New Bern, NC – Sunday was the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, a British passenger liner that met a watery grave after it struck an iceberg. The vessel was on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic to New York City. This week, we set out to discover any ties the Titanic had with eastern North Carolina. In New Bern, we found a woman whose family survived that disaster. Fay Coutts Blettner reads from a letter written by her grandmother, Minnie Coutts written to a friend in England after the incident.
"the crash was so slight I thought little of it. I lay awake 15 minutes. Presently, I could hear people opening their doors and inquiring what was the matter. Some of the stewardess assured them there was no danger."
Many people during this time believed the Titanic was an unsinkable ship.
"However, I got up just to find out all about it. I was surprised to see foreigners caring all of their belongings rugs, blankets and even small trunks up on deck. Children were crying."
Around 11:40 pm on that April 14th night, the Titanic ran into an iceberg, ripping a large hole in the starboard side of the ship. Blettner says her grandmother became concerned when an order for life preservers was issued. Alarmed, she awoke her two sons, Willie and Neville, who were ages 9 and 3 at the time. Blettner continues her letter:
"I pulled Neville out of bed, put on his knickers and coat over his sleeping suit and put on his boots, no time to lace them up. There were only two life preservers in my cabin and I put one on Willy, and the other on Neville. I mentioned to an officer that I had not gotten one, and he said he was afraid that there weren't anymore."
The Titanic didn't have enough life jackets or lifeboats on board for the two thousand two hundred and twenty three people.
"we were just going, when I saw the same officer. I said to him again that I had not gotten one of the preservers. He told me to follow him. He took us through quite a number or corridors and passages right into the first class saloon right into his own quarters. There, he got his own lifebelt and tied it on me saying at the same time, There my child, if the boat goes down, you'll remember me.'"
According to the BBC, in less than 3 hours after the hit, the vessel filled with water and sank. That ship officer along with more than 15-hundred people died at sea. Blettner says her grandmother never talked about the incident, but that was not the case for her father Willie.
"He liked the limelight. When I was growing up, there was always something about daddy on the news, on the radio, or sometimes the newspaper pictures of my father and my Uncle Neville talking about what happened on board the ship. Neville never really remembered anything. But daddy remembered the lights sinking into the water and being cold."
That night, as the Titanic was sinking, a distress signal was sent out alerting nearby ships that they were taking on water. That transmission was received by Harold Cottam, the radio operator of a smaller ship, the Carpathia, about 60 miles away. Upon hearing the distress call, the Carpathia made its way to the sinking Titanic. At the same time over 1500 miles away, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Hatteras Weather Bureau Station was among the first to receive and record the Titanic's distress signal. Historian for Cape Hatteras National Seashore Douglas Stover says Hatteras was one of only 8 weather bureau stations at that time.
"The other stations, most of them weren't manned 24 hours a day where Hatteras Weather Bureau Station was pretty much a 24 hour operation. So there was somebody available you know at 11:30 at night when this distress came in to record it."
The Weather Bureau, later called the National Weather Service had locations in the United States and Canada to provide weather information and data on the weather and climate. While the station at Hatteras received the Titanic's distress signal, it was too far away to respond. Over the years, through personnel changes and renovations, Stover says old documents were found in between the new walls as insulation.
"It was actually pretty common back then they tore out log books that were no longer used, newspapers and so apparently during 2005 when the park service did some renovations to those buildings, as they removed some of those newer walls, they discovered masses of newspapers and log book pages long could be identified. This document of the Titanic could not be identified at the time."
The damaged documents were sent to the Park Service soaking wet and covered in mold. After two years and extensive restoration efforts, Stover realized that the piece of paper was the recording of the distress call from the Titanic.
"It wasn't until all this hum about the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, I realized boy this would be a good opportunity to put it on display."
You can see the historic log document now on public view at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, North Carolina from now thru the end of May.
"the Titanic Exhibit it also has a private donor who had collected some of the Titanic materials that were purchased through auction and some of those displays I think some music sheets, I think some plates, books so there's various materials that are part of this exhibit."
Besides the personal account from Fay Blenttner and the newly discovered log entry that details the distress signals, the Titanic has other connections to our area, specifically New Bern. Local Historian Bill Hand.
" It's through our Senator at the time His name is Furnifold Simmons."
In 1912, two days after the Titanic sunk, democratic congressman and U.S. senator Furnifold Simmons was put on the committee to investigate the incident.
"they a couple days probably several days I imagine interviewing anyone who had anything to do with the boats, the different rescue boats that were there, the survivors and what not. And probably the longest lasting biggest events that came out of that is a discovery or realization that the Titanic by no means enough lifeboats to fit everybody on. It had no more lifeboats than some of the rescue ships that were coming which were significantly smaller."
Furnifold Simmons was part of the committee that passed a passenger safety law ensuring enough life boats be available for each person. And that law still stands today. According to Hand, there was only one North Carolina native that was aboard the Titanic. His name was Oscar Woody from Roxboro in Person County.
"and he was apparently a man who worked for the post office. And while the Titanic was going down, this man instead of going for the boats was dragging bags of mail out trying to get them on deck hoping he could save some of the mail. And in the process of that, ended up going down with the boat. As far as I know, the mail went down too. He was considered a bit of a hero in the state. Considered a hero the North Carolinian that showed his real stuff. He showed it was duty before himself."
Duty wasn't the reason the wealthy Vanderbilt family missed the boat. The Vanderbilts are known for constructing the sprawling Biltmore Estate in Ashville were visiting England at the time the Titanic was ready to make its maiden voyage across the Atlantic. The family had even purchased tickets for the crossing.
"A relative convinced them that you don't just take a ship on the maiden voyage, its bad luck and always dangerous. So they ended up taking a different ship of a line. Of course, turned out to be a very good experience for them came out of it alive. One of their favorite servants did come across on the Titanic and he was lost at sea."
Even though it's been 100 years since the Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, the story continues to fascinate us. It wasn't until recent years that we had enough technology to dive deep enough to recover artifacts from the wreckage. Perhaps, as technology develops, we may discover even more about what happened that fateful April night. Jared Brumbaugh, Public Radio East.