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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Many owed their lives to crew members. First Officer Arthur Jones managed to transfer some of the passengers from his heavily loaded lifeboat into another boat and ordered both back to pick up more survivors. Captain Turner was saved by a crewman. As the waters had risen around him on the ship’s bridge, he had felt his way along the mast and jumped, managing to clear the radio wires and swim to the surface. He clung first to an oar, then a chair. But as the hours passed, he found himself “constantly fighting off attacks by seagulls.” Weakening from cold and exposure, he “flung up a gold-braided arm” to attract attention. Jack Roper, a crewman, saw him and helped support him in the water until a rescue craft picked him up. Turner apparently remarked, “What bad luck. . . . What have I done to deserve this?” Margaret Mackworth was dimly aware of people “praying aloud in a curious, unemotional monotone” and shouting for help “in the same slow, impersonal way, calling, ‘Bo-at . . . boat . . . bo-at.’” She tried swimming but gave up after only a few strokes, reluctant to abandon the board she still held onto. Bellboy Robert Clark survived by clinging for four hours to bits of wreckage. At last the exhausted lad was picked up by a boat but was almost instantly ordered out again to make space for women. Chilled and frightened, he was allowed to hang onto the side. Radio Officer Bob Leith, who had leaped into one lifeboat from another to escape the ship’s falling stacks, gazed toward the land that seemed so ludicrously close. Where were the ships that should have been responding to his SOS call? He could see nothing.


U.S. Consul Wesley Frost was working quietly in his office above O’Reilly’s bar in Queenstown, when his agitated vice consul, Lewis Thompson, came running up the stairs and told Frost that there was “a wildfire rumor about town that the Lusitania had been attacked.” Moving quickly to the window, the two men saw “the harbor’s ‘mosquito fleet’ of tugs, tenders and trawlers, some two dozen in all, begin to steam past the town toward the harbor-mouth.” Frost immediately rang the Cunard office, which “admitted that it appeared probable that the vessel was sunk or sinking.” Now thoroughly alarmed, Frost telephoned British naval headquarters. The lieutenant who answered told him somberly, “It’s true. We fear she has gone.” Throughout the town the cry “the Lusy’s gone” went up.


The fishing boat Peel 12 was among the first to reach the scene. Her crew of seven had just landed a catch of 800 mackerel when they saw the Lusitaniasinking about three miles southeast of them. They met the first lifeboats some 400 yards from where the ship had gone down. Elizabeth Duckworth, a 52-yearold widow from Taftville, Connecticut, was resolutely determined to save lives, and was rowing hard in one of the lifeboats. The fishermen helped the battered, exhausted survivors aboard. As she climbed in, Duckworth was surprised to spot another lifeboat “tossing about in the water” with only three aboard. A man stood up and shouted that he and his two companions were the only survivors out of an entire boatload. He begged for help to row back and rescue “some of the drowning.” The captain of the fishing boat refused, saying he could not spare the men. Duckworth was appalled. Before anyone could stop her, the wiry widow leaped the gap between the Peel 12 and the lifeboat and seized an oar. She and her three male companions rescued “about forty of those struggling in the water” and brought them back to the Peel 12. The fishermen cheered as they helped her on board.


Meanwhile Lauriat and James Brooks, in a lifeboat laden with people, had struggled to propel the craft toward the Peel 12. Margaret Gwyer, still thoroughly coated in oil and soot, was one of the passengers. As the lifeboat approached the fishing boat, she was ecstatic to see the tall figure of her husband standing at the rail with “a perfectly blank expression on his face.” At first he did not recognize her.


Lauriat landed his catch of 33 survivors on the Peel 12 with enormous relief. Although “it was slippery with fish scales and the usual dirt of fishermen, the deck of that boat under our feet felt as good as the front hall of our own homes,” he would later write. The fishermen rushed to provide the shivering, stricken people with what help they could. They improvised bandages and pulled woolen blankets from their bunks. Lauriat gave his sweater to a near-naked young man and his jacket to a woman clad only in a nightgown. The crew brewed hot tea. When that ran out, they passed around mugs of hot water. Sips from the boat’s one bottle of whiskey were rationed out to those most in need.

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