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The Titanic disaster still captivates us

Published April 14. 2012 09:01AM


The sinking of the Titanic is a story that has captivated people around the world for 100 years.

A century ago, persons were not that shocked by grim casualty numbers. A decade before the Titanic perished beneath the waves of the Atlantic, Mt. Pelee, the volcano that looms on the French Caribbean Island of Martinique, erupted and over 40,000 were killed.

But the thing that made the Titanic disaster so memorable was that it was hyped as being larger than life. Not only was it hailed as the greatest construction achievement in the history of mankind, but its passenger list for that maiden voyage read like a who's who of the world's rich and famous.

Millionaires John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim and Isidor Strauss were known throughout the Western world for their great wealth and prestige.

The English writer Osbert Sitwell saw April 15, 1912 as a prophetic event, calling the sinking "a symbol of the approaching fate of Western Civilization."

For those passengers able to escape the chaos on deck and make it into lifeboats, a long, scary night of bobbing in darkness on the open sea had just begun.

"Danger still confronted even those who were so fortunate as to be put aboard the lifeboats," a reporter stated. "Huge quantities of field ice covered the ocean, a wireless dispatch says, and in the darkness the crews had to guide their boats with the greatest care to prevent being jammed and overturned. The ice was so heavy that the lifeboats could not force their way through it and as a result, the boats became widely separated.

"The air was biting cold, and the chill that rose from the ice floes caused the passengers to hover close together to keep warm. All through the night the lifeboats bobbed helplessly between the shifting cakes of ice, while the survivors prayed for the dawn to come."

The youngest passenger of the ship's 705 survivors was 9-week old Millvina Dean who, with her parents and elder-brother Bertram, were emigrating to Wichita, Kansas where her father hoped to open a tobacco shop. The Deans were not supposed to be aboard the Titanic, but because of a coal strike, they were transferred to the ship and boarded on April 12 in Southampton, England.

The family was traveling in third class, or steerage, the cheapest ticket on the voyage. Actor Leonardo Di Caprio, in his starring role in the movie Titanic, gave us a hint of what life was like while traveling in steerage.

After the Titanic struck the iceberg, Millvina, her mother and brother were placed in Lifeboat 10, thus becoming among the first steerage passengers to escape the sinking ocean liner. Her father, however, was among the more than 1,500 passengers and crew members who went down with the ship.

The Dean survivors were all rescued and taken aboard the Adriatic, which answered the Titanic's distress call. Tiny Millvina soon became quite a celebrity on the rescue ship.

"(She) was the pet of the liner during the voyage, and so keen was the rivalry between women to nurse this lovable mite of humanity that one of the officers decreed that first and second class passengers might hold her in turn for no more than ten minutes," one observer noted.

The survivors arrived safely in New York City on April 18.

At first, Millvina's mother, wanted to go on to Kansas and fulfill her husband's wish of a new life in America. But with no husband and two small children to care for, she decided to go home.

After two weeks in a New York hospital, Millvina, her mother, and brother, returned to England aboard the Adriatic.

Millvina and her brother were raised and educated largely with pension funds from charity organizations dedicated to Titanic survivors. It was not until she was 8 years old, and her mother was planning to remarry, that Dean found out she had been a passenger on the Titanic.

Millvina never married. She worked for the British government during World War II by drawing maps. Later, she worked in the purchasing department of a Southampton engineering firm until she retired in 1972.

For years, Millvina avoided the spotlight, but in her later years, she enjoyed a level of fame from her association with the Titanic. She often attended Titanic related events and became in great demand to appear at conventions, exhibitions, in documentaries, radio and TV programs.

In 1996 she visited Belfast for the first time, as guest of honor for a Titanic Historical Society convention. In 1997 she was invited to travel aboard the QE2 to America to complete her family's voyage to Wichita, Kansas.

After a short illness, Millvina, the last survivor of the Titanic, died on May 31, 2009 at the age of 97.

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