It was a night that plunged into history. Just before midnight, steaming toward New York City on its maiden voyage from England, the luxury passenger liner Titanic scraped its side against a 100-foot-tall iceberg. About two hours later, the “unsinkable” ship, carrying roughly 2,200 passengers and crew, cracked in two and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The date was April 15, 1912.
Today, exactly 102 years later, Joan Pope Randall sits in Davis with tangible and emotional mementos of that epic disaster. Not her own memories, of course. Randall wasn’t alive in 1912, but her Swiss-born mother and her grandparents were among the fortunate few who were plucked from the icy waters by the Carpathia, a British passenger ship that rescued hundreds of Titanic passengers floating that night in lifeboats.
“She’s a survivor,” said Randall, leafing recently through family photos, books and other memorabilia of her mother’s life. Randall, a lively, 69-year-old retired UC Cooperative Extension educator, recently finished the first draft of her family memoir, which weaves the Titanic story through its pages.
When her mother and grandparents set sail from Southampton, England, the young family’s destination was Milwaukee, where her father and his siblings, who were also aboard the Titanic, planned to seek a new life.
Randall has several poignant reminders of her mother’s and grandparents’ fateful voyage. Among them: A tiny pair of black leather ankle boots that her mother was wearing when rescued, as well as a well-worn blanket that she was wrapped up in. Both are on loan to a traveling Titanic exhibit, currently on display in a Swedish museum. In a vault, Randall also has two other Titanic keepsakes from her grandmother: a jeweled pin bearing her Swiss name, Luise, as well as a fingertip-sized cameo portrait, believed to have been attached to her father’s pocket watch when he left the Titanic.
On many levels, Anton and Louise Kink and their curly-haired, 4-year-old daughter, also named Louise, were something of a rarity among Titanic survivors: an intact family of third-class passengers who were rescued despite horrific odds.
On a ship carrying only half as many lifeboats as needed, fewer than a third of those onboard survived. Some perished in the icy waters when they jumped overboard; others went down with the ship, their cries heard by survivors huddled in lifeboats.
With a passenger list that encompassed some of Britain and America’s ultra-wealthy as well as immigrants of modest means, survival rates favored the upper classes. Among the Titanic’s first-class passengers, 62 percent were saved, mostly women and children. In third class, only 25 percent made it out alive.
Gender also played a role. The women-and-children-first rule of loading lifeboats that night meant that 74 percent of women – of any class – survived. For men, it was only 20 percent.
Making ‘human choices’
Decades later, the Titanic’s story still has a powerful grip on our emotions. It has been the subject of scholarly research, numerous books and a handful of films, including the 1997 romantic blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
“It’s the most dramatic disaster in the history of the world as we know it,” said Stephen Cox, director of the UC San Diego humanities program and author of “The Titanic Story: Hard Choices, Dangerous Decisions.”
“Dramas are about human choices, not just bad things happening. People on the Titanic had two hours and 40 minutes to make their choices. They were serious, intelligent choices and would be made as reflections of people’s character, not just their panic. There were people with money, people without money You take all those dramas together, and that’s the drama of the Titanic.”
Randall’s father apparently made one of those hard choices. As he recounted a month later, in a 20-page letter: “The night was beautiful: No fog, the stars were out, the sea was calm. It was almost as if we were on Lake Zurich,” he wrote, in a May 1912 letter that was later translated from his native German. “We could see the icebergs against the horizon and they were beautiful.”
It was 11:40 p.m. when the ship hit the iceberg, but he and many other passengers at first didn’t think they were in real peril. But as the boat began listing, passengers started scrambling. The Kinks, along with Anton’s brother and sister, headed for the upper deck.
When the Kink family reached the ship’s railing, his wife and daughter were loaded into a lifeboat. A sailor, with “a fist to my chest,” barred him from boarding.
In a split-second decision, when the sailor was momentarily distracted, the 29-year-old father leaped into the lifeboat as it was being lowered. Theirs was reportedly the first boat picked up by the Carpathia sometime after 4 a.m.
Tragically, the lifeboat for 40 only had 17 people aboard, a scenario that played out over and over that night as half-empty lifeboats were hurriedly lowered into the sea. Anton never again saw his sister or brother, whose bodies were never found.
In his letter, written to the travel agent who sold him his Titanic tickets, Kink describes in eloquent, heart-rending detail the ship’s last moments. “A fearsome thundering and roaring accompanied its disappearance into the sea,” he wrote. “What was left to hear was only the screaming, wailing, whimpering and crying that slowly, steadily faded out.”
The letter was discovered around 2011 in the personal files of the travel agency’s owner, Randall said. In it, Kink politely inquired whether there would be any compensation from the White Star Line, the Titanic’s owner, for the loss of his brother and sister and his family’s lost luggage.
‘An artifact of the past’
When she was a young girl growing up in Milwaukee, Randall said, her grandmother and mother never talked about the Titanic. Her mother, she said, had “traumatic amnesia” and recalled nothing about the Titanic’s sinking, even after going to a hypnotherapist.
The only time Randall’s grandmother ever said anything about the Titanic was late in life. At 88, sitting at her kitchen table in Wisconsin cutting string beans, she was lamenting the aches and pains of old age and blurted out a single, memorable line: “Never, never when I was waiting for the Carpathia did I think I would live to be so old.”
But things changed after the Titanic’s underwater wreckage was discovered in 1985 by a U.S.-French team, using a tiny deep-water submersible.
Suddenly, her mother became “a Titanic diva,” Randall joked. For eight years, starting in her late 70s, her mother traveled to Boston, New York and elsewhere, speaking to Rotary Clubs, school classes, senior centers, as well as conventions of scholars and Titanic buffs. She traveled to Ellis Island to help present a commemorative plaque in memory of the Titanic’s immigrant passengers and journeyed by ship to Halifax, which has three cemeteries for Titanic victims.
“She was an artifact of the past,” Randall said.
In 1990, on a visit to her daughter in Davis, Louise Kink Pope spoke at a local community center. Then 81, with a fluffy head of graying curls and black-trimmed glasses, she happily chatted about her eventful life, patiently answering Titanic questions.
“I don’t remember a thing about the Titanic. I was too small and it’s just like a memory block,” she told the rapt audience. A doctor told her the combination of fear and excitement of the night’s events “just blanked everything out.”
Her own mother couldn’t talk about her experiences, either. “It must have been traumatic,” said Pope, in the video. “Every time I asked, I could see tears in her eyes, so it wasn’t worth (pursuing).”
A place in history
Though she bore witness to one of history’s most memorable disasters, the Titanic did not define Louise Kink Pope, who died in 1992. As she told her Davis audience, she had survived too many other hurdles in her lifetime: Hospitalized for two years with tuberculosis as a young mother, then getting through the Great Depression, divorce, breast cancer.
Life wasn’t exactly “honey and roses,” she said, but “outside of that, I’m still here,” she exclaimed, proudly tallying up her four children, 18 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
As a Titanic survivor, Pope also had definite opinions about efforts to raise the Titanic from its oceanic grave. “I’ve said time and time again: Bring up the artifacts and put them in museums for people to see, but not to be sold,” she said during her Davis talk. As for the ship itself: “Leave it,” she said emphatically. “It’s a burial ground for a good many. My aunt and uncle are down there, so let them rest in peace.”
Today, as they have every year since 1972, officials of the Titanic Historical Society, near Springfield, Mass., will join the U.S. Coast Guard in laying a wreath over the waters above the wreckage site, roughly 1,000 miles east of Boston.
Cox, of UC San Diego, will remember the Titanic survivors he “met” through his research and by reading thousands of pages of transcripts from both the 1912 British and U.S. investigations into the sinking. “I don’t want to celebrate a disaster, but I think about the people who had intelligence and character. I like remembering them.”
In Davis, Randall always takes a moment, too. Not on the anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, but a week earlier, on April 8, her mother’s birthday.
That day, “she put her foot on a train to come to this place in history,” Randall said. “She left Zurich with her family to make their way to America. That’s the history. That’s the way I think of it.”