/ Language: English / Genre:love_history

Lifeboat No. 8

Elizabeth Kaye

When the Titanic started sinking, who would make it off alive? The two cousins who had been so eager to see their first iceberg? The maid who desperately tried to escape with the baby in her care? The young newlyweds who’d booked passage despite warnings not to? One hundred years after that disastrous and emblematic voyage, Elizabeth Kaye reveals the extraordinary, little-known story behind one of the first lifeboats to leave the doomed ship. Told in real time and in the actual voices of survivors, Kaye’s poignant, pulse-pounding narrative includes the story of the Countess of Rothes, the wealthiest woman on the ship, bound for California, where she and her husband planned to start an orange farm. It was the Countess, dressed in ermine and pearls, who took command of Lifeboat No. 8, rowing for hours through the black and icy water. In the words of one of the Titanic’s crew, she was “more of a man than any we have on board.” At the heart of Kaye’s tale is a budding romance between the Countess’s maid, Roberta Maioni, and the Titanic’s valiant wireless operator, Jack Phillips. While Roberta made it safely onto Lifeboat No. 8, holding nothing but a photo of Jack she had run back to her cabin to retrieve, he remained on the ship, where he would send out the world’s first SOS signal. But would it be received in time to save his life? Surviving that fateful night in the North Atlantic was not the end of the saga for those aboard Lifeboat No 8. Kaye reveals what happened to each passenger and crew member and how the legendary maritime disaster haunted them forever. A century later, we’re still captivated by the Titanic and its passengers. With its skillful use of survivors’ letters, diaries, and testimonies, “Lifeboat No. 8” adds a dramatic new chapter to the ongoing story.


An Untold Tale of Love, Loss, and Surviving the Titanic

By Elizabeth Kaye


At 11:40 on Sunday night, April 14, 1912, most of the 1,317 passengers aboard RMS Titanic had gone to bed, seeking warmth and refuge from the frigid night air. But several stalwart gentlemen retreated to the first-class smoking room, where the walls were paneled in lustrous mahogany inlaid with mother-of-pearl. There, sipping whiskey and playing cards, they were exemplars of a confident class lately freed from Victorian rectitude to luxuriate in Edwardian pleasures.

Suddenly they felt a heaving motion. Looking out the starboard windows, they saw something remarkable: an iceberg towering some ninety feet high. Yet, strange as it was to encounter any object on the open sea, they were neither startled nor impressed nor fazed. They watched the berg disinterestedly until the ship glided by it. Then, without comment, they resumed their game.

Did they have a moment of fear? No, they did not. For them, as for most men and women journeying in first class, the Titanic was a microcosm of life as they knew it: opulent and privileged and amply fortified against the possibility of disaster.

One player, pointing to his glass of whiskey, turned to a young steward standing nearby. “Run along the deck,” he instructed, “and see if any ice has come aboard. I would like some for this.”

At 11:45, in her lavish cabin on C Deck, Mrs. Ella White felt an odd sensation as she sat on the edge of her Queen Anne bed. She could not discern what it was, but she thought, It’s as though the ship is rolling over a thousand marbles.

In Cabin B-77, Lucy Noël Martha, Countess of Rothes, was awakened by a slight jarring followed by a distant grating sound. At thirty-three years old, with a kindly expression and manner and lucent dark eyes, the Countess was the ship’s most distinguished passenger, for amid the Titanic’s renowned, moneyed travelers, only the Countess was renowned and moneyed and titled.

She turned on the light and glanced at the gold-and-silver clock on her dressing table. The time was 11:46 p.m. She sat up in bed, struck by the sudden stillness. Looking over at the other bed in her Regency suite, she saw that her cousin, Gladys Cherry, had just opened her eyes.

“Do you not think it strange,” asked the Countess, “that the engines have stopped?”

When the ship abruptly ceased its forward motion, Sarah Daniels awoke with a start and sprang out of bed. A buxom twenty-five-year-old, she was the personal maid to Mrs. Hudson Allison and shared a first-class cabin with Helen Loraine, the Allisons’ two-year-old daughter. After a moment’s hesitation, she knocked on the door of the adjoining cabin, where Mr. and Mrs. Allison had just fallen asleep, and said, rather timorously, that she thought the ship had encountered some trouble.

“Sarah, you’re nervous,” Mr. Allison said. “Go back to bed. This ship is unsinkable.”

The Countess wrapped herself in a floor-length silk dressing gown. She opened her cabin door and signaled to a steward walking by.

“Has something happened?” she asked.

“We’ve struck some ice,” the steward reported.

“Is there any danger?”

“Oh, no,” he said, “we have just grazed the ice, and it does not amount to anything.”

One deck below, Caroline Bonnell and her cousin Natalie Wick were nearly asleep when it seemed that the ship, so Caroline thought, gave a great shiver all through.

Minutes later they heard a woman call out, “Oh, she’s hit an iceberg!”

For Caroline and Natalie, this was thrilling news, for even at the respective ages of thirty and thirty-one, they had a childlike fascination with icebergs, which they regarded as no more threatening than a giant snowman. They had hoped to see one on their journey and were disappointed when a ship’s officer told them that the season for icebergs had passed. Now they lay beneath their eiderdown quilts debating whether to go on deck to view the berg. They yearned to see it, but Caroline had just filled a hot water bottle to warm her bed, and both were reluctant to brave the cold.

Like many first-class ladies, Mrs. William Bucknell, in Cabin D-15, shared her quarters with her maid. The widow of Bucknell University’s founder, she had been a nervous traveler ever since her son sailed on a Canadian ship that had sunk after striking an iceberg. He was saved, but that had not allayed her disquiet. Now, with the Titanic stopped dead in the water, she recalled how a fellow passenger named Molly Brown had mocked her several days earlier when she confided that she had “evil forebodings” about this voyage.

Sarah Daniels could not get back to sleep. She was convinced that something was wrong, but she was intimidated by Mr. Allison, a suave, devout Methodist who had made a fortune in the stock market, where he and his partners were known as the Methodist Mafia. She knew that she ought to believe him; she wanted to believe him. But just in case, she got dressed, dressed little Loraine, then set the child in her lap and waited.

The cabin next door to the Countess’s was occupied by her maid, Roberta Maioni, a nineteen-year-old with an angelic face and a mane of silken blond hair that flowed to her waist when loosed from its pins.

Roberta was nearly asleep when she heard someone knocking on her cabin door. “Miss, we have struck an iceberg,” a steward said. “I don’t think there’s any danger. Should there be, I’ll come back and let you know.”

It did not occur to Roberta that anything was seriously wrong. To her, the Titanic was a “fairy city… a wonder ship… a floating palace,” as it was for even the most jaded travelers on board. In such a place, nothing terrible could happen. She lay back down on the soft, cool pillow and closed her eyes.

Roberta was an English country girl, romantic and impressionable, raised in the small Surrey village of Manor Farm. For someone who regarded herself as “just a girl in my teens,” her position in the Countess’s household had provided unexpected and much-desired proximity to the reflexive indulgences of the advantaged class.

Imagine Roberta as she packed the three steamer trunks the Countess had brought on the voyage. How carefully she would have handled the newly made beaded dresses, the satin and lace lingerie, the feather boas and over-the-elbow gloves, the pearl and diamond jewelry, the tea hats with hand-dyed ostrich feathers, the furs of ermine and black fox and seal.

Imagine her as she boarded the boat train at Waterloo station with the Countess and her refined cousin Gladys Cherry, then walked with them up the wide gangway of the most fantastic ship in the world. Then picture her standing at the rail of the Boat Deck, looking out at the vast ocean, which was as magical and unconfining as her dreams.

Earlier that evening, Roberta had attended a musical event where the songs included “For Those in Peril on the Sea” and quite a few other hymns about maritime disasters. She sat with an older gentleman who had taken what she regarded as “a fatherly interest” in her. He was depressed that night, and Roberta suspected that the songs were to blame, for he was among the handful of first-class passengers who had been unnerved by what occurred moments after the Titanic set sail. Leaving the Southampton docks, the great ship had generated so much suction that the ocean liner New York was drawn away from her moorings and into the fairway. As the throng on the Titanic’s deck looked on in mute apprehension, the New York drifted so near that the ships seemed bound to collide. Then tugboats intervened and pulled the New York away. Most passengers readily forgot the incident, but for this gentleman and several others, it was an unmistakable harbinger of ill fortune.

So it was, at ten o’clock on Sunday evening, when stewards appeared with silver trays of biscuits and coffee, and Roberta bade him goodnight, that the man begged her to stay. “Please don’t go,” he said. “Something awful is about to happen.”

But Roberta was far too happy to entertain dark thoughts. Since boarding the ship four days ago, she had become smitten with someone else.

Roberta never revealed who this man was, but she left several clues that point to Jack Phillips, the Titanic’s chief wireless operator. Jack hailed from Godalming, Surrey, a hamlet near where Roberta was raised. In his boyhood, he lived with his parents and sisters above the shop on Farncombe Street where his father sold cloth and sewing materials. He finished school at fifteen and began training to be a wireless operator, completing his education four years later at the newly established Marconi Company’s training school at Seaforth Barracks, just north of Liverpool. There, the big ships coming and going in the harbor were dazzling avatars of adventure and romance. Upon his graduation in 1906, having displayed the qualities Mr. Marconi required—skill, character, and fitness—he boarded the White Star liner Teutonic as an operator. He was working on his favorite ship, the White Star Line’s Oceanic—a two-funnel liner that had once been the largest in the world—when he received orders to report to the Titanic. He turned twenty-five on the second day of the voyage.

Jack cut a dashing figure in his dark suit with eight gold buttons, high collar, and tie. He had a full face and dark eyes that seemed to gaze into the near distance; his profession required him to be alert, unemotional, and concise, but his eyes were the eyes of a dreamer.

On Sunday, April 14, he was besieged, though not because of the six messages from nearby ships warning of an ice field ahead. The trouble came from first-class passengers for whom the wireless was a delightfully new and intriguing toy. They wrote reams of messages to family and friends—mostly along the edifying lines of “How are you? Good voyage”—and Jack had to send them, since they were paying for the service. That April day, there were so many messages that the wireless set broke down.

It took Jack many hours to repair it. At 11 p.m. he was, by his own account, “all done in” and still working his way through his overstuffed inbox. The wireless was a frustrating, unreliable instrument, hobbled by weak signals and inadequate range. It was difficult to get a connection, and that night, just as he finally contacted Cape Race, the liner Californian broke in. “Say old man,” the message read, “We are stopped and surrounded by ice.” It was the seventh ice warning Jack had received that day. Exasperated and exhausted, his reply to the Californian was swift and sharp. “Shut up shut up,” he tapped out. “We are busy.”

Fifty-five minutes later, Captain Edward Smith entered the wireless shack. “We’ve struck an iceberg,” he told Jack. “I’m having an inspection made to see what it has done to us. You better get ready to send a distress call. But don’t send it until I tell you.”


Just after midnight, Caroline Bonnell and Natalie Wick, choosing adventure over the warmth of their cabin, put heavy wraps over their nightgowns and went up to the Boat Deck. They were so excited that they failed to notice the piercingly chill air. “Well, thank goodness, Natalie,” said Caroline, “we are going to see our iceberg at last!”

But there wasn’t a berg or an ice floe in sight. Nor was there a trace of wind, though there were more stars in the deep purple, moonless sky than either had ever seen. They stood at the starboard rail, mesmerized by how near those stars appeared to be and by the silvery reflections they cast in the infinite sea that stretched before them, as smooth and unmoving as glass.

The Countess of Rothes and Gladys Cherry entered the A Deck foyer at the foot of the Grand Staircase, where, on the landing, a clock framed by intricate oak carvings of two nymphs was meant to depict “Honour and Glory Crowning Time.”

The staircase, with its majestic balustrades and etched glass dome, was the Titanic’s ultimate signifier; like the ship herself, its very existence embodied man’s ambition, prowess, and progress in the Gilded Age. As word of the iceberg spread, it was the logical gathering place for first-class gentlemen sporting heavy frock coats and woolen mufflers, and ladies in floor-length sable coats hastily donned over satin nightgowns and silk chiffon evening dresses trimmed in gold bullion lace.

Among them were Maria and Victor Peñasco y Castellana, a handsome couple in their early twenties who had recently been married in their native Madrid and were fresh from a Parisian honeymoon. Victor’s mother was convinced the Titanic was doomed and had pleaded with them not to sail on her, but they were so taken with the inherent romance of the ship that they secretly booked passage. Now they stood close together, away from the others, holding hands.

Everyone fell silent when Captain Smith strode through the foyer, accompanied by Thomas Andrews, the ship’s builder. The Captain and Andrews were proud, purposeful men known to be warm and reassuring. They had the explicit trust of their now confused passengers, who scanned their faces for a hint, a clarifying sign. Both men, having made their inspection, knew that the ship was fatally wounded. But their expressions revealed nothing.

Moments later, the Captain reappeared in the wireless shack. “You had better get assistance,” he said.

“Do you want me to use a distress call?” Jack asked.

“Yes, at once,” said the Captain. He handed Jack a piece of paper on which he had scrawled the ship’s position.

Then he hastened to the deck, where he gave his officers the order to uncover the lifeboats and muster the passengers.


In the A Deck foyer, the Countess encountered her friend Fletcher Fellows Lambert-Williams, a convivial gentleman who, earlier that evening, had overheard Captain Smith telling several passengers that the ship could be cut crosswise in three places and each piece would float.

“There is nothing to worry about,” he told the Countess. “The watertight compartments must surely hold.”

Just then an officer hurried by. “Will you all get your life belts on!” he called out. “Dress warmly and come up to Boat Deck!”

The Countess looked at Gladys. She did not speak, but she could see that her cousin was as stunned as she was.

The Countess of Rothes had been born into an upper-class life replete with all the grandeur it avails: the privileged girlhood culminating in a union with a dapper earl who presided over a thirty-seven-bedroom family estate centered on ten thousand acres of land, and who lacked for nothing other than the funds she could readily provide; the posh wedding, in the spring of 1900, at which she appeared as a vision in white satin, a crown of orange blossoms and a veil of priceless sixteenth-century Brussels lace; her presentation as a bride at Buckingham Palace, where she caught the ever-traveling eye of the Prince of Wales, who would soon become King Edward VII; the good works as the loyal patron of several charities; and the two beloved sons—the heir and the spare—to carry the line forward.

It was a glamorous and satisfying life. In the Edwardian aristocracy, where marriage and love were often unrelated, the Earl and the Countess were a rarity: a husband and wife so fond of each other that they were derided as “a most unfashionably devoted couple.”

Now the Countess was journeying on the Titanic to join her husband, who planned to purchase and operate an orange grove in California. Five days before, on the morning of the sailing, she had been sought out by a reporter, who asked how she felt about leaving London society for a fruit farm. Now, as she returned to her cabin to don her life belt, the Countess was rueful as she recalled her reply. “I am full of joyful expectation,” she had said.

Jack Phillips sent out the standard call: CQD. It meant “ALL STATIONS ATTEND: DISTRESS.” He followed it with MGY, the call letters of the Titanic.

One ship was no more than twenty miles away. It was the Californian, whose wireless operator, Cyril Evans, had tried to warn the Titanic about icebergs and had been told by Jack to shut up. For Evans, too, it had been a long, tiring day, capped off by Jack’s dismissive reply. At 11:30 p.m. he had turned off the wireless and gone to bed—forty-five minutes before the CQD was sent out.

As the Titanic’s stewards passed along the order to put on life belts, a young seaman stood on the Californian’s deck and detected a curious sight: a giant liner stopped dead in the water. He pointed the ship out to his captain.

“That will be the Titanic,” the captain said, “on her maiden voyage.”

Then he turned away, unperturbed and unhurried, as if what he had seen was not the least bit unusual.

Caroline and Natalie were about to return to their cabin when an officer approached them. “Go below and put on your life belts,” he said. “You may need them later.”

Alarmed and frightened, they rushed down to C Deck to awaken Natalie’s parents, George and Mollie Wick. They relayed the officer’s order, but Mr. Wick chided them. “Why, that’s nonsense, girls. This boat is all right. She just got a glancing blow, I guess.”

Everyone they encountered in the hallway shared his opinion, so the two women returned to their cabin to prepare for bed again. But a moment later an officer knocked at the door and told them to go immediately up to the Boat Deck. “There is no danger,” he said. “It’s just a precautionary measure.”

The first ship to respond to the Titanic’s distress call was a German liner, the Frankfurt. The message she sent back was “OK Stand by.”

The Frankfurt was 150 miles away, but from the strength of her signal, Jack Phillips was convinced that she was the ship closest to them. “Go tell the captain,” he instructed his assistant, a guileless twenty-two-year-old named Harold Bride.

Then Jack hunched over the wireless apparatus and waited anxiously for the Frankfurt’s operator to relay her position. The information didn’t come.

It had been a strange trip for Ella White, a portly, opinionated widow with a vast estate in Briarcliff, New York, and a permanent suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. Boarding the ship, Mrs. White had sprained her ankle. Throughout the voyage she had remained in her cabin, attended by her maid, her manservant, and her companion Marie Grice Young, a cultured thirty-six-year-old given to wearing hats as high as wedding cakes, who had the distinction of having been the music teacher for Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter.

But at quarter past midnight on April 15, remaining in the cabin was no longer an option. Mrs. White put on several layers of warm clothes and insisted that Miss Young do the same. They locked their trunks and bags, and Mrs. White hobbled out of the commodious suite, leaning on a brass-and-wood cane that had a small, battery-operated light mounted on the end of it.

In the coming hours, that cane would be put to use in a way she could never have imagined.


The wireless operator of RMS Carpathia, Harold Thomas Cottam, was on the bridge of his ship when Jack sent out the first distress call. After Cottam returned to the wireless shack, he casually cabled the Titanic. “Do you know,” his message read, “that Cape Cod is sending a batch of messages for you?”

The message Jack sent back was shocking and stark: “Come at once. We have struck a berg. It’s a CQD, old man. Position 41.46 N 50.14 W.”

Cottam reread the message several times to be sure he had read it right. Then he ran to inform his captain. Moments later he cabled Jack, giving the Carpathia’s latitude and longitude and adding that she was fifty-eight miles away and steaming toward the Titanic as fast as possible. Jack wrote down the message and handed it to Harold Bride, who raced it to the wheelhouse, where Captain Smith was waiting.

The steward knocked again on Roberta’s cabin door, waking her from a sound sleep. “Don’t be afraid,” he told her, “but dress quickly, put on your life belt, and go on deck.”

Roberta grabbed the first clothes she saw and put on her life belt, but the chunks of cork within its canvas exterior made it cumbersome, and she could not get it tied. She rang for the steward, and as he secured the belt she joked about what an awkward contraption it was. The steward did not respond. Instead he smiled sadly and shook his head. Roberta fell silent. For the first time it struck her that something serious might have happened.


A CQD is not ambiguous. An operator receiving that call is required to instantly relay it to his captain. You don’t ask questions. You don’t have to. The call is, as Harold Bride would say later, “the whole thing in a nutshell.” As Jack Phillips tapped out one CQD after another, the Frankfurt contacted him again. The message read, “What is the matter with you?”

Jack stared at it, dumbstruck at first, then enraged. What sort of ship, he asked Harold, would hire an idiot to run its wireless? The Frankfurt was useless. In any case, Jack was in communication with the Carpathia, and unable to stay in touch with two ships at the same time. His fingers made a loud, staccato sound as he tapped his response to the Frankfurt: “You fool. Standby and keep out.”

Jack drummed his hands on the table. His rage nearly overwhelmed him, and he knew why, for his infuriating exchange with the Frankfurt had brought a fearsome fact to light: the lives of the Titanic’s passengers depended on his ability to summon help from another vessel.

Abruptly, he handed the headset to Harold and left the wireless shack, saying that he was going to take a look around. But it was such an odd moment to leave his post that he may have had an additional motive. By then, crew members in the lower reaches of the ship understood the situation. “You haven’t a half hour to live,” one man told another. “That is from Mr. Andrews. Keep it to yourself and let no one know.”

But on the Boat Deck, only the Captain and Mr. Andrews knew the full extent of the damage the iceberg had caused, for they had seen water filling the mail room and lapping against the service line in the squash court. They were passing this information on, but selectively; no one had a greater need to know it than Jack.

Did either man tell Jack what he had seen? Did Jack find Roberta and pass the information on? You can picture him: not wanting to alarm her but determined to make sure that she knew enough to flee to safety. All that can be known for certain is that shortly after Jack left the wireless shack, Roberta burst into the Countess’s stateroom and told her what no other passenger knew: that water was pouring into the squash court. It was daunting news. Yet even then, such was their faith in the ship that it did not occur to them that they were imperiled. The Countess readjusted Roberta’s life belt and gave her some brandy. “Now go straight up to the Boat Deck,” she told her.


Across from the wireless shack, on the Boat Deck, Lifeboat No. 8 hung suspended from its iron davit. Like each of the Titanic’s sixteen wooden lifeboats, No. 8 was built to carry sixty-five passengers and measured thirty feet long, nine feet wide, and four feet deep. It was a simple, sleek, and graceful structure that tapered to a point at the stern and at the bow and was fashioned from overlapping planks of white-painted yellow pine held by copper nails. The white interior had four wide seats made of pitch pine, as well as foot-wide planks for additional seating that ran the length of the boat on both sides. Beneath the seats were stowed three sets of heavy oars and a kerosene lamp.

Every ship is supposed to have a lifeboat drill, but there had been none aboard the Titanic. Most passengers did not even know where their life belts were kept. The Countess and her cousin Gladys had to ask a steward to find theirs. “I’m sure it’s unnecessary,” he said, “to put them on.”

“No,” the Countess replied firmly, “we’ve been ordered to do so.”

The steward fetched the life belts from atop the suite’s exquisite wardrobe. Then the Countess and Gladys dressed in woolen suits. Gladys topped hers with a seal wrap; the Countess put on a full-length ermine coat, placed her small brandy flask in one pocket, and fastened around her swanlike neck a strand of three-hundred-year-old pearls, a precious heirloom that she had worn at dinner just a few hours earlier. Her other jewelry, fine pieces configured from pearls and diamonds, remained in their satinwood box.

As the two women left the suite, Gladys picked up a miniature photograph of her mother. How silly, she thought. We shall soon be back here. She placed the miniature on the dressing table and walked out the cabin door.

On the way to the deck, they passed the assistant purser, Ernest Brown. He tipped his hat as they went swiftly by. “It is quite all right,” he told them, “don’t hurry!”

What a lovely night, the Countess thought as she walked out onto the Boat Deck. She stood near Colonel John Jacob Astor and his wife, Madeleine, a sweet-faced eighteen-year-old who was one year younger than her husband’s son. Lavished with riches by her doting forty-seven-year-old husband, Mrs. Astor was attired in a diamond necklace and a black broadtail coat with a sable lining, as if dressed for afternoon tea at the Ritz.

John Jacob Astor was the wealthiest traveler on board and one of America’s richest men. At a time when the upper class took a dim view of divorce, he had committed the dual sin of shedding his first wife and wedding a teenager. Their recent marriage had met with such disparaging gossip among New York society that they had decided to winter abroad. But now Mrs. Astor was pregnant; they wanted their child to be born in America, so they were heading home, accompanied by his valet, her maid, a nurse, and their Airedale, Kitty.

The Countess was impressed by Mrs. Astor’s calm, but then every first-class passenger was calm, for they all believed they would soon be told to go back to bed, and that the order to wear life belts and stand on deck was nothing more than a precaution issued by a seasoned captain known to err on the side of safety.

And so they chatted among themselves, contented, self-assured travelers returning from sojourns to Egypt or Paris, or from wintering in Baden-Baden or Cap Martin, unaware that these were the last hours of their lives or, if they proved to be among the lucky ones, the last in which they would ever be absolutely certain of anything.


“Ladies, come forward,” an officer shouted, his voice amplified by a megaphone. “Ready yourselves to get into the boats.”

He repeated the order several times, but not one passenger stepped forward. No one thought for a moment that the ship was going to sink, not even the officers poised to fill the lifeboats. Why, Caroline Bonnell wondered, would we trust ourselves to tiny open rowboats when we are aboard the biggest liner in the world?

The Titanic was not merely the biggest liner: At nearly a sixth of a mile long and ten stories high, she was the largest man-made moving object ever built, so immense that on her test launch it had taken twenty-two tons of tallow and soap to ease her down the slipway. The immoderate boast of the White Star Line was that she was “practically unsinkable,” but in 1912, when technological pride had morphed into technological arrogance, that essential qualifier had been summarily deleted.

Finally, with repeated urgings from the ship’s officers, the women moved toward the railing and the men drew back, a bit of graceful choreography that ultimately would have the effect of dividing the dead from the living.

Sarah Daniels stepped out on the Boat Deck and beheld an astonishing sight: a gathering of first-class passengers that would have looked like a party were it not for the seamen placing blankets in the lifeboats and scurrying about while a dozen assistant bakers, each carrying four loaves of bread, distributed their goods among the boats.

She ran back to the Allisons’ suite to implore them to dress and come up to the Boat Deck. But her pleas succeeded only in further enraging Mr. Allison.

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.


Sarah Daniels returned to the Boat Deck, where several lifeboats were half filled with women and children whose eyes were fixed on husbands and fathers who stood nearby, silent, solemn, nodding encouragingly. A seaman grabbed her arm and steered her toward the lifeboats. She resisted, but he managed to drag her a few feet before she broke away, shouting, “I have to look after the Allisons!”

Gently, he told her, “I’ll make sure that the Allisons are safe.”

Sarah looked into his eyes. He seemed to mean it. She held out her hand. He helped her into Lifeboat No. 8.

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 that required gentlemen to make themselves responsible for “unprotected ladies.”

After placing Caroline in the boat, he guided Natalie and her mother, Mollie Wick, 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 suggested that Jack 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.

By then the Titanic was listing gently to starboard. Still, its passengers believed that the ship was safer than any of the lifeboats. When a steward led a group of anxious steerage women to Lifeboat No. 8 and helped them in, he watched in dismay as they jumped out a moment later and hurried back inside the ship, where it was warm.

The twenty-two-year-old bride, Maria Peñasco, stood weeping beside Lifeboat No. 8 as her maid tried in vain to calm her. The elegant niece of Spain’s prime minister, Maria was inconsolable as she waited for her dashing twenty-four-year-old husband, who had gone below to fetch her jewelry. Victor returned, gave her the box of jewels, and beseeched her to step into the lifeboat, but she turned away and broke into sobs. He begged and she wept and, looking on, the Countess’s cousin Gladys Cherry was alarmed. Such a terrible scene, she thought. But the Countess gently interceded, and Maria stopped weeping. Victor kissed his bride, then turned to the Countess. “Please take care of her,” he said. An instant later, he had disappeared among the other men.

Captain Smith stood shoulder to shoulder with the Countess as she and Maria stepped over the gunwale, followed by Gladys. The Countess’s maid, Roberta, was next, but just as she was about to get into the boat, she broke away, saying, “I must get Jack’s photograph.” Everyone protested, but she ran back down to her cabin and appeared a moment later, clutching the picture.

The next to enter Lifeboat No. 8 was the seasoned steward Alfred Crawford, followed by Able Seaman Thomas Jones, a thirty-two-year-old sailor with a walrus mustache and a reputation for knowing how to take charge. As Jones climbed into the boat, he glanced back at Tillie Taussig, still clinging to her husband. They were only a few feet away, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying because the sound made by the thick black steam escaping through the giant funnels had become deafening. But then, he didn’t have to hear a word. He could see the angst as they watched their daughter shivering in the lifeboat.

“Row straight for those ship lights over there,” Captain Smith told Jones, pointing to the Californian. “Leave your passengers on board of her and return as soon as you can.”

The Captain’s attitude, the Countess thought, is one of great calmness and courage. She could see the lights of the nearby vessel plainly. It was nineteen miles away, and she was soothed by the Captain’s belief that the ship would pick them up. “Surely,” she told Gladys, “our boats will be able to do double duty in ferrying passengers to the help that gleams so near.”

On the Titanic’s deck, officers were firing white flares to signal distress to any ship nearby. The flares rocketed across the starry night sky before bursting open and leaving a trail of white lights that rained down onto the sea like confetti at a celebration.

The flares were visible to seamen on the Californian’s bridge, who counted six of them in the space of ten minutes. Had they recognized what they were seeing, every man, woman, and child on the Titanic might have been saved. As it was, 1,502 people were about to die, while life on the Californian continued on as if the rockets had never been fired.


“Any more ladies?” the Captain shouted. “Any more ladies? Any more ladies?”

No one came forward. It was 1:10 a.m.

“Lower away,” said the Captain. “Good-bye,” he said to Seaman Jones. “Remember: you are British.”

Lifeboat No. 8 swung out from the deck, held sixty feet above the open sea by its iron davit. Tillie Taussig, grasping her husband’s arm, kept watch as the boat was lowered, mere inches at a time, until her daughter disappeared from sight. “Ruth!” she cried out, an exclamation as tortured as it was unintended. Two officers, seeing Mrs. Taussig momentarily distracted, tore her from her husband’s side, lifted her—one by the head and one by the feet—and dropped her over the side of the deck into the lifeboat. She struck the back of her head on one of the wooden seats, but her heavy fur coat saved her from further injury.

Lifeboat No. 8 continued its shaky downward passage, held by ropes as thick as a boxer’s fist, while an officer shouted, “Aft… Stern… Level… Both together…” and the boat tilted at one end, then the other. Mr. Taussig ran to the rail and looked on as Gladys Cherry helped his sobbing wife to a seat.

Caroline Bonnell looked up at the deck and caught Washington Roebling’s eye. “You’ll need a pass,” he called out, “to get back on the ship in the morning!”

Mollie Wick stared bleakly at her husband. She could see him standing at the rail as officers and seamen milled around him. He was a dynamic, powerful man, but now he seemed so forlorn and bereft. He was waving.

As Lifeboat No. 8 descended slowly, painstakingly, to the water, its passengers passed still-gleaming decks where they had lately waltzed and been indulged by cabin stewards and feasted on roast squab with cress and peaches in Chartreuse jelly.

Down they went, away from the ship’s unapologetic splendor: the sumptuous first-class cabins where walls were covered with tapestries and sitting rooms were warmed by coal-burning Adam fireplaces; the à la carte dining room decorated in Louis XIV style, with its candelabra lamps and floor-to-ceiling walnut paneling; the ladies’ writing room, with its velvet-upholstered chairs and handmade Axminster carpets; the reception and smoking rooms, with their Jacobean wall carvings and design references to the palatial manor of Haddon House and Versailles.

The lifeboat dropped lower and lower, passing the Turkish baths, with their Arabian decor; the squash court; the gym with its two electric horses, electric camel, and electric back-rubbing machine; the galley, initially stocked with seventy-five thousand pounds of fresh meat, a thousand sweetbreads, and six thousand pounds of fresh butter; the first-class dining room, with its two thousand egg spoons, one thousand oyster forks, fifteen hundred grape scissors, and five hundred oak chairs embellished with carvings of English roses or French fleurs-de-lis or Scottish thistles; the three first-class elevators installed so passengers—as stated in the flowery sales brochure—“may be spared the labour of mounting or descending stairs.”

The Titanic had been outfitted with anything and everything a first-class passenger could possibly desire, except, of course, for sufficient lifeboats and binoculars to aid the lookouts in the crow’s nest. Not that the binoculars weren’t on board; they were, but none of the officers or seamen had known where to find them. As for the lifeboats, each of the davits was equipped to hold four boats, which would have accommodated more individuals than there were on board. But four boats would have taken up a bit more space on the promenade deck, and, in any case, the davits looked ever so much nicer holding just one.

To Mrs. White it seemed an eternity until Lifeboat No. 8 reached the water, and they heard an officer call from the Titanic’s deck, “Let her go!” For Gladys Cherry, the lowering of the boat into the darkness had been frightful, and as they touched down on the water she thought, We have done a foolish thing to leave that big, safe boat.

As they floated away from the ship, the twenty-seven people aboard Lifeboat No. 8 were unmoving and silent, mired in pain and musings and memories.

Bedroom steward Alfred Crawford had spent thirty-one years on North Atlantic liners—so many years of travel without the slightest glitch. Earlier that evening he had helped an elderly passenger into his life belt, then bent down and tied the man’s shoes. He had not seen the gentleman since, and now he wondered what had become of him.

Mrs. White recalled that, earlier in the day, it had become so chilly in her cabin that she summoned a steward to close the porthole window. “We must be very near icebergs,” she had told Marie Grice Young, “to have such cold weather as this.”

Miss Young thought about John Hutchinson, the ship’s carpenter, who had taken her to the cargo hold each day so she could check on the two dozen live chickens she had purchased in France to provide eggs at Mrs. White’s country home. He had been so kind, and now she remembered what he had said when she tipped him with several gold coins. “It’s such good luck to receive gold on a first voyage.”

In the seat behind Miss Young, Dr. Alice Leader was thinking about one of her traveling companions, Frederick Kenyon. Such a charming man, she reflected, so honorable and good. They had had a lovely conversation just a few hours ago, and now he was still on the ship while Mrs. Kenyon sat beside her in the lifeboat, stunned and weeping. Dr. Leader did not wish to judge, but there was one thing she absolutely knew. Nothing could part me from my husband, she thought, in a time of danger.

The Countess watched the other passengers, concerned about how they would conduct themselves in this small boat on this freezing night. Above all things, she told herself, we must not lose our self-control.

Yet there were signs of trouble. Mrs. White was glaring at the two young stewards, who had taken out their pipes, packed and lit them, and now stood in the lifeboat smoking as leisurely as if they were on the beach at Brighton.

In the back of the boat, several women quarreled about not having enough room to sit down. The Countess calmed them, speaking in a quiet, determined manner. Seaman Jones was at the tiller, listening. This lady, he thought, has a lot to say. Her fine way of talking to the other passengers impressed him.

The two young stewards finally took up oars, but they rowed in such a haphazard manner that the lifeboat was set spinning in a circle.

Mrs. White turned to one of them. “Why don’t you put the oar in the oarlock?” she asked.

“Do you put it in that hole?” asked the steward. “I never had an oar in my hand before.”

“And you?” she asked the other man.

“I never held an oar either,” he said, “but I think I can row.”

Every woman on the lifeboat watched as the two men clumsily handled the oars and made it all too plain that, in order to escape the ship, they had told the Captain they could row when they couldn’t. How can it be, thought Mrs. White, that these are the men we are put to sea with, when all those magnificent fellows left on board would have been such a protection to us?

Able Seaman Jones turned to the stewards. “The captain has told me to row to the lights,” he told them. “We must pull toward them.”

But the stewards set the boat spinning again, and when Jones reprimanded them, their faces flushed with anger. “If you don’t stop talking through that hole in your face,” one of them said, “there will be one less in the boat.”

Seaman Jones glared at the stewards as they set down the oars and retreated to the bow without saying another word. It was clear to the Countess that the seaman would have to row. She turned to him. “Would you care to have me take the tiller?” she asked.

“Certainly, lady,” he said.

With three other men on board, this was an unusual concession: British women were meant to be wives, mothers, and decorative, in that order. They were not permitted to vote unless they were property owners. And yet, thought Seaman Jones of the delicate countess, she is more of a man than any we have on board.

The Countess lifted the hem of her ermine coat and climbed aft. She asked her cousin to take up an oar. As Gladys and Seaman Jones rowed, the Countess deftly steered the boat, a resolute and unlikely vision in her furs and pearls.

Lifeboat No. 8 moved slowly through the still waters. “Don’t row far out,” one woman called. “We ought to stay very near the ship so we can get back on her.”

“No, we must get away,” another insisted.

“I am pulling for the light,” Seaman Jones said firmly. That ended the conversation, but as he rowed, the light seemed to retreat further and further.

Finally he swung his oar back into the boat. He could not reach the light, he reckoned, so it would be best to stand by. He was still convinced that they had been sent away only for an hour or so. Soon, he thought, the crew on deck will get the water pumped out of the ship and she’ll be squared up again.


On the Titanic, Jack Phillips left his post at the wireless and took another walk around. It was 1:50 a.m. With the lifeboats gone and the bow underwater, the scores of people remaining on board seemed strangely calm, either because they still felt hopeful or because they had resigned themselves to the fact that there was no hope at all. As the icy water filled the staircases and lapped across the Promenade Deck, he saw small gatherings of women and men holding hands and praying, as if, knowing they would soon be dead, they had elected to conduct their own requiems.

When Jack returned to the wireless shack, he told Harold Bride to put on his life belt. “Things look queer,” he said. “Very queer indeed.”

Then he went back to the wireless set, sending one message after another, even though the power was fading and it was hard to get a spark. In any case, by then he would have known that it was far too late for his efforts to prove anything but futile.

At 2:05 a.m., Captain Smith appeared in the shack again. “Men, you have done your full duty,” he told them. “You can do no more. Abandon your cabin. Now it’s every man for himself.”

If Jack heard the Captain, he gave no sign. His bruised, reddened fingers still tapped out CQD… SOS… CQD…

“You look out for yourselves,” Captain Smith said, more forcefully. “I release you.” Then, as if talking to himself, he added softly, “That’s the way of it at this kind of time.”

But Jack would not stop. “Come quick,” he cabled the Carpathia, “engine room is filling up to the boilers.” He was so engrossed that he did not notice the water seeping across the floor. Nor did he see the stoker who had crept up behind him and was trying to remove the life belt that Harold had fixed in place because Jack had been too absorbed in his task to bother with it. Harold grabbed the stoker. Jack leapt up. The incalculable frustrations of the past few hours were released as they beat the stoker senseless.

By then the wireless had lost all power. Harold Bride ran fore. Jack ran aft. There was no time to say “Godspeed.”


The passengers in Lifeboat No. 8 looked back at the ship, where some fifteen hundred people crowded the stern, clustered as far from the rails as possible. They huddled together, some weeping, some praying, all conjoined in what an onlooker would later describe as “a mass of hopeless, dazed humanity.”

The melodies of the eight-man band drifted across the water. Their songs? Who can say? Some were convinced they heard ragtime, others said the last song was “Autumn.” Still others insisted it was the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

The vantage point of Lifeboat No. 8 obscured the particulars of the final, excruciating scene: the English priest making his way through the forsaken crowd, taking confessions, the unwavering Isidor and Ida Straus side by side on the deck, which was now slanting upward, the Allisons standing near them, Mrs. Allison clutching her husband’s hand and sheltering her little daughter in her skirts.

Mere hours had passed since the passengers in Lifeboat No. 8 had nibbled on after-dinner chocolates and petits fours and lain in their Queen Anne and Louis XV beds, soothed by the constant rhythm of the Titanic’s giant engines. Yet now they were afloat in the forbidding sea, staring up at the mightiest ship ever made and keeping their distance from her because she was sinking.

The lights in every window and porthole of the Titanic still gleamed with stubborn brilliance. But these rows upon rows of lights were meant to be parallel with the sea, and now they were positioned at a dreadful angle that grew ever more extreme as 150 feet of the ship’s massive, wounded hulk rose out of the water.

Higher and higher she rose, until the forward funnel came crashing down into the ocean, crushing dozens of men desperate enough to believe they could save themselves by swimming. When the Titanic could rise no more, she paused and hung there, motionless, suspended, as if refusing to succumb to her awful destiny.

On the decks, husbands, wives, sisters, and brothers were rent from one another as entire families tumbled down, down, down into the deadly, frigid sea: steerage passengers from Ireland and Holland, Italy and Armenia, bound for a new life; stewards and engineers, plate washers and firemen proud to be chosen for the great ship’s maiden voyage; Major Archibald Butt, President Taft’s favorite military aide; Clarence Moore, master of hounds of the Chevy Chase Hunt; the ship’s eight noble musicians; Margaret Rice and her five boys; Anna and William Skoog, their two sons and two daughters; and the three wealthiest men on board, who had tried to save others but not themselves, and who were, as Benjamin Guggenheim said, “prepared to go down like gentlemen.”

As they fell, every light on the ship went out, came back on in a single flash, then went out again, extinguished forever. The sudden darkness was followed by an earsplitting, hellish roar as four giant engines fell from their moorings and the glorious etched glass dome of the Grand Staircase shattered and everything loose came crashing down: Louis Vuitton wardrobe trunks; 29,000 pieces of glassware; 44,000 pieces of cutlery; potted palms from the Parisian café; the marmalade machine owned by passenger Edwina Troutt; fifty cases of wine; seventy-five cases of anchovies; three crates of models for the Denver Museum; Mrs. White’s locked suitcases; the Countess of Rothes’s diamond belt buckle; the miniature photograph of Gladys Cherry’s mother; pans of newly baked breakfast rolls; a copy of The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam, adorned with a thousand precious gems that had sold at auction to an American bidder; the specially commissioned Royal Crown Derby dinner service; William Carter’s new Renault automobile; and four cases of opium.

Then there was quiet once again and the Titanic seemed to settle down, and for one long moment it seemed as if the miraculous might happen and she would right herself. But then she arched up and paused once more before acceding to a swift descent. The most awful part, the Countess thought, is seeing the rows of portholes vanishing one by one.

Seated behind the Countess, Mrs. Margaret Swift looked at the watch she wore on a platinum chain around her neck. It was 2:20 a.m.


Maria Peñasco screamed for her husband. The Countess handed the tiller to Gladys, then slipped down beside Maria and held her. Poor woman, she thought, her sobs are unspeakable in their sadness.

Then came other screams, the horrifying screams of more than a thousand women and men, struggling and adrift in the subfreezing water, frantically seeking to steady themselves on floating crates, tabletops, deck chairs, or someone else’s back. Their despairing cries carried across the still-calm water: “Save one soul!” … “Help, please, help!” … “Oh my God, oh my God…”

The Countess held Maria tighter as she tried in vain to keep her from hearing those agonized cries.

How long did the pleas and moaning and shouting last? Some said ten minutes, others said an hour. All agreed that they faded slowly, inexorably, as lives ebbed away, one after another. Most of the dead did not drown. They froze to death, their cork-filled life belts keeping them afloat as the sea became studded with corpses that looked like broken dolls. Finally, the last of the cries were replaced by a deathly accusatory silence.

The quiet is more terrible, thought Roberta, than the sounds that went before.

In its wake, the Countess was overwhelmed by a feeling she could identify only as “indescribable loneliness.”

“Let us row back!” Gladys Cherry implored the other passengers in Lifeboat No. 8, “and see if there is not some chance of rescuing anyone who has possibly survived.”

Mrs. Swift agreed. So did the Countess and Able Seaman Jones. But the others were adamant that no good could come from steering a boat that held sixty-five people into a disaster field where hundreds upon hundreds were dead or dying.

“You have no right to risk our lives,” one woman insisted, “on the bare chance of finding anyone alive.”

“The Captain’s own orders were to ‘row for those ship lights over there,’ ” said another. “You have no business interfering with his orders.”

Reluctantly, the four who wished to return to the site of the sinking yielded to the majority, against their will, their faith, and their better judgment. The ghastliness of our feelings, thought the Countess, never can be told.

“Ladies,” said Seaman Jones, “if any of us are saved, remember: I wanted to go back. I would rather drown with them than leave them.”

Then everyone fell silent. Mrs. White looked around at the flat, glassy sea, the star-laden sky. Somehow, it is more dreadful, she thought, for all this to have happened on so beautiful a night.


The women in Lifeboat No. 8 took up the oars and rowed on, encouraged by the masthead lights of a ship that was now in the near distance, no more, it seemed, than three miles away. The cold made them miserable, for even the heaviest fur coat was little protection, and many of the women were thinly dressed at best. Dr. Leader wore a blue serge suit and a steamer hat, another woman was clad in an evening gown and white satin slippers.

But the light was their hope, their beacon, so they steeled themselves and rowed toward it. With Gladys still at the tiller, the Countess rowed while comforting Maria Peñasco, who sat sobbing beside her, the young bride’s face twisted in such raw anguish that the others could not bear to look at her. Mrs. Bucknell took up an oar, proud to be rowing beside a genuine countess and stopping only when her hands became too blistered to continue.

Margaret Swift, a hardy forty-six-year-old churchgoing lady, took an oar and never put it down. She was placid, as if she had been in a circumstance as dire as this many times before. Watching her, the Countess thought, She is magnificent, not only in her attitude but in the whole way in which she works.

Marie Grice Young rowed, too, though she had to stop now and again to throw up over the side of the boat as Mrs. White tended to her.

Roberta was so shaken that she was convinced she saw something that she could not possibly have seen: “that dreadful iceberg,” as she put it, “towering above us, like some grim monster about to devour its prey.”

Still she rowed, and beside her rowed Albina Bazzani, Mrs. Bucknell’s personal maid. Roberta’s long blond hair kept getting caught between the oars and her bare hands, but she kept up her strokes even as her hair was tugged and pulled until it was torn to tatters.

They pulled steadily, still in pursuit of the two masthead lights that shone ever more brightly in the darkness. Mrs. Smith suggested that they keep their spirits up by singing; they started out with “Pull for the Shore.”

Drear was the voyage, sailor, now almost o’er,
Safe within the life boat, sailor, pull for the shore…
Safe in the life boat, sailor, sing evermore;
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Pull for the shore.

For three long hours the passengers in Lifeboat No. 8 rowed until they could finally see the glow of the ship’s red port light moving toward them. Then suddenly the light vanished and the masthead lights grew dimmer and dimmer until they, too, were gone. The singing stopped. For the first time all night, the Countess despaired. The pitiful sadness of our rowing, she thought, rowing toward the lights of a ship that disappeared.

Now it seemed they were lost in the boundless dark in a boat that had been set to sea without drinking water or a compass. Having chased the phantom lights for so long, they had rowed far from the other lifeboats, and, as the wind kicked up, bringing with it white-capped waves, the boat heaved and tossed in the choppy water. We are a handful of people in an open boat, thought Roberta Maioni, faced with a worse fate than drowning.

They had been provided a small oil lamp that could be used to signal other boats, but it lacked kerosene and went out as quickly as they could ignite it. The only available light was the small electric bulb in Mrs. White’s cane. So while some women rowed and others wept, Ella White waved her cane over her head, back and forth, over and over again, silently praying that someone would see it.

They rowed and they sang. One of their songs was a hymn the Countess especially favored, and her voice could be heard above all the others.

Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!

In the far distance, Able Seaman Jones detected a bright, moving object. He could not tell what it was, but it seemed to be headed directly toward them. He called out to the Countess, asking if she could see it. At first she couldn’t, but then she discerned a glowing light. As it drew nearer, they saw that it was a searchlight on the prow of a liner. The ship was the Carpathia, and she was steaming toward them from the southeast, firing rockets to signal her presence.

Ella White waved her cane joyously. The other women looked up to the heavens, clasped their hands, and offered a prayer of thanks for this unexpected deliverance.

It took them another hour to row to the Carpathia, and in that time came the dawn, a heart-moving sight that filled the canvas of the cloudless sky with giant brushstrokes of pink and gold and tangerine. With all the lifeboats headed in the same direction, the passengers in No. 8 heard the jubilant shouts and cries of fellow travelers who had endured the long and fateful night.


They left Lifeboat No. 8 by climbing, one by one, onto a wooden seat two feet long and a foot wide that was suspended on vertical ropes that raised them to the deck. It must have seemed appropriate to them that seamen called this device a Jacob’s Ladder, named for the stairway to heaven described in the Book of Genesis. On the deck of the Carpathia, stewards wrapped them in blankets and offered tumblers of hot brandy, holding the glass to the lips of the many whose hands shook too much to grip it.

It took several hours to evacuate all the lifeboats, which were then set adrift or hoisted onto the Carpathia’s deck. There, wives sought their husbands, and children sought their fathers, and some rejoiced while others were forced to grapple with irredeemable loss and misery.

One of the first people Caroline Bonnell saw was Hugh Woolner, who had tried to persuade Isidor and Ida Straus to save themselves. She searched in vain for Washington Roebling, the cheerful protector who had put her into Lifeboat No. 8. Sarah Daniels looked for the Allisons, only to learn that they had not survived, and that her young charge, Helen Loraine, was the only child to be lost from first class or second class. Marie Grice Young looked for the kindly carpenter, John Hutchinson, but he was not to be found.

Nor was Mrs. White’s twenty-two-year-old manservant; nor Mr. Lambert-Williams, who had reassured the Countess that the watertight compartments would hold; nor the sad older gentleman who had told Roberta that something terrible was about to happen.

Mrs. Taussig, Mrs. Kenyon, and Mrs. Wick were frantic as they scanned the decks for their husbands, but they were three of the reasons the Carpathia had already been dubbed “the ship of widows.” Another widow was the young bride, Maria Peñasco.

In the course of the morning, Mrs. Bucknell met up with Molly Brown, who had laughed at her several days before when she said she had “evil forebodings” about the voyage.

“Didn’t I tell you?” Mrs. Bucknell exclaimed. “I knew it.”

The sun was still rising when the Carpathia’s engines started up again, while high above the crowded deck, her house flag flew at half-mast. Can a ship move in a dignified manner? If so, the Carpathia was supremely dignified as she headed slowly toward the Titanic’s last position in search of any possible survivors. As they approached the site of the sinking, the Countess, Gladys, and Roberta stood at the rail, taking in the extraordinary sight: ice floes as far as the eye could see, and a field of icebergs—glassy, defiant, towering peaks standing up to two hundred feet high, glistening in the harsh morning light.

The Carpathia threaded its way through the ice until it reached the spot where, two and a half miles below, the Titanic lay in pieces on the ocean floor. There were no survivors to be found, only bits of wreckage. Caroline leaned over the rail and saw a man’s glove and a baby’s bonnet floating on the water.

As the Carpathia headed toward New York, the Countess sent Roberta to the wireless shack with messages for her parents and husband. There, helping the Carpathia’s operator, was Harold Bride, the Titanic’s assistant operator. His ankles, possibly broken, were swathed in heavy bandages, and his eyes were as dark and deadened as the tips of matchsticks whose flames had been blown out. It was from Harold that Roberta learned what had become of Jack.

After the sinking, Jack had clung to the same overturned boat that Harold held on to, a boat that had gone into the water upside down and become the refuge of the fifteen or so crew members who managed to reach it. Did Jack feel that he had failed when he heard the cries of the dying? We will never know. What can be said is that his hopes seemed to be high as he speculated, throughout the night, about ships—in addition to the Carpathia—that might be on the way. He had sent distress messages to ten ships in all, among them the Olympic, the Baltic, the Virginian, the Mount Temple, the Celtic, and the Asian, and he was certain that at any moment one of them—or perhaps all—would come to save the few who were still living.

But Jack Phillips had been “all done in” before the crisis occurred. At some point before the dawn broke, his heart gave out, and his voice was no longer heard.

“He was a brave man,” said Harold. “I learned to love him that night.”


The Carpathia’s passengers collected clothes for the survivors, many of whom preferred to remain in the dressing gowns and suits and cloaks they had been wearing when they came away from the Titanic, as if, by so doing, they could reverse time and return to life as it had been.

At night, the men slept on the smoking-room floor or on the decks while the women were given straw mattresses set side by side on the floors of the saloons and the library. The exceptions were Mrs. Astor, who remained cloistered in a suite a passenger had vacated for her, and Bruce Ismay, the chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, who also was given a suite and enough opiates to keep him sedated.

All but four of the 144 first-class women had been saved, along with three of the four children, but only 57 of the 175 men. The numbers were even grimmer in second class, where all 25 children survived but death had come to 13 of the 92 women and 135 of the 152 men; third class had lost 91 of 179 women, 55 of 80 children, and 381 of 440 men. These incontrovertible figures meant that days and nights aboard the Carpathia were filled with unquenchable grief and sobbing and praying.

Makeshift hospitals were set up in each of the Carpathia’s three dining rooms. There, English doctors attended first-class passengers; Italian doctors took care of passengers from second class, and Hungarian doctors cared for those who traveled in steerage. The Countess of Rothes and Gladys Cherry set aside their own sorrow by assisting them as they tended to the men, women, and children Gladys described as “these poor distressed souls.”

The Countess was one of few upper-class ladies to be trained as a nurse, which qualified her to apply braces and bandages and administer medications. Of the 908 crew members, 713 had been saved, and she gave special attention to those among them who had had to swim away from the ship and whose legs and feet were still frozen. “Our Titanic men are amazing,” Gladys exclaimed, “when you think of all they have been through.”

The two women also comforted children from steerage and second class, most of whom had lost at least one parent. Many had nothing to wear, so they cut up spare blankets and linens to fashion leggings and coats for them.

By the end of that first day on the Carpathia, the ship’s crew was marveling at the woman they dubbed “the plucky little Countess.”

“You have made yourself famous by rowing the boat,” a stewardess told her.

“I hope not,” the Countess said. “I have done nothing.”

Many women aboard the Carpathia were sustained only by the blind, unavailing hope that their missing men would be returned to them. “Oh, if I only knew,” they would say, “whether my husband has been saved.”

Caroline Bonnell harbored no such illusions. Her cable to her mother, who awaited word of her fate and that of her cousins Natalie, Mollie, and George Wick, was blunt and to the point: “All women saved… George lost.”

As Caroline lay on her straw mat, surrounded by suffering, one discomfiting thought came repeatedly to mind: To think that Natalie and I wished to see an iceberg all the way over.

After three days at sea, the Carpathia finally reached New York Harbor. In a cable to her parents, the Countess echoed what must have been the sentiments of every Titanic survivor. “At last I am safe and sound. Am resting, I am so tired. Thank God I am here.”

Two days after the Carpathia docked, the steamship Bremen was advancing through the North Atlantic Ocean when passengers were told they were within a few miles of the Titanic’s last position. Soon an iceberg was sighted off the bow to starboard. It was, said the Bremen’s officers, most probably the iceberg that had doomed the great ship, so everyone ran to see the luminescent, intractable mountain of ice beaming absurdly in the late-day sun.

As the Bremen moved on, it passed through the southernmost drift of the wreckage, and the excited, chattering passengers looked down into the water and fell silent.

Floating near them was the corpse of a woman in her nightdress clasping a baby to her breast. Nearby were the bodies of three men clinging to a steamer chair, and the body of another woman holding tight to one of the many dogs that had been brought aboard the Titanic. This one, it appeared, was a Saint Bernard.

Further away, they could see white cork-filled life belts bobbing on the water. There were bodies in them: the frozen human detritus of what was now—officially—history’s most devastating maritime disaster.


When the passengers of Lifeboat No. 8 returned to land, their story did not end. For as long as there were survivors their saga would continue. The difference was that on the sea they had been subject to a common fate, while on land each would become enmeshed in private grief, in private narratives.

Mollie Wick refused to believe that her husband, George, was dead, and she remained in New York City waiting for him, unable to accept that hope had long since expired. Ellen Bird sought out Ida Straus’s eldest daughter, seeking to return to her the fur coat she had been given to wear in the lifeboat. “You must keep it,” she was told. “Mother wanted you to have it.” The body of Ella White’s manservant was recovered and tagged Body No. 232; Mrs. White paid to have his remains shipped to his widow for burial.

Maria Peñasco’s husband, Victor, was never found. Because there was no death certificate, Maria was precluded from inheriting his fortune. Victor’s mother, who had warned her son not to sail on the Titanic, had a fake certificate made so that Maria could claim her inheritance.

It took two days for word of the sinking to reach Roberta Maoini’s family in Surrey. Her mother fainted when she heard the news. Three weeks later, long after she knew that Roberta had arrived safely in New York, a cable arrived at the Maioni home from the White Star Line: “Replying to your favour of the 17th. We are pleased to inform you that amongst the lists of those saved appears the name of Miss Maioni, which is no doubt your daughter, and we congratulate you on the fact of her safety.”

The steward Alfred Crawford and Able Seaman Tom Jones were summoned to testify at inquiries into the disaster, first in New York and then in London. The Countess of Rothes sent each a note of support and, as an expression of gratitude, gave them each a silver pocket watch engraved with her name and the date of the sinking. She and Seaman Jones maintained a friendship throughout the years, and he expressed his admiration for her by giving her the brass number plate from Lifeboat No. 8.

Gladys Cherry sent a letter to Jones that read, in part, “I feel I must write and tell you how splendidly you took charge of our boat on the fatal night… I think you were wonderful.”

In May 1912, Marie Grice Young wrote to President William Howard Taft. She was disturbed about a story, said to have come from an interview with her, about how the president’s favorite military aide, Major Archibald Butt, had helped her into Lifeboat No. 8, tucked a blanket around her, and said, “Good-bye, Miss Young. Good luck to you and don’t forget to remember me to the folks back home.”

It was a lovely story, so chivalrous and ennobling that the secretary of war had recounted it at the major’s memorial service. But it was apocryphal.

“When I last saw Major Butt,” Miss Young wrote the president, “he was walking on deck… on Sunday afternoon. The alleged ‘interview’ is entirely an invention, by some officious reporter who thereby brought much distress to many of Major Butt’s near relatives and friends… for when they wrote me of what a comfort the story was to them, I had to tell them it was untrue.”

Yet the story was retold in many accounts of the Titanic’s sinking because it buttressed one of the few redeeming features of that horror-filled night: that the men who chose to stay on board were brave not, as some suggested, because they did not know they were going to die, but because they did know and had determined to meet death with the obdurate courage of battling knights and the inherent grace of gentlemen.

But for the Titanic’s survivors, that sense of horror would never be assuaged. “It was the stillest night possible,” Gladys Cherry would recall, “not a ripple on the water, and the stars were wonderful. That icy air and stars I never want to see or feel again.”

A year after the sinking, the Countess was at dinner when she suddenly felt cold and overtaken by bottomless dread. She could not understand why until she realized that the band was playing “The Tales of Hoffman,” which had been the final piece of music played in the grand dining saloon on that April night.

The Countess and her husband returned to England, having dispensed with their rather quixotic plan to grow oranges in the American West. The Countess went on to do many good works. She joined the Red Cross during World War I and gave time and money to countless charities. But she never made peace with the fact that Lifeboat No. 8 had not returned to look for survivors. Unable to reconcile herself to such an important failure, she was intent on making it clear that it had not been her choice. When the inaction of those on Lifeboat No. 8 was mentioned at the British inquiry into the sinking, she had an affidavit drawn up stating that she, her cousin Gladys, an American lady, and Seaman Jones had wanted to return but were overruled by the others.

In fact, only two of the lifeboats had gone back, picking up between them eight passengers, two of whom died shortly thereafter. But there was no comfort for the Countess in knowing that her boat was not the only one to row away from the dying and the dead. Her guilt never abated and would occasion what her grandson later called “the great sadness of her life.”

Her father sought to assuage that sorrow when he purchased a lifeboat as a gift for the Royal Navy and christened it the Lady Rothes. At the launch ceremony in 1915, he said it was “a thanks offering to Almighty God for the safety of my only child from the wreck of the Titanic.”

Within a week, the Countess was thrilled to learn, volunteers manning the Lady Rothes had saved fourteen crew members of a Belfast steamer. But it, too, was ill-fated, and in 1918, the year the Carpathia was sunk by German torpedoes, the Lady Rothes also went down, taking two crew members with her.

In the days immediately after the Titanic’s sinking, Roberta Maioni stayed with the Countess and Gladys at the Plaza Hotel, overlooking New York’s Central Park. There, the romantically inclined young woman spent much of her days writing a poem about that wretched night. And in 1927, on the fifteenth anniversary of the sinking, she wrote about the voyage for a British newspaper. By then she had married, but she had never forgotten Jack Phillips, the only person she mentioned in her article by name. The manner in which she did so laid bare her enduring admiration for him and her enduring bitterness about his fate. He was, she wrote, “the heroic wireless operator of the Titanic, Mr. Phillips, whom we left behind to perish.”

By then a monument to Jack had been erected in his hometown, Godalming, Surrey. It was designed by the architect Hugh Thackeray Turner, whose son-in-law, George Mallory, had led the early British expeditions to Mount Everest.

The Phillips Memorial Cloister by the River Wey covers three acres of land and is the largest Titanic memorial in the world. It is reverential and serene. It is not known whether or not Roberta Maioni ever visited it.

Roberta was sickly for the rest of her life. She never had children, and in 1950, at the age of fifty-seven, she became bedridden due to extreme arthritis, which, she was convinced, resulted from the long, cold night she spent in Lifeboat No. 8.

In 1961, the White Star Line finally awarded her $280 in compensation for her suffering and losses. “It’s not much use to me now,” she said at the time. She died two years later in an English nursing home. In 1999, the poem that she wrote—along with some of her other Titanic memorabilia—sold at auction for £10,000.

Two days after the Carpathia docked, the Countess of Rothes spoke about the sinking for an article that appeared in the New York Herald. What is known of her feelings about that night comes largely from her extensive remarks at that time. She did not speak publicly about the Titanic again, but in 1956 she agreed to be interviewed by David Astor, the publisher of The Observer and a cousin of Colonel John Jacob Astor, who had died in the disaster and whose young wife had stood near the Countess on the Boat Deck before they boarded the lifeboats. By then the Countess was seventy-seven years old, and had had heart trouble for some time. A week before the scheduled interview, she died peacefully at her home, slipping away in the night.

Her cousin Gladys Cherry died in 1965. She, too, was childless, though she was married for many years to a retired British army officer.

As her life went on, Gladys became increasingly tough-minded about the events of that April night, and years after the sinking, when someone asked her if she had crossed on the Titanic, she gave a wry smile.

“Part way,” she said.

Today, in the perpetual silence of the deep, the place where the Titanic’s grand staircase once stood is a gaping hole useful to submersibles seeking access to the wreck’s interior. On what remains of her deck, hanging over the side, lies a slightly curved iron bar that measures twelve feet long and six inches wide, half of which hangs over the starboard side. It is one of the Titanic’s davits, an eerie, nearly beautiful object that appears to be reaching up, like an arm with a severed hand.

Covered in orange rusticles, it is destined to remain where little abides except iron-eating bacteria, bottom-dwelling rattail fish, and Galathea crabs. As it happens, this is the davit that was used for the first and only time on April 15, 1912, at 1:10 in the morning, when it lowered Lifeboat No. 8 and conveyed its passengers on the journey that, in a certain, essential sense, would never end.

A Note on Sources

All dialogue and thoughts attributed to survivors in Lifeboat No. 8. are reconstructed from first-person accounts and newspaper interviews of survivors, letters written by them, and testimony given by survivors at the American and British inquiries into the sinking of the Titanic.

Selected Bibliography


Archbold, Rick, and Dana McCauley, with a foreword by Walter Lord. Last Dinner on the Titanic (Hyperion, 1997).

Ballard, Dr. Robert D., with an introduction by Walter Lord. The Discovery of the Titanic (Madison Press Books, 1995).

Barratt, Nick. Lost Voices from the Titanic: The Definitive Oral History (Palgrave and MacMillan, 2010).

Beesley, Lawrence. The Loss of the SS Titanic: Its Story and Its Lessons, By One of Its Survivors (Kindle Edition, 2011).

Bryceson, Dave, compiler. The Titanic Disaster: As Reported in the British National Press April–July 1912. (W.W. Norton, 1997).

Butler, Daniel Allen. “UNSINKABLE”: The Full Story (Stackpole Books, 1988).

Davie, Michael. Titanic, the Death and Life of a Legend (Alfred A. Knopf, 1987).

Lord, Walter. A Night to Remember (Henry Holt and Company, 1955).

Lord, Walter. The Night Lives On (William Morrow, 1986).

White, John D.T. The RMS Titanic Miscellany (Irish Academic Press, 2011).


Bigham, Randy Bryan. “A Matter of Course,” Encyclopedia Titanica, 2006.

Maioni, Roberta. “My Maiden Voyage,” The Daily Mail, 1926.

“Statement by Harold Bride,” New York Times, April 19, 1912.“Titanic: The Countess of Rothes and the Phantom Light,” New York Herald, April 21, 1912.

“Titanic’s Loss Adds to Victims Estate,” New York Times, June 22, 1913.

“Woman Survivor of Titanic Tells of the Last Hours of Ship,” Christian Science Monitor, April 19 1912.


Encyclopedia Titanica. www.encyclopedia-titanica.org.

U.S. Congress, Senate, Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Commerce United States Senate, Sixty-second Congress, Second Session, pursuant to S. Res. 283, Directing the Committee on Commerce to Investigate the Causes leading to the wreck of the White Star liner “Titanic”… Official Transcript.

Shipping Casualties (Loss of the Steamship Titanic). Report of a Formal Investigation into the circumstances attending the foundering on April 15, 1912, of the British Steamship Titanic of Liverpool, after striking ice in or near Latitude 41° 46' N. Longitude 50° 14' W., North Atlantic. Whereby loss of life ensued (Cd. 6352) (HMSO, 1912).

White Star Line. Record of Bodies and Effects (Passengers and Crew S.S. Titanic) Recovered by Cable Steamer MacKay Bennett. Including Bodies Buried at Sea and Bodies Delivered at Morgue in Halifax, N.S.

About the Author

A longtime contributor to Esquire, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times, Elizabeth Kaye is the author of Mid-Life: Notes from the Halfway Mark and Ain’t No Tomorrow: Kobe, Shaq, and the Making of a Lakers Dynasty, as well as the Byliner Original Sleeping with Famous Men.

Photograph by Marion Ettlinger

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