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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Seeing that the ship’s screw propellers and rudders were out of the water, some passengers tried to slide down wires and ropes. Many threw propriety to the winds and stripped down, believing their chances of survival would be better if they were wearing fewer clothes.


Charlotte Pye had grabbed her baby, Marjorie, and run onto the deck. She saw “women shouting and screaming and praying to be saved.” Again and again she was thrown off her feet by the list. A man came up to her and said, “Don’t cry. It’s quite all right,” to which the distraught mother replied, “No, it isn’t.” He promised to find her a life jacket. Then, failing to locate one, he gave her his own. As he tied it on her, Charlotte recognized him as the man who had paid her five dollars for a charity concert program the previous evening: American millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. Seeing how steeply the ship was now listing, he advised her to carry her baby in her arms. He then helped her toward a boat. The crew helped her climb in, then handed the child to her. Looking up, Charlotte thought that the Lusitania was “just about ready to roll on top of us.” She had “the terrible feeling that I’d have to get up and push her back.” Canadian nurse Alice Lines saw Vanderbilt with his valet, Ronald Denyer, by his side. She heard him say, “Find all the kiddies you can, boy.” The man rushed off immediately to collect the children, and as he brought them to Vanderbilt, the millionaire “dashed to the boats with two little ones in his arms at a time.” He looked as composed as if waiting for a train. According to the ship’s barber, Lott Gadd, Vanderbilt was “trying to put life jackets on women and children. The ship was going down fast. When the sea reached them, they were washed away. I never saw Vanderbilt after that. All I saw in the water was children everywhere.”


Theodate Pope, a spiritualist from Connecticut, and her colleague Edwin Friend decided to jump. They reached the port side and pushed their way toward the stern, “which was now uphill work.” Theodate’s maid, Emily Robinson, joined them, “her habitual smile” frozen on her face. Friend found life jackets for them all. They “could now see the grey hull and knew it was time to jump.” Theodate begged him to go first, which he did. He surfaced, and she saw “a pleasant smile of encouragement on his face.” Theodate stepped forward, slipped, but then found a foothold on a roll of canvas. With a patrician instruction to her maid—“Come, Robinson”—she pushed off from the canvas and leaped into the sea.


Bellboy Ben Holton had tried to help launch lifeboats but gave up in despair. Looking toward the bridge, he saw a wretched-looking Captain Turner “watching the ship go down.” The boy slipped through a mass of “pushing and struggling” people, hopped on the rail under the bridge on the port side, and took a header into the Atlantic Ocean. It was “very, very cold.”


German submarine Capt. Walther Schwieger’s war diary described the death of the Lusitania: 2.10 p.m. Great confusion on board; boats are cleared away and some are lowered into the water. Apparently considerable panic; several boats, fully laden, are hurriedly lowered, bow or stern first and are swamped at once. Because of the list fewer boats can be cleared away on the port side. 


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