Nor did Preston substantiate German claims that the ship was carrying Canadian troops and was thus a legitimate target. But she does present evidence that the liner was transporting munitions and weapons. That’s significant because British authorities played down that fact at the official inquiry, presumably out of concern that the public would assume that explodingmunitions contributed to the tragedy. In fact, a technical study commissioned by Preston found that the ship foundered so quickly—in just 18 minutes—because the torpedo struck it just below the bridge, causing catastrophic structural failure.
But for all its political intrigue and controversy, the story’s enduring significance, Preston says, lies in the remarkable courage of the stricken liner’s passengers. In a collection of unpublished papers, she tracked one woman’s quest to learn the fate of her young son, a passenger. The hundreds of letters the woman received cast new light on the Lusitania’s final moments and show, says Preston, “how despite the confusion and danger, people instinctively helped one another regardless of nationality, gender or age. They prove the resilience of the human spirit in the worst of times.”
The 785-foot-long Lusitania, whose home port was Liverpool, was put into service in September 1907. Her last voyage began May 1, 1915, when she steamed out of New York. The reader should be warned that the following exclusive excerpt from Preston’s book contains graphic descriptions of the violence that befell passengers. The incident occurred some ten miles off the coast of Ireland. German U-20 submarine Capt. Walther Schwieger, 2,300 feet from the ship, gave the order to fire at 2:10 p.m., local time:
Just ten minutes after the torpedo struck, Lusitania’s captain, William Turner, knew he could do nothing to save his ship. With water already lapping over the liner’s bows, he told Staff Capt. John Anderson to lower the lifeboats into the water. But the listing to starboard made launching boats from the port side virtually impossible, since they were “all swinging into the ship.” Seamen and passengers struggled to push the lifeboats out over the rail, but their desperate efforts produced catastrophic results. Third Officer Albert Bestic appealed at the top of his voice to men in the crowd pressing around him to help him heave the No. 2 boat, loaded with women and children, over the side. Hard as they tried, they did not have the strength to shift its more than two tons of weight. Bestic watched helplessly as the boat slammed against the superstructure, crushing people as it went. Even when the boats were successfully pushed over the rail, they bumped down the ship’s side, where rivets, protruding nearly two inches, snagged them. At each bump and jolt people spilled like rag dolls into the water below.