sinking vessel after having assisted others into life boats. Then, after being plunged into the icy water, Gracie found his way to a makeshift raft (actually an overturned life boat) occupied by one J. B. Thayer, Jr.
Together they pulled aboard several other "half-dead men." They did that until the small raft was in danger of itself sinking and they were knee-deep in water. Then he and Thayer were forced to keep away other desperate men who would have caused the raft to sink and drown everyone.
In a news story in the 4/19/12 Washington Times Gracie characterized his rescue as "nothing short of miraculous." His book not only expounds on that theme and his adventure, but also provides many details surrounding the entire event.
Sadly, Gracie never recovered from the exposure he suffered that fateful night. He was diabetic and in steadily declining health afterwards, living only seven months more. His last words were reported as, "We must get them into the boats. We must get them all into the boats."
I gleaned the following tidbits from his book, which he had finished and placed into the hands of his publishers right before his final illness.
The morning of the disaster began with Col. Gracie exercising and then taking a swim followed by what he called "a hearty breakfast." Then he followed up with an onboard church service about which he wrote:
I remember how much I was impressed with the "Prayer for those at Sea," also the words of the hymn, which we sang, No. 418 of the Hymnal. About a fortnight later, when I next heard it sung, I was in the little church at Smithtown, Long Island, attending the memorial service in honor of my old friend and fellow member of the Union Club, James Clinch Smith. To his sister, who sat next to me in the pew, I called attention to the fact that it was the last hymn we sang on this Sunday morning on board the Titanic....
What a remarkable coincidence that at the first and last ship's service on board the Titanic, the hymn we sang began with these impressive lines:
O God our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home.
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home.
(For what it's worth, Col. Gracie refuted the popular notion that the ship band played Nearer My God To Thee as Titanic sank; he said if they had they would have been stopped, physically if necessary, because it would have created a panic - the opposite of what they were attempting to do.)
Another thing that Col. Gracie found more than "mere coincidence" was the fact he was constrained to get a few hours of restful sleep which enabled him to endure his ordeal.
Of the evening of the disaster he wrote:
My stay in the smoking-room on this particular evening for the first time was short, and I retired early with my cabin steward Cullen's promise to awaken me betimes next morning to get ready for the engagements I had made before breakfast for the game of racquets, work in the gymnasium and the swim that was to follow.
I cannot regard it as a mere coincidence that on this particular Sunday night I was thus prompted to retire early for nearly three hours of invigorating sleep, whereas an accident occurring at midnight of any of the four preceding days would have found me mentally and physically tired. That I was thus strengthened for the terrible ordeal, better even than had I been forewarned of it, I regard on the contrary as the first provision for my safety (answering the constant prayers of those at home), made by the guardian angel to whose care I was entrusted during the series of miraculous escapes presently to be recorded.
My holding on to the iron railing just when I did prevented my being knocked unconscious. I pulled myself over on the roof on my stomach, but before I could get to my feet I was in a whirlpool of water, swirling round and round, as I still tried to cling to the railing as the ship plunged to the depths below. Down, down, I went: it seemed a great distance. There was a very noticeable pressure upon my ears, though there must have been plenty of air that the ship carried down with it. When under water I retained, as it appears, a sense of general direction, and, as soon as I could do so, swam away from the starboard side of the ship, as I knew my life depended upon it.
I swam with all my strength, and I seemed endowed with an extra supply for the occasion. I was incited to desperate effort by the thought of boiling water, or steam, from the expected explosion of the ship's boilers, and that I would be scalded to death, like the sailors of whom I had read in the account of the British battle-ship Victoria sunk in collision with Camperdown in the Mediterranean in 1893. Second Officer Lightoller told me he also had the same idea, and that if the fires had not been drawn the boilers would explode and the water become boiling hot. As a consequence, the plunge in the icy water produced no sense of coldness whatever, and I had no thought of cold until later on when I climbed on the bottom of the upturned boat.
My being drawn down by suction to a greater depth was undoubtedly checked to some degree by the life-preserver which I wore, but it is to the buoyancy of the water, caused by the volume of air rising from the sinking ship, that I attributed the assistance which enabled me to strike out and swim faster and further under water than I ever did before. I held my breath for what seemed an interminable time until I could scarcely stand it any longer, but I congratulated myself then and there that not one drop of sea-water was allowed to enter my mouth.
With renewed determination and set jaws, I swam on. Just at the moment I thought that for lack of breath I would have to give in, I seemed to have been provided with a second wind, and it was just then that the thought that this was my last moment came upon me. I wanted to convey the news of how I died to my loved ones at home. As I swam beneath the surface of the ocean, I prayed that my spirit could go to them and say, "Good-bye, until we meet again in heaven."
In this connection, the thought was in my mind of a well authenticated experience of mental telepathy that occurred to a member of my wife's family. Here in my case was a similar experience of a shipwrecked loved one, and I thought if I prayed hard enough that this, my last wish to communicate with my wife and daughter, might be granted.Telepathy? Answered prayer? Coincidence? Is there a difference or are these things only open to interpretation by various worldviews? Col. Gracie seemed to be of religious convictions considered what happened next an answer to his prayer:
To what extent my prayer was answered let Mrs. Gracie describe in her own written words, as follows: "I was in my room at my sister's house, where I was visiting, in New York. After retiring, being unable to rest I questioned myself several times over, wondering what it was that prevented the customary long and peaceful slumber, lately enjoyed. 'What is the matter?' I uttered. A voice in reply seemed to say, 'On your knees and pray.' Instantly, I literally obeyed with my prayer book in my hand, which by chance opened at the prayer 'For those at Sea.' The thought then flashed through my mind, 'Archie is praying for me.' I continued wide awake until a little before five o'clock a.m., by the watch that lay beside me. About 7 a. m. I dozed a while and then got up to dress for breakfast. At 8 o'clock my sister, Mrs. Dalliba Dutton, came softly to the door, newspaper in hand, to gently break the tragic news that the Titanic had sunk, and showed me the list of only twenty names saved, headed with 'Colonel Archibald Butt'; but my husband's name was not included. My head sank in her protecting arms as I murmured helplessly, 'He is all I have in the whole world.' I could only pray for strength, and later in the day, believing myself a widow, I wrote to my daughter, who was in the care of our housekeeper and servants in our Washington home, 'Cannot you see your father in his tenderness for women and children, helping them all, and then going down with the ship? If he has gone, I will not live long, but I would not have him take a boat.'"
There it is, the highlights at least of Col. Archibald Gracie's amazing voyage. I would recommend Gracie's book as a very good way to spend a lazy afternoon. I don't pretend to know exactly how one should it interpret all this. It does seem to have something of the miraculous (as in, way out of the ordinary) about it.