Titanic survivor recalls “one long continuous wailing chant” as passengers drowned

Julian Fellowes’ mini-series Titanic concludes tomorrow night on ITV1, and in it, we’ll see which of the characters we’ve followed in the previous three episodes make it off the ship alive…

But today in the Sun, there are extracts from a book written by real-life Titanic survivor John Thayer, which reveals in harrowing detail how those who couldn’t get into a lifeboat desperately screamed for help as the ship sank and they went to a watery grave.

John, who was just 17 years old when the ship sank – he’d been a first-class passenger along with his parents – wrote his memoirs about the fatal night soon after the tragedy, but the book remained undiscovered until 28 years later, after John committed suicide.

Entitled ‘A Survivor’s Tale’ the book has now been adapted by David Lowe and published by Thornwillow, priced at £25…

And here is how the book details what happened after the collision with the iceberg, and later, the frantic cries of the passengers as the ship sank…

Sunday, April 14th, dawned bright and clear.

It looked as if we were in for another very pleasant day.

After dinner I put on an overcoat and took a few turns around the deck. It had become very much colder. It was a brilliant, starry night.

There was no moon and I have never seen the stars shine brighter; they appeared to stand right out of the sky, sparkling like cut diamonds.

I have spent much time on the ocean, yet I have never seen the sea smoother than it was that night.

It was like a mill-pond, and just as innocent-looking, as the great ship quietly rippled through it.

It was a fine night for sleeping, and with the day’s air and exercise, I was sleepy.
I wound my watch — it was 11:45pm — and was just about to step into bed when I seemed to sway slightly.

I immediately realised the ship had veered to port as though she had been gently pushed. If I had had a brimful glass of water in my hand not a drop would have been spilled, the shock was so slight.

Almost instantaneously the engines stopped. The sudden quiet was startling and disturbing. Like the subdued quiet in a sleeping car, at a stop, after a continuous run.
We did not know it at the moment, but we learned afterward that the iceberg had ripped open probably four of her larger forward compartments on the starboard side.

We saw, as they passed, Mr Ismay, Mr Andrews, and some of the ship’s officers.
Mr Andrews told us he did not give the ship much over an hour to live. We could hardly believe it. We proceeded to the deck below.

The extract continues…

It was now about 2:15am. We could see the water creeping up the deck, as the ship was going down by the head at a pretty fast rate.

As the water gained headway along the deck, the crowd gradually moved with it, always pushing toward the floating stern and keeping in from the rail of the ship as far as they could.

We were a mass of hopeless, dazed humanity, attempting, as the Almighty and Nature made us, to keep our final breath until the last possible moment.
The stars were brilliant and the water oily.

Occasionally there had been a muffled thud or deadened explosion within the ship.
It was like standing under a steel railway bridge while an express train passes overhead, mingled with the noise of a pressed steel factory and wholesale breakage of china.

Ten seconds later, I sat on the rail. I faced out, and with a push of my arms and hands, jumped into the water as far out from the ship as I could.

The cold was terrific. The shock of the water took the breath out of my lungs. Down and down I went, spinning in all directions.

Swimming as hard as I could in the direction which I thought to be away from the ship, I finally came up with my lungs bursting, but not having taken in any water.

The ship was in front of me, forty yards away. How long I had been swimming under water, I don’t know. Perhaps a minute or less. Incidentally, my watch stopped at 2.22am.

The ship appeared to be surrounded with a glare, and stood out in the night as though she were on fire. I watched her.

I don’t know why I didn’t keep swimming away. Fascinated, I seemed tied to the spot.
Already I was tired out with the cold and struggling, although the life preserver held my head and shoulders above the water.

Suddenly the whole superstructure of the ship appeared to split.

The second funnel, large enough for two automobiles to pass through abreast, seemed to be lifted off, emitting a cloud of sparks. It looked as if it would fall on top of me. It missed me by only twenty or thirty feet.

The suction of it drew me down and down, struggling and swimming, practically spent.
My hand came against something smooth and firm with a rounded shape.

It was the cork fender of one of the collapsible lifeboats, which was floating in the water, bottom side up. About four or five men were clinging to her bottom.

I pulled myself up as far as I could. We could see groups of the almost fifteen hundred people still aboard, clinging in clusters or bunches, like swarming bees; only to fall in masses, pairs or singly.

We had an oar on our overturned boat. In spite of several men working it, we were being gradually sucked in toward the great pivoting mass.

We were right underneath the three enormous propellers. For an instant, I thought they were sure to come right down on top of us.

Then, she slid quietly away from us into the sea. There was no final apparent suction and practically no wreckage that we could see.

Probably a minute passed with almost dead silence and quiet.

Then an individual call for help, from here, from there; gradually swelling into a composite volume of one long continuous wailing chant, from the fifteen hundred in the water all around us.

It sounded like locusts on a mid-summer night, in the woods in Pennsylvania. This terrible continuing cry lasted for twenty or thirty minutes, gradually dying away, as one after another could no longer withstand the cold and exposure.

During this time more and more were trying to get aboard the bottom of our overturned boat. We helped them on until we were packed like sardines. Then out of self-preservation, we had to turn some away.

There were finally twenty-eight of us altogether on board. We were standing, sitting, kneeling, lying, in all conceivable positions. We prayed and sang hymns.

Sure enough, shortly before four o’clock we saw the mast head light of the Carpathia come over the horizon and creep toward us.

Even through my numbness I began to realise that I was saved – that I would live.
The Carpathia was about eight hundred yards away, picking up the people from one boat after another.
.
It was almost 7.30am. We were the last boat to be gathered in…

You can purchase the book by visiting thornwillow.com/site/libretto4paper.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.