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A night still remembered

Checking in with a last survivor

Carol Kennedy January 23 1978
Closeup

A night still remembered

Checking in with a last survivor

Carol Kennedy January 23 1978

A night still remembered

Closeup

Adventure

Checking in with a last survivor

Carol Kennedy

The handsome, tanned face with the lively blue eyes under thick, wavy, white hair looks like that of a sailor, though neighbors in the trim row of Bournemouth clifftop villas know Steve Prentice by his army title of Major. It’s a long time since he was at sea and few people know his story. For one thing, he didn’t talk about it for years; for another, few would suspect that Prentice is old enough to have played a part in the greatest maritime drama of the century.

But Prentice, though he looks in his late sixties, is in fact 83, and now, at last, for favored visitors or schoolchildren, he will talk about what happened 65 years ago and produce his most treasured possession— an old-fashioned pocket watch of blackened metal, with its works rusted and its hands stopped permanently between 2.20 and 2.21. That was the exact moment, on a freezing North Atlantic night in April, 1912, when Steve Prentice, then an 18year-old junior purser on the brand-new White Star liner Titanic, saw the “unsinkable ship” on her maiden voyage slip gently to her grave after colliding with an iceberg. Moments before, he had jumped off the perpendicular stern as the ship went down like an elevator beneath his feet.

There aren’t more than a tiny handful left of the crew of the Titanic and it is quite possible that Prentice is the last, since he was the youngest to sign on for the voyage. He only survived his 3'/2 hours in the icy water by being young, strong and extremely fit. A lifetime later, having been sunk again in action in 1914 on the Oceanic, joined the army and fought in both world wars, Prentice remembers with awesome clarity the events of that April night and thinks a lot, as he looks out over peaceful Bournemouth Bay, in the south of England, about the dreadful waste of it all— the lost lives of his shipmates, the cream of North American society drowned, the beautiful, extravagant ship with the paint scarcely dry. “If ever a ship was thrown away, it was the Titanic,” he says with feeling. “The whole tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic was speed. That was the only thing they thought about—speed. We were doing 25 knots from the time we left Queenstown, and on the morning of the fourteenth we knew there was ice all over the place.”

Contemporary technical reports and books written since have all recorded that the Titanic, built to outdo the fast Cunarders Mauretania and Lusitania in luxury and steadiness rather than speed, was designed as a 21-knot ship. But the turbine which drove her central propeller is known

to have made her capable of far higher speeds. Prentice’s recollection that she was “going flat out at 25 knots” from the moment she left Queenstown in southern Ireland until she struck the iceberg conflicts with contemporary accounts which say she was running at 22'/2 knots, the highest speed she had yet attained. Even that rate, however, was far too fast for safe manoeuvre in the ice field she encountered off the Grand Banks on the night of April 14.

Busy with his rich and important passengers, including Colonel John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim and the White Star Line chairman J. Bruce Ismay, Captain Edward Smith barely glanced at the Marconi ice warnings, and never received the final two at all because the wireless operator was too busy sending passengers’ cables via Cape Race. In the case of the Titanic, technological marvel though she was, the lookouts had still not been issued with that basic piece of equipment, binoculars.

Prentice believes the Titanic was

“rushed through, not ready for sea” when she sailed from Southampton on April 10 with a party of eight craftsmen from Harland and Wolff, the builders, on board to finish off odd jobs en route—common practice on maiden voyages in those days of highly competitive steamship schedules. The 20 lifeboats (able to accommodate a little more than half the 2,207 souls on board) were not even equipped with water and rations. Prentice was detailed to bring up provisions from the ship’s stores after the collision, but was unable to get anywhere near the lifeboats and had to leave boxes of biscuits strewn about the deck hoping someone would see them.

Prentice was on the Titanic only because of a last minute shuffle of White Star personnel. He had been preparing for a Mediterranean cruise and did not even know the name of the ship he was to join when he was suddenly ordered to Southampton.

As a junior purser, one of half a dozen carried on the Titanic, Prentice’sjob was to check cargo and passenger manifests and help make up the sea payrolls. The six juniors were working late that Sunday night on the cargo manifest. They had opened their uncurtained portholes to the icy, starlit night and were discussing how they could brighten up their bare cabin when the ship suddenly glided to a halt, “just like braking a car.” They were on the port side, amidships, so felt none of the grinding jar as the iceberg spur ripped into the Titanic’s starboard side below the waterline, tearing a narrow gash 300 feet long, as far aft as the engine room, and going right through her double bottom.

“I went back amidships, and there

were people walking around. We were gradually listing over to port and I thought there was something very serious now. Then we had orders to get the boats out. We couldn’t launch the starboard boats because there was too much of a list. Nobody wanted to get into the first lifeboats; they didn’t think she would go down, you see.

“Shortly after that, I happened to be up on the boat deck and 1 saw Thomas Andrews, the designer, Bruce Ismay, the chairman, and Captain Smith, talking together. I heard Ismay say to Andrews: ‘What’s the position? Is there any news?’ And Andrews said: ‘Well sir, the position is that she’s going to sink. There’s nothing that can stop us sinking, the water’s just coming straight up. The bulkheads won’t help her in any way at all.’ ”

Soon, says Prentice, there was “a bit of panic” with people pushing and shoving to get into the boats, “and the crew had to beat them back.”

There were agonizing scenes of parting. A young couple called Clark had been honeymooning in France and Prentice almost had to wrench them apart as he put a life belt on Mrs. Clark and persuaded her to get into a boat with the assurance that her husband would be coming on later: “It’s just a precaution.” Mrs. Clark’s last words to the young purser were: “I’ll see you later.” “Of course,” he agreed, thinking no more about it. When Prentice was

pulled half-dead into a lifeboat hours later, it was Mrs. Clark who put her coat round him and revived his frozen limbs. Her husband was drowned.

An hour after the collision the Titanic was listing so much it was a struggle to get along the corridors—“You had to push yourself along the side.” By this time he got his own life belt on. “I’d hidden it away in a locker on the boat deck. They had let the steerage passengers up by now, about 700 of them, and the boat deck was alive with them, swarming everywhere. I went up aft to the poop deck. It was very quiet there, with only three or four of us up there, a pal of mine called Ricks, myself and another man called Kieran. And while we were up there she gradually sank by the head. She was almost vertical out of the water.

“I didn’t want to die, but I wasn’t afraid; at least I don’t think I was. You could feel everything going through her, rumble, rumble, everything movable was going down. She was almost vertical out of the water. There were two boards aft which said ‘Keep clear of propeller blades’—I couldn’t see the water, I was too far away from it.

“Ricks went in first, then I let go. As I passed, I saw the propeller blades looming out. I hit the water with a terrific crack, it knocked all the wind out of me, but I was lucky not to hit anything, because there was wreckage all around me. Ricks must

have hit something because he went all listless. I stayed with him until he died. There were about 100 people in the water, sobbing and crying. The Titanic came back a little, settled down and then just glided away, very quietly.

“Then I thought I was all alone. There were no sounds at all. I picked up another life belt and a cushion and tucked them round me. I gradually felt myself freezing up. I was getting in a very bad way.”

The lifeboat that eventually picked him up had a foot of water in it, and a fireman lying dead in the bottom. Prentice reckons he was lucky to have been pulled in, because “they were knocking people out of the boats.” He doesn’t remember the rest of the night, or being taken aboard the Cunard liner Carpathia. After three days in New York, Prentice went home on the Lapland.

Not one Titanic crewman got a penny of compensation from the White Star Line. “When I jumped off, I hadn’t a bean, only my uniform and that old watch. In those days, you were paid off when you left the ship, and our pay stopped when the Titanic went down.” Worse still was the reaction from relatives of unluckier shipmates. “On my return to Southampton I visited the widow of one of my friends. She said: ‘Why were you saved and my husband drowned?’ After that I stopped calling on people.’’^