In a new book on the 1915 sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania, historian Diana Preston presents fresh findings about the atrocity and draws on recently discovered interviews with survivors to bring the terrible human drama to life

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Ogden Hammond, a former U.S. diplomat from Hoboken, New Jersey, and his wife, Mary, were among a frightened group seeking temporary sanctuary high above the water when a petty officer told Mrs. Hammond to get into a lifeboat. She refused to be parted from her husband. Seeing that there was space for them both, they climbed in. According to Ogden Hammond, “The boat was about half filled, about 35 people in it. They started to lower the boat, and the men at the bow let the tackle slip.” Hammond, perched in the bow of the boat, grabbed at the speeding rope falls [block and tackle] used to hoist and lower the boats, losing “all the skin off my right hand.” The bow dropped but “the stern tackle held, and everybody fell out of that boat,” some 60 feet above the water. The lifeboat then broke free, crashing on top of the people struggling in the water below. Ogden never saw his wife again.


On the starboard side, lifeboats were swinging crazily away from the ship. Some of the more agile passengers jumped seven or eight feet to get into them. Frantic passengers hindered the crew manning the rope falls. There was no public-address system. The officers shouting out orders could barely be heard over the din of wood scraping against metal and the cries and shouts of frightened passengers. Able Seaman Leslie Morton rushed to lower a full lifeboat. He grabbed the afterboat fall while another seaman operated the forward fall. They succeeded in lowering the boat to the water. But because the Lusitania was still plowing through the sea, the boat immediately fell back, coming up alongside the listing ship directly beneath the next lifeboat being lowered. Morton could only watch aghast as the boat full of people broke free and dropped 30 feet onto the first boat. Morton heard “a gradual crescendo of noise as the hundreds and hundreds of people began to realize that, not only was she going down very fast but in all probability too fast for them all to get away.” It was “a horrible and bizarre orchestra of death.”


James Brooks, a passenger from Bridgeport, Connecticut, was also unnerved by what he had seen, especially the people who had tumbled out of the boats “bobbing for a mile back.” Seeing that the water was almost up to the Boat Deck, he helped some 20 or 30 women clinging to the rail into a boat and jumped in after them. The tackle, fall and snubbing chain were still attached, and he looked around desperately for a hammer to release the boat. Finding none, he and a crewman “both used our fists” but could make no impression. He heard “a crushing sound of wood” and saw that “the boat would never get away.” He and the sailor both jumped and began swimming.


Looking down the starboard deck, Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat saw that “wild confusion had broken loose.” Boat No. 7, filled with women and children, was still attached to the ship. He jumped in and tried to free the after falls. At the forward falls a steward was “bravely cutting away at the thick ropes with a pocket knife.” Lauriat grimly wished the man had an ax. He tried to go to his aid, “but it was impossible to climb through that boatload of people, mixed up as they were with oars, boat hooks, kegs of water, rope ladders, sails, and God knows what.” Looking up at the tremendous smokestack hanging out over them as the ship listed even farther only added to the terror. Lauriat pleaded with the boat’s occupants to jump, “but truly they were petrified.” Lauriat gave up and jumped himself. Looking back, he saw the lifeboat dragged under. He heard the choking cries of its occupants as the waters closed over them.


As the ship continued to list, some of those still trapped on board began to panic. Lucy and Harold Taylor were standing at the rail, near a lifeboat loaded with women. “I won’t go, I won’t!” Lucy Taylor was screaming. Her husband extricated himself from her embrace, kissed her and dropped her into the boat. As it pulled away she could see him waving to her; she waved back as he went down with the ship.


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