Lifeboat No. 8 (Excerpt)

When the Titanic started going down, which passengers would make it off alive? An untold tale of love, loss, and survival, with a new afterword from the author.

  1. Mr. and Mrs. Emil Taussig came onto the deck just as Captain Smith and several officers were preparing Lifeboat No. 8. Even then, the white-bearded, patriarchal captain cut a reassuring figure, no small feat for a beaten man whose heart was breaking.

    Mr. Taussig gently guided his eighteen-year-old daughter, Ruth, to the Captain, who held out his hand and helped her into the empty boat. Ruth perched on one of the four wooden seats. She looked very small and very frightened. Then Captain Edwards extended his hand to Mrs. Taussig.

    “I will not go,” she told him, “if my husband cannot accompany me.”

    “I cannot allow it,” the Captain said.

    “But my husband is an expert oarsman,” she insisted.

    “I would be happy to volunteer my services,” said Mr. Taussig.

    “No,” said the captain. “It’s women and children only.”

    Tillie Taussig held tight to her husband’s arm. He insisted she get into the boat, but she refused. She held on to him even as he backed away and joined the other men who had helped their wives and children into lifeboats, kissed them, held them, and walked away. For men traveling in first class, such gallantry was instinctive, a function of habit and breeding so ingrained as to render unnecessary the command “All men stand back from the boats.” Still, the irony of his particular situation would not have been lost on Mr. Taussig, who was a major shareholder in the company that built some of the Titanic’s lifeboats and had long campaigned to increase the number of lifeboats a ship must carry.

    Two stewards broke through the crowd and rushed up to Lifeboat No. 8.

    “Do you know how to row?” the Captain asked them.

    “Yes, sir,” they said.

    “Then get in,” said the Captain.

    “My husband can row!” Tillie Taussig called out. But Captain Smith ignored her.

    ***

    Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus came up to the boat deck warmly dressed: she in a fur coat, he in a fur-lined overcoat in which he carried a silver flask and a silver bottle containing smelling salts. They had been married for thirty-one years, during which time Mr. Straus and his brother had bought Macy’s department store and turned it into a retail phenomenon. Isidor Straus was the third-richest man on board, his wealth surpassed only by that of John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim.

    Mr. Straus was sixty-seven; Ida, his wife, was sixty-one—considerable ages at a time when life expectancy was 48.4 years for men and 51.8 for women. Throughout their married life, they had been inseparable. Ida Straus was fiercely dedicated to her husband and their six children, so much so that in his will Mr. Straus had urged her to use her inheritance to “be a little selfish.”

    They had come on deck with their maid, Ellen Bird, a sedate thirty-one-year-old Londoner recently hired when Ida Straus had been unable to find a French maid to bring back to the States.

    As they walked up to Lifeboat No. 8, Mrs. Straus told Ellen to step in. “I will follow you,” she said.

    When Ellen was safely seated, an officer took Mrs. Straus’s arm and helped her onto the gunwale. There, she paused; a moment later she stepped back onto the deck and went to her husband’s side. “We have been living together for many years,” she said. “Where you go, I go.”

    Isidor Straus implored his wife to get into the boat. Another first-class passenger, Hugh Woolner, begged her to change her mind. They could not persuade her. “I will not leave him,” she said.

    Woolner took Mr. Straus aside. “I’m sure nobody would object,” he told him, “to an old gentleman like you getting in.”

    Isidor Straus shook his head. “I will not go before the other men,” he said.

    Did Isidor and Ida Straus comprehend what was at stake? It seems they did, for a moment later Mrs. Straus walked back to Lifeboat No. 8, removed her fur coat, and handed it to her maid, Ellen. “Wear this,” she said. “It will be cold in the lifeboat, and I won’t be needing it anymore.”

    One by one, they entered Lifeboat No. 8. Ella White was lifted in, with extreme care, by two young sailors who took pains not to bump her sprained ankle and then tucked a thick woolen blanket around her. Caroline Bonnell was escorted by Washington Augustus Roebling II, the thirty-one-year-old grandson of the architect of the Brooklyn Bridge. Roebling was one of the men in first class who adhered to the custom of the day, which required gentlemen to make themselves responsible for “unprotected ladies.”

    After placing Caroline in the boat, he guided Natalie Wick and her mother, Mollie, to where Captain Smith was standing, ready to help them in. Mrs. Wick gazed at her husband. Roebling put an arm around her. “You will be back with us on the ship again soon,” he said.

    ***

    Miss Constance Willard was twenty years old and traveling alone. She stepped up to the side of Lifeboat No. 8 and froze, too anxious to take another step. A young officer cajoled her until the ship’s second officer, Charles Lightoller, cut him off. Like every officer on board, Lightoller had assumed that the iceberg had caused minimal damage. But he had lately taken a break from boarding the lifeboats and seen seawater moving inexorably up the steps that led to the crew’s quarters. Now he snapped, “Don’t waste time. Let her go if she won’t get in!”

    Constance ran from them, but she returned moments later, chastened and ready to get on board. The young officer smiled reassuringly. “Be brave,” he told her.

    It was 12:45 a.m. In the wireless shack, Harold Bride suggested that Jack Phillips stop sending the distress call CQD and switch to the new, internationally agreed-upon call. “It may be your last chance to send it,” he said. He was joking, and Jack was still laughing as his fingers tapped out the first SOS call ever sent.

    ***

    Preview more of Elizabeth Kaye's Lifeboat No. 8.

Originally published in Byliner, March 2012

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