Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic

Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic

Natasha sheldon - August 21, 2017

In its time, the Titanic was the largest ship on Earth. On April 10th, 1912, it set out from Southampton, the UK on its maiden voyage to New York. Titanic never arrived there. Instead, the so-called unsinkable ship ended its journey on the seabed off the coast of Newfoundland. Approximately 2202 crew and passengers were on board the doomed vessel. Only 700 or so survived. Each of their stories is an incredible testament to human endurance. But some, in particular, stand out. Here are just 10 of those Titanic tales.

Frank Prentice

Frank Prentice was the last of the surviving Titanic crew members to die, passing away peacefully on May 19th, 1982 at the age of 93. Seventy years earlier, he was one of the last people to escape the doomed liner alive. Twenty-three-year-old Prentice was an assistant storekeeper on Titanic. At the time of the collision, he was in the cabin he shared with five others, talking to one of his roommates. Prentice noticed Titanic had stopped. The only other strange thing that marked the moment was the smell of ice.

Prentice and his friends made for the deck and began to help load passengers into lifeboats. Finally, there were none left, and the small group faced the prospect of sinking with the ship. But they did not give up hope. As the stern rose upwards, in preparation for Titanic’s final descent beneath the waves, Prentice and his workmates sought sanctuary at the highest point on the poop deck. More and more people joined them as the stern became ever more vertical. So Prentice and his friends decided to take a chance and jump into the icy sea.

Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic
Frank Prentice. Google Images

The group fell 100 feet into the water, surrounded by the dead, the dying and those, like them who were struggling to stay alive. “I was lucky when I hit the water that I did not hit anything,” Prentice later recalled. His friend, Cyril Ricks, was not so fortunate. Unlike Prentice, he hit some of the wreckage and fell unconscious. Prentice stayed with him until he died. As he waited in the water, Prentice recalled hearing the band playing right up until the moment Titanic disappeared under the waves. Once Cyril too had gone, Prentice swam away.

After four hours in the water, the occupants of Lifeboat 4 pulled Prentice into the boat, half-frozen but still alive. He later put his survival down to his strong swimming skills and the fact he was physically fit. One month after his rescue, Prentice returned to the site of the sinking, this time on the Oceanic. He continued his maritime career on this ship right into the First World War. But when Prentice was assigned a place on the Olympic, the sister ship of Titanic, he decided it was time to join the army instead.

Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic
Olaus Jorgensen Abelseth on his wedding day. Google Images

Olaus Jorgensen Abelseth

Norwegian-born livestock farmer Olaus Abelseth had been visiting family in Norway. He was traveling back to his farm in South Dakota via the UK with a party of family and friends. All booked second-class passages on Titanic for the final leg of their journey. As soon as the boat hit the iceberg, the little party assembled on the poop deck. After seeing the women safely into a lifeboat, Abelseth, his cousin, and brother-in-law waited on the deck to see if they too could board a boat.

Suddenly, the men heard a call for sailors to help man one of the remaining, collapsible lifeboats. Not enough experienced crew members were available. Abelseth was on the point of volunteering, as he had six years of experience as a fisherman before leaving Norway. But he was anxious to ensure his relatives would be safe if he left them. “I was standing there, and I asked my brother-in-law if he could swim, and he said no.’ said Abelseth later. ” I asked my cousin if he could swim and he said no. ” So Abelseth elected to stay with them.

The men watched the sea coming closer as the bow of the ship went down. Then there was an explosion. “We could hear the popping and cracking, and the deck raised up and got so steep that the people could not stand on their feet on the deck,” said Abelseth. He and his companions clung to a lifeboat davit near the fourth funnel as they watched people lose their footing and slide down the deck into the water. When the water was just five feet away from them, they all decided to jump.

But, Abelseth lost his family. He remained in the water for twenty minutes before collapsible lifeboat A found him. For a while, he clung to the side of the boat before eventually dragging himself on board. While others rowed, Abelseth tried to revive a man. He managed to keep him alive until the Carpathia was in sight. Once home in South Dakota, Abelseth married, raised a family and continued to farm until his retirement in 1946.

Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic
Charles Joughin. Google Images

Charles Joughin

Charles Joughin was the chief baker on Titanic. At the time of the collision, Joughin was off duty. He was asleep in his cabin, which was next to the turbine engine on the port side of the ship when the impact with the iceberg woke him abruptly. At 12.15 am, Joughin began to prepare provisions for the lifeboats. Once this task was complete, the baker nipped back to his cabin for “a drink.” He then returned to the deck to assist the stewards in loading the women and children into lifeboats. This was no straightforward task as many women resisted believing they would be safer on board the distressed ship.

As a consequence, Joughin and his companions had to force many women into the lifeboats. As Joughin was not a seaman, he was not called upon to man any of the crafts. Left behind on Titanic with most of the other men, he returned to his cabin for another drink. It was then he came across seawater flooding the lower levels of the ship. Believing all the lifeboats to be gone, Joughin returned to the deck and began to throw deck chairs overboard to give himself and others something to cling to once they were in the water.

Joughlin then headed to a deck pantry for what he claimed was ‘a glass of water.” While there, he heard a booming crash and the sound of twisting metal. The ship was finally beginning to sink. Joughlin quickly left the pantry and joined a throng of people making for the poop deck. The ship lurched, throwing those in front of him to one side, allowing Joughlin to pass them and make it to the starboard hull where he hauled himself over the rails.

Joughlin balanced on the rails as the ship began to descend vertically. Once he hit the water, he avoided being dragged under by the pull of the ship and in fact barely wet his head. Joughin claimed he swam around for 2 hours before he came across the semi-submerged lifeboat under the charge of Officer Lightoller. There was no room for the baker, so he clung to the side until another boat rescued them. Joughlin survived his ordeal with nothing worse than swollen feet- probably because the alcohol in his system raised his body temperature.

Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic
Richard Norris Williams. Google Images

Richard Norris Williams

Twenty-one year old Richard Williams was traveling home to the USA with his father when the disaster struck Titanic. Williams was a promising tennis player who intended to participate in some tournaments before starting his studies at Harvard University. When the ship collided with the iceberg, Williams and his father immediately left their first-class stateroom to make their way to the deck. On the way, they came across a steward trying to free a panicking passenger from their cabin. Williams helped by breaking down the door. Amazingly, the steward threatened to report him for damaging White Star property!

Father and son did not seek or expect a place in the lifeboats. Instead, they wandered the decks, watching the lights from those departing into the distance. Once it became too cold, they took shelter in the ship’s gymnasium. But when the ship finally foundered, Williams and his father found themselves in the water. When the forward funnel collapsed into the sea, it crushed Williams senior. However, the wave created by the falling funnel saved his son, driving him towards collapsible lifeboat A.

The occupants of the boat hauled Williams Junior aboard. The crew had hastily launched it just as Titanic was sinking, so it was half full of water. Like the thirty other people in the vessel, Williams had to sit up to his waist in water. The cold was terrible, but Williams diverted himself by trying to communicate to a foreign gentleman how to knock a dent out of his hat. Eventually, the group was picked up by Officer Lowe’s boat. But by the time they reached the Carpathia, William’s health was so bad a doctor wanted to amputate both his legs.

Williams refused to agree to this. Once home, he exercised daily, and remarkably his legs began to recover. Not only did he regain full use of them, but he also entered Harvard as planned and continued with his tennis career. That very year, Richard Williams won the US mixed doubles title, followed in 1914 and 1916 by the men’s singles title. In 1920, he became one of the Wimbledon men’s doubles champions and in 1924 crowned his achievements by winning Olympic gold.

Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic
Rhona Abbot and her two sons. Google Images

Rhoda Abbott

With Richard Williams in Collapsible Lifeboat A, was Rhoda Abbott, the only woman left onboard Titanic at the end to survive in the water. Rhoda was on her way back to America. English born and bred, she had lived there since her youth. It was in America she met and married Stanton Abbott, a fellow ex-patriot, and the former US middleweight champion. Her two sons, Rossmore and Eugene, were also born and brought up there. She had only returned to England in 1911 because her marriage broke down. But her boys became homesick. So Rhoda booked passage on the Titanic to go home.

The family traveled in steerage. When disaster struck, Rhoda hustled her two sons towards the lifeboats. But she was shocked to discover the crew would not allow them to accompany her. At 16 and 13, the boys were no longer classed as children and so like the other men were obliged to stay behind. It was unthinkable for Rhoda to leave without her sons. So she opted to remain with them. As Titanic was about to sink, the family jumped from the deck into the sea.

Rhoda made it to Collapsible lifeboat A, but her two boys were lost almost as soon as the ship went down. Once on the Carpathia, Rhoda was reunited with Amy Stanley, a near neighbor in steerage. Shocked and grieving, Rhoda would talk only to Amy about her terrible loss. “The youngest went first then the other son went, ” Amy later recalled. “She [Rhoda] grew numb and cold and couldn’t remember when she got on the Carpathia. There was a piece of cork in her hair, and I managed to get a comb, and it took a long time, but finally, we got it out.”

Rhoda’s ordeal in the waterlogged lifeboat left her severely ill. She remained in her cot for the whole of the voyage back to New York and then spent two weeks in a hospital. For the rest of her life, she suffered chronic asthma. Rhoda did marry again, but after traveling back to England to settle her father in laws estate, Rhoda’s husband had a stroke. The couple could not return to the US. Once her husband died, the outbreak of World War II prevented Rhoda from returning home. She remained in the UK, alone and parted from her friends until her death in 1946.

Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic
Millvina Dean. Google Images

Eliza “Millvina” Dean

Millvina Dean was only two months old when she boarded Titanic with her parents and elder brother, Bertram. The family was emigrating to start a new life in Kansas, where her father hoped to open a tobacconist shop. The Deans’ were on Titanic purely by chance, having transferred from another ship after a coal shortage incapacitated it. Millvina Dean was the youngest passenger on Titanic– and the youngest person to survive.

On the night of the disaster, Millvina’s father felt the collision with the iceberg. He left the family’s cabin to investigate and quickly returned to tell his wife to dress the children and go up on deck. Millvina, her mother, and her brother were all allocated places in Lifeboat 10. Because of her father’s prompt action, the family was amongst the first third-class passengers to escape. But Mr. Dean was not allowed to join them. He did not survive the sinking, and his body was never found.

Eventually, the remains of the Dean family returned to England on board the Adriatic. Here, Millvina became a tiny celebrity, with first and second-class passengers queuing to hold her. Such was the demand to hold the baby that officers had to place a ten-minute restriction on each passenger. Once back in England, the family settled in Southampton, where Millvina and her brother were educated courtesy of various pension funds. But Millvina was unaware she had even been on Titanic until her mother remarried she was eight years old.

It was not until she reached her early seventies that Millvina became a Titanic celebrity. She was asked to contribute to various documentaries – even though she could not possibly have remembered that momentous night. Millvina did, h0wever, become very outspoken when the British TV series, Doctor Who, made an episode that recreated the Titanic voyage in space. Millvina objected as she felt turning the tragedy into entertainment trivialized her father’s death. She passed on in 2009, a few years short of her hundredth birthday- the last survivor of Titanic to die.

Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic
Howard Lowe. Google Images

Howard Lowe

Welshman Howard Lowe had been a sailor for 14 years by the time he was appointed an officer on Titanic. Lowe was off duty on the night of the sinking and had gone to bed early to catch up on much-needed rest. He was deeply asleep when in his words he was: awakened by hearing voices…and I realized there must be something the matter.” Lowe quickly dressed and went on deck to find the evacuation in full swing.

By now, the ship was ‘tipping by the bow” so Lowe began to help load and launch the lifeboats. So intent on his task was he that he ordered White Star chairman Joseph Ismay out of the way. “Do you want me to lower away quickly?” he asked Ismay, impatiently. “ You will have me drown the whole lot of them?!” Lowe was said to have fired his pistol during the panic, but witnesses at the inquiry said he never fired directly at anyone and his shots were only warning shots to restore order.

Once Lowe’s loading duties ended, he was placed in charge of Lifeboat 14. Charles Williams was the only male passenger allowed to join the women and children, as he was needed to row the boat. Once in the water, Lowe ordered a distance of 150 yards between the lifeboat and the doomed ship. He then ‘herded together’ five other boats and distributed his passengers amongst them. Then, he asked for volunteers and steered boat 14 back towards Titanic.

Lowe’s lifeboat was the only craft to return to the wreck site and search for survivors. On this first trip, Lowe picked up four men, one an Asian sailor. Lowe initially thought the man dead and couldn’t be bothered to check for life signs because of his ethnicity. But for some reason, he changed his mind. He had the man transferred to the lifeboat and once he had revived, took over the oars from one of the exhausted sailors and ‘worked like a hero.’

By Jove!” Lowe was heard to mutter to himself, “I’m ashamed of what I said about the little blighter. I’d save the likes o’ him six times over if I got the chance.”Lowe and his volunteers continued to return to the wreck site, even rigging up a sail to allow the lifeboat to travel at a greater speed- and to tow a distressed collapsible boat back to the Carpathia.

Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic
Harold Bride. Google Images

Harold Bride

Harold Bride was one of two Marconi wireless operators aboard Titanic, acting as assistant to the chief operator, Jack Philips. On the night of the sinking, Bride and Philips were just about to change over, when Captain Smith put his head around the door of the wireless room. ‘We’ve struck an iceberg,’ Bride recalled him saying, ‘and I’m having an inspection made to tell what it has done for us. You better get ready to send out a call for assistance. But don’t send it until I tell you.’

Ten minutes later, Bride and Philips were told to send out the international regulation call for help. But Bride recalled they weren’t too worried and made light of the situation. Bride even made a joke. Send SOS,” he told Philips, ‘’It’s the new call, and it may be your last chance to send it.’ However, they quickly realized the situation was no laughing matter. Bride spent the rest of the night relaying messages between Philips and Captain Smith, regarding the progress of the rescue ships.

Even when they were released from duty, the two operators continued at work. The pair only abandoned their posts when water surged into the wireless room, forcing the men to escape to the deck. Bride spotted a collapsible lifeboat and noticed some people were trying to launch it, so he went to help them. Suddenly, a large wave carried the boat and Bride into the sea. The wireless operator clung to an oarlock and found himself under the capsized lifeboat. But once others righted it, he was able to climb aboard.

The lifeboat held more men than it should and was unable to rescue any more of the multitudes in the water around them. From the safety of the boat, Bride watched the Titanic sink. “She was a beautiful sight then. Smoke and sparks were rushing out of her funnel,” he later recalled. “There must have been an explosion, but we heard none. We only saw the big stream of sparks. The ship was gradually turning on her nose, just like a duck does that goes down for a dive.”

By the time their boat reached the Carpathia, Bride was severely frozen and had crushed feet. But he was alive. Just as he was climbing on board, he saw Philips again: dead of cold and exposure. Bride always honored the memory of his colleague, whose dedication and bravery had continued to the end. Once on the Carpathia, Bride continued with his wireless work, tirelessly relaying names and personal messages to shore.

Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic
Charles Lightoller. Google Images

Charles Lightoller

Charles Lightoller had led an exciting life. By the time he was appointed the third officer on Titanic, he had been shipwrecked, caught in a fire and a cyclone at sea and even spent a brief time as a gold prospector and cowboy. So he took the sinking of an unsinkable ship in his stride. At 11:50 pm, just as he was drifting off to sleep, Lightoller was informed there was water in the mailroom. Dressing quickly, he made his way to the deck and began to supervise the port side lifeboats.

Although he did not expect Titanic to founder, as a veteran of a shipwreck, Lightoller knew the importance of evacuating the passengers as quickly as possible. Very soon, First officer Wilde had armed him with an empty pistol as a means of controlling the panicking crowds. Lightoller was reluctant to use it, but when a group of men tried to take over one of the lifeboats, he called their bluff with the unloaded gun. The men left the boat, and 36 women and children took their place. By 1.30 am, Lightoller had seen off six lifeboats.

By 2 am, only the collapsible boats were left. Lightoller now began to allow men to board as there were few women left. During the launch of collapsible lifeboat B, Lightoller was clawed overboard by a wave. He was sucked down and held against the grating of one of the ventilator shafts until the blast created by the hot ship hitting cold water sent him back to the surface. He narrowly missed being hit by the forward funnel and then joined 29 men, including Bride and Philips in the boat.

With Lightoller in charge, the people later transferred to lifeboat 12- the last boat to reach the Carpathia. Lightoller would not board the rescue ship until he had seen the others safely aboard- making him the last Titanic survivor to reach safety. In 1920, Lightoller retired and opened a boarding house with his wife. But his sea adventures were not yet over. Just before the outbreak of World war II, he used the family steamship to spy on the Germans for the British navy. That same boat, manned by Lightoller and his son, later helped rescue 130 men from the beaches of Dunkirk.

Survivor Stories: 10 Incredible Tales of People Who Escaped the Titanic
Annie Robinson. Google Images

Annie Robinson

Forty-year-old Annie Robinson was a stewardess on E deck of Titanic. After feeling the impact of the ship, she woke, dressed and on leaving her cabin, spotted water “within six steps of coming on to E deck.” Annie had already survived an impact with an iceberg on a previous ship, The Lake Champlain. But her experience on the Titanic was to scar her for the rest of her tragically short life- and ultimately end it.

The Captain hurried past and ordered Annie to put on her life jacket. Realizing things were dangerous, Annie turned her attention to safely evacuating all the ladies on her deck. She knocked on cabin doors and alerted the passengers, ensuring they made it safely to the lifeboats. In all, Annie rescued seven ladies, a maid, and a governess. Finally, she boarded lifeboat 11. She sailed away from the Titanic at 1.40 am, 45 minutes before the ship went down.

After the ordeal was over, Annie carried on working aboard ships. In 1913, she was a stewardess on the Galatea when the British king and queen were aboard. The royal couple apparently spent a long time in conversation with Annie about the disaster. But on October 9, 1914, Annie was traveling across the Atlantic again-this time as a passenger. She was on her way to Boston to visit her daughter, Gladys. The journey would probably have conjured bad memories in the best of circumstances. But then the ship hit very thick fog.

Witnesses say Annie became very anxious about this, while the sound of the foghorn “worked on her nerves.” She was said to be very afraid of another disaster. She was last seen in the main salon of the ship at 10.30 pm on a Friday night. The next day, she did not turn up to breakfast. Nor was she found onboard the ship. So terrified was Annie, of being involved in a third disaster that it seems she decided to end herself quickly by jumping into the ocean. Her body was never found.


Sources For Further Reading:

Insider – 43 Secrets You Never Knew About the Titanic and The People Aboard It

Wired – How to Escape a Sinking Ship (Like, Say, the Titanic)

National Post – How A Baker Survived the Titanic Sinking by Getting Really Drunk

New York Post – Forgotten Journal Reveals How Man Survived 1912 Disaster

The Independent – Curse of The Titanic: What Happened to Those Who Survived?

Encyclopedia Titanica – The Mystery of Rhoda Abbott Revealed

BBC News – Titanic: The Final Messages from A Stricken Ship

Get Surrey – The Rarely Told Story of Jack Phillips, The Titanic Hero from Surrey

All That’s Interesting – Charles Lightoller Survived the Titanic – Then Helped Others Survive Dunkirk

History Collection – Haunting Photographs and Quotes from Titanic Survivors

History Collection – The Heartbreaking Truth Behind the Iconic Death Scene of the Elderly Couple on ‘Titanic’

History Collection – The Haunting Last Messages from The Titanic

History Collection – 40 Facts about the Titanic They Definitely Didn’t Teach Us in the Movie

History Collection – 12 Famous People Who Didn’t Board the Titanic

History Collection – How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships

History Collection – This Ship Disaster was the Titanic of the 19th Century