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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As the waters gradually stilled, they left “a circle of people and wreckage about half a mile across.” Those with sufficient presence of mind looked toward land in the hope of seeing rescue ships steaming out from Queenstown, Ireland. There was nothing. They could only cling to wreckage and hope to be picked up by one of the lifeboats that had got away from the ship. In some cases they had most to fear from each other. Matt Freeman, a British boxing champion, had gashed his head open when he dived into the sea, then struggled with five other men for a hold on a barrel that clearly could not support them all. In desperation he let go but managed to grab the keel of an upturned lifeboat. Having jumped into the water, Theodate Pope found herself “being washed and whirled up against wood.” Opening her eyes, she saw through the green water that she was being dashed against the keel of a lifeboat. Something hit her hard on the head, but, although half-stunned, she surfaced at last. “People all around me were fighting, striking and struggling,” she later recalled. Then a man “insane with fright” made “a sudden jump and landed clean on my shoulders, believing I could support him.” He had no life jacket, and his weight was pushing her back under. Somehow she found the strength to say “Oh, please don’t” before the waters closed over her. Feeling her sink, the man let go. Theodate surfaced again and looked around for Edwin Friend. Instead she saw close by her an elderly man, another man with a bloody gash in his forehead, and a third clasping a small tin tank as a float. Seeing an oar floating nearby, she pushed one end toward the old man and took hold of the other. Moments later she lost consciousness.


Charlotte Pye had lost her infant daughter, Marjorie, when she fell from her lifeboat into the water. When Pye finally surfaced, all she could see were bodies “and those that were living were screaming and shouting, wanting to be saved.” She drifted on with the tide, washing up against an upturned boat. A collapsible boat rowed toward them. Pye dimly heard someone shout, “Take the lady on, for God’s sake, she’s almost gone.” For a moment, the occupants debated whether to help her. Then, covered in grease and soot, she was pulled aboard.


After Margaret Cox, a Canadian, tossed her baby son, Desmond, into a lifeboat, she was pushed in after him. The boat was lowered, but when Cox tried to pick up the boy, people shouted, “We don’t know if it’s your baby or not.” Cox insisted he was. Sitting in the lifeboat, clutching Desmond to her, she tried not to look at “the people that swam up and begged to be taken in.” The boat was bursting with people “packed one on top of the other.” She felt herself go “a little mad.”


As time passed, the tightly packed mass of people and wreckage began to drift apart with the current. People were becoming paralyzed with cold—the water temperature was about 52 degrees Fahrenheit—and their hands were losing their grip on pieces of wreckage. Many of the ship’s lifeboats were now full to capacity, and their traumatized occupants were terrified of taking on more people and capsizing. Yet many passengers and crew did their best to help one another. Charles Lauriat and James Brooks climbed onto a collapsible lifeboat. Taking out penknives, they “went at a kind of can-opening operation” to try and raise the boat’s canvas sides and lash them in place. Because terrified, half-drowned people were hanging to the rail to which the canvas was attached, it was impossible to lift. Lauriat tried to persuade the people to let go and hold onto life ropes instead. But they were convinced he meant to “push them off.” Lauriat later wrote that he had never heard “a more distressing cry of despair” than when he appealed to them to relinquish the rail for a few moments.


Finally, having succeeded in raising the canvas sides, Lauriat and others picked up more people, loading the boat “until it sunk flush with the water.” When there were “about as many in our boat as we ought to take,” Lauriat heard a woman say, “in just as natural a tone of voice as you would ask for another slice of bread and butter, ‘Oh, won’t you take me next? You know I can’t swim.’” He peered into the debris around the boat to see “a woman’s head, with a piece of wreckage under her chin and with her hair streaming out. She was so jammed in she couldn’t even get her arms out, and with it all she had a half smile on her face and was placidly chewing gum.” Lauriat told her “that if she’d keep cool,” he’d come for her. She replied that “it was not at all necessary, just hand her an oar and she’d hang on.” He managed to maneuver around to her and pull her in. They started to row for the shore, making for the lighthouse on the Old Head of Kinsale [more than ten miles away]. After about a quarter of a mile Lauriat was astonished to see a lone man floating around by himself. He yelled when he saw them. Although the boat, with some 32 crammed in, was full, Lauriat felt “you couldn’t go off and leave that one more soul floating around.” He picked up the man.

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