Seattle Woman’s Great Aunt Faced Tough Decision On The Titanic

Dec 28, 2012

This past year has marked some big milestones. The 150th anniversary of the University of Washington, the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair. Charles Dickens would have been 200. 2012 also marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. A majority of the people who boarded the luxury ocean liner didn’t survive the trip. For some, the only thing separating survival and drowning was a split-second decision. Now, a century after the tragedy, a Seattle woman wonders what she would do if she had been in her relative’s shoes on the night of the sinking. Sarah Waller has the story.

A postcard image of the Titanic.
Credit Photo courtesy George Behe's collection

Kathleen Kemly grew up in the 60’s. Every year in school, all the kids had to learn about the Titanic. It was part history unit, part morality lesson. And to make the point dramatically, teachers always had students watch the 1950s film A Night To Remember.

Kemly: "I think they wanted to impress upon us the hubris of saying this is an unsinkable ship and how nothing is really impossible to destroy or happen."

Kathleen came home from school that day and told her that they were studying the Titanic.

Kemly: "She said, “Oh! Your great aunt was on it.” That’s when I found out I had a great aunt who was actually on the Titanic. Kind of gave me a whole new cred in the classroom."

Kathleen really wanted her Aunt Winnie to come talk to her second grade class. Winnie had been 8 years old when the Titanic sank – the same age as most of Kathleen’s classmates.

Kemly: "But, then we found out Aunt Winnie was quite shy and retiring and didn’t like to talk about it."

But, years later, Kathleen got a tape in the mail. It was a recording of Aunt Winnie telling her story. A cousin had embellished the tape with a soundtrack.

Kemly: "It came with the Titanic music in the background."

Winnie: "My father came to America from England about a year and a half before us. He sent for us, and we booked passage on the supposedly unsinkable Titanic…"

Kemly: "…It was really exciting to hear her voice and to think about all those years ago, how it must still be so vivid in her head."

Winnie: "The night of the tragedy, we retired early. Our cabin smelled of fresh paint, so mother left the door ajar."

And then, at 11:40pm…

Film Clip: (bell chiming) "We must be prepared to abandon ship. There must be no alarm and no panic."

Winnie was sound asleep in a second class cabin with her Mom and 2 year old sister. They didn’t feel the collision.

And then… Film Clip: (knocking)

Kemly: It’s the steward of the ship. And he stuck his head in and said...

Film Clip: "Everybody up!"

Kemly: "For God’s sake!"

Film Clip: "Captain’s orders."

Kemly: "Get going! We hit an iceberg. The boat is sinking… So, she gets Winnie and Phyllis Bundled up as well as she can, and they’re rushing out the door."

They hurried up five flights of stairs to reach an open-air deck. It was the first time they could see out over the water.

Kemly: "Winnie’s mom pushes her way to the edge of the deck and looks out. And what she sees is so frightening because the portholes that line the boat are slanting sickeningly into the water. There’s no doubt it’s going to go down. And the most scary thing that Jane sees is that there are only a few lifeboats left."

There were about 1,800 people still stranded on the Titanic. A crew member had already fired warning shots to keep several men from trying to climb into the boats. Winnie’s mom pushed her way to the closest one – number 11. It was almost full.

Kemly: "And the sailor stops her and says, 'We have room for the children only.'"

And then, Winnie’s mom was forced to make a decision.

Kemly: "And she says, 'No. We all go or we don’t go at all.'"

We all go, or we don’t go at all. She was risking the life of her children for the sake of the whole family.

Kemly: "It was kind of gutsy and on the surface maybe a little self-serving for her to say 'I’m going, too.' What’s brave in those circumstances? Is it being completely selfless and saying, 'Yes, just take my kids. Get off of here. I’ll wait?' Or is it to make sure you’re with them? I’m not sure what the right answer is."

But in those dark hours of night, almost everyone on the Titanic was forced to make huge decisions with no clear right answers. Decisions that would be life-changing. Life-ending.

Kemly: "The sailors making the decisions, they weren’t going anywhere. For them, it was just this terrible, urgent moment to have to tell people, 'You can live and you can’t.' That must have been terrible."

But, there they were. And the sailor who was loading life boat 11 had his own decision to make. Would he let Winnie’s mother into the full boat, or would he direct the whole family stay together on the Titanic? He tossed in Winnie. He threw in her 2-and-a-half-year-old sister. And then… he let their mother on.

Kemly: "And, as soon as she was on, the crew member said, 'That’s it. No more can get on this boat. Launch it.'"

Film Clip: "Lower away!"

Winnie: (music) "After we were lowered, they told us to row fast, away from the suction of the ship. Later we heard explosions and saw the lights of the ship going out and the cries of the people. I think my mother was very brave in keeping us together on that ship."

Winnie saw the stern of the Titanic rise up vertically into the night sky. And then, it was gone. Over 1,500 people, including mothers, fathers, and babies - whole families were left dying in the water. Winnie and her family were horrified. But alive. And, 100 years later, Kathleen still wonders whether it was right for Winnie’s mom to make that choice. To survive or sink together as a family.

Kathleen: "It’s scary to think that you might have to make a decision like that someday. I always wonder how I’d do. You never know. It’s never black and white. You never know what really the right answer is, and I think you can only go with what your gut instinct tells you to do at the time and hope that it’s right."

Aunt Winnie lived to be 95 years old – and was among the last five living Titanic survivors. I’m Sarah Waller reporting.

Kathleen Kemly is a Seattle children’s book illustrator. She’s currently working on a picture book about Aunt Winnie. Thanks to George Behe and the Titanic Historical Society for assistance with this story.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio