Titanic: A Survivor’s Story – Colonel Archibald Gracie

GracieThis past April marked 108 years since the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southhampton to New York City.   By the time the SS Carpathia had arrived to rescue passengers, the Titanic had sank and more than 1,500 passengers lost their lives. It is still one of the deadliest maritime disasters in history.  Survivors of the Titanic have given interviews and written their memoirs. Among them was Colonel Archibald Gracie IV (1858-1912).  On the night of April 14, 1912, Gracie was relaxing in his cabin when shortly before midnight, he was jarred awake and soon realized that the ship’s engines had stopped.  Unaware that the ship had suffered a fatal blow, considerable time passes before the shocking reality begins to settle in.  But when it did, Gracie went into action and this is his account of what he saw that night and what he did as the RMS Titanic met its doomed fate. 

This book was published in 1913 but Gracie never saw the reception it received. He died on December 4, 1912 due to the injuries he suffered on the night of the collision, making him one of the earliest Titanic survivors to died in the wake of the tragedy.  As the story begins, Gracie recalls what he was doing in the days before April 14.  What he discloses gives no indications that anything was amiss with the ship.  Passengers are passing the time with a number of activities.  But on the night of April 14, all of that changed.  Upon impact, Gracie relatees that:

“My stateroom was an outside one on Deck C on the starboard quarter, somewhat abaft amidships. It was No. C, 51. I was enjoying a good night’s rest when I was aroused by a sudden shock and noise forward on the starboard side, which I at once concluded was caused by a collision, with some other ship perhaps.”

It was a collision indeed, but one that none of the passengers could have ever imagined.  Soon it became clear to passengers that the Titanic was in trouble and as the ship began to take on water, urgency creeped in. But even in the face of death, the majority of passengers remained relatively calm.  However, ominous signs were soon upon them and forty-five minutes later, Captain Edward J. Smith (1850-1912) gave the order to lower the life boats.  Gracie provides a keen observation about the distress signals launched by the Titanic’s crew:

“I was on the Boat Deck when I saw and heard the first rocket, and then successive ones sent up at intervals thereafter. These were followed by the Morse red and blue lights, which were signalled near by us on the deck where we were; but we looked in vain for any response. These signals of distress indicated to every one of us that the ship’s fate was sealed, and that she might sink before the lifeboats could be lowered.”

Soon the loading of passengers into the lifeboats was underway and Gracie provides insight as to how the process took place and his own efforts in assisting Second Officer Charles Lightoller (1874-1952).  Gracie did not initially get into a boat himself but insted remained on the ship where he also makes acquaintenance with victim James Clinch Smith. His description of the ship’s final moments made the hair stand up on my neck. And it was nothing short of miraculous that Gracie eventually ended up in a lifeboat himself.  And it was not until he was board the Carpathia that he realized the full extent of his injuries and his ordeal.

As a first-hand witness, Gracie found himself in a position to debunk rumors about the night’s events, in particular whether an explosion took place, if the the ship broke in tow and whether some officers shot themselves.  Conspiracy theories may not believe what he has to say but as far as a I know, Gracie’s account stands as credible to this day.  And there is no doubt that he was a passenger and a survivor.  However, there is more to the book than just his memories and clarifying rumors.  What follows in the second half of the book is a solid discussion of the events that took place on other lifeboats taht were dispatched by the White Star Line’s crew.  Also included are statements provided by survivors to eithe the British of American inquiries and in appearances such as that of Lightoller, testimony is sampled from both.  It is an interesting read and provides insight into what the survivors were contending with as they drifted in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with no rescue ship in sight.

Gracie is adamant in his belief that the crew of the White Star performed admirably that night.  He expresses praise for Officer Lightoller and others who rose to the challenge that night. However, he does have an interesting observation about Edward J. Smith and also provides a statement by retired Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) that was submitted to the Evening Post in which the retired Navy officer shares his views on J. Bruce Ismay (1862-1937. Readers may recall that Ismay was Managing Director of the White Star Line at the time of the disaster and that he survived the disaster after getting into the last lifeboat that left the ship.  Mahan minces no words about his feelings on Ismay’s actions that night but ultimately, it is up to the reader whether Ismay deserves the criticism leveled against him.

The book is quite short but still a fascinating yet tragic read.  The most haunting moments are undoubtedly the Titanic’s final moments as passengers still aboard the ship realized the pending doom before them.  All hope for them was lost and those who managed to find a lifeboat could only watch in disbelief and horror and what was occurring before their eyes. It is a memory that none of them would ever forget. Their memories which have been recorded for history are reminders of one of the darkest nights in maritime history.  Gracie’s story here has stood the test of time as a key addition to the wealth of material regarding the RMS Titanic.