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UNSINKABLE
L. JON WERTHEIM
April 02, 2012
A CENTURY AGO, MORE THAN 1,500 PEOPLE DIED IN THE MOST FAMOUS SHIPWRECK IN HISTORY. TWO OF THE WORLD'S BEST TENNIS PLAYERS, RICHARD WILLIAMS AND KARL BEHR, SURVIVED THE DISASTER—IN VERY DIFFERENT WAYS
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April 02, 2012

Unsinkable

A CENTURY AGO, MORE THAN 1,500 PEOPLE DIED IN THE MOST FAMOUS SHIPWRECK IN HISTORY. TWO OF THE WORLD'S BEST TENNIS PLAYERS, RICHARD WILLIAMS AND KARL BEHR, SURVIVED THE DISASTER—IN VERY DIFFERENT WAYS

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Newsom, like the Kate Winslet character in the James Cameron film Titanic, was a strong-willed feminist whose progressive sensibilities had, to the displeasure of her parents, only grown firmer during the trip to Europe. She sent a telegram to Behr, then in Berlin: SAILING HOME FROM ENGLAND ON TITANIC'S MAIDEN VOYAGE. Behr decided to surprise her, and, armed with a diamond ring, he settled into cabin C-148, not far from Dick Williams and his father, who were sharing a room on Deck D, near the Grand Staircase. Though Williams had recognized Behr on the train to Cherbourg, they had never met and would not make each other's acquaintance on the Titanic.

For the first few days of the voyage Dick Williams played on the ship's squash court, worked out in the exercise room and joined his father for meals, dining at the table of Capt. Edward Smith on the ship's last night. Behr spent the bulk of his time trying to ingratiate himself with Newsom's mother and stepfather. The Beckwiths were concerned about the couple's age difference, and Behr wanted to win them over before he asked for Newsom's hand in marriage.

"The love affair between Karl and Helen was very romantic, in many ways even more romantic than the story of Jack and Rose in the James Cameron movie," says Lindsay Gibbs, author of the forthcoming novel Titanic: The Tennis Story. "Karl crossed the ocean and back again to try and win the approval of Helen's mother."

At 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1,000 or so miles east of Boston and 375 miles south of Newfoundland, one of the Titanic's crewmen, Frederick Fleet, saw something protruding from the water, sounded a three-bell alarm and bellowed, "Iceberg, right ahead!" The first officer ordered a sharp turn, but it wasn't executed fast enough—no surprise given the Titanic's size.

Titanic versus iceberg was less a crash than a scrape—"as though we went over a thousand marbles," in the words of one survivor. Dick Williams would later recall that he and his father were initially jolted but not particularly worried. Charles Williams had been involved in a similar shipboard incident decades earlier, and the crew had successfully plugged the gash in the hull with cotton. He told his son that even if the Titanic had been punctured, it could float for 12 to 15 hours, plenty of time for a rescue. Likewise, Behr would write, "to our minds the idea of the Titanic sinking was preposterous."

At first the crew seemed to have been equally blasé. Behr would later testify at liability hearings that 35 or 40 minutes elapsed before the passengers received any warning of danger. As Dick Williams left his cabin, he saw a steward trying to pry open a cabin door that had jammed, locking a passenger in his room. Williams lowered his broad shoulder and rammed into the door, breaking it open. Instead of thanking Williams, the steward threatened to report him for damaging ship's property and charge him for the door's repair.

The scene belowdecks was more desperate. The squash court where Williams had spent so much time had started to flood. More important, so had the ship's boiler rooms. Behr, who had been awake when the Titanic sideswiped the iceberg, went to Deck A, saw other passengers fastening life belts and then roused the Beckwiths. Behr and Richard Beckwith quickly recognized the severity of the situation. According to an account by Behr's son Karl Jr., the men ordered Helen and Sallie to change into warm clothes and leave all their possessions behind except for their jewelry. Richard Beckwith escorted his wife to a lifeboat, with Behr and Newsom trailing behind them. Adhering to the women-and-children-first tradition, the men expected to deposit Helen and Sallie in the boat and then remain on the deck. But J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of White Star Lines, which owned the Titanic, allegedly told Behr and Beckwith to get in the boat, too, because men were needed to help with the rowing. Behr would later claim that there were 45 or 50 passengers in the lifeboat, but it "could have accommodated 15 or 20 more." Ismay boarded the next to last boat to leave the ship, which was indeed meant only for women and children. He left his two male assistants to fend for themselves as the scene on board descended into chaos.

Dick and Charles Williams walked the deck. They tried to stay warm by riding stationary bikes in the exercise room. Finally, as the letters of the ship's name on the bow were about to slip underwater, they decided to abandon ship. They stood near the rail, an infirm man and his only child, and said their goodbyes. As they were speaking, one of the ship's enormous smokestacks came crashing down. Dick darted out of the way. Charles was crushed, instantly killed. At that point Dick jumped into the ocean. In 28º water, swathed in a raccoon coat, he began to swim for his life.

"I was not under water very long," Williams would write to a fellow survivor, Col. Archibald Gracie IV, "and as soon as I came to the top I threw off the big fur coat. I also threw off my shoes. About 20 yards away I saw something floating. I swam to it and found it to be a collapsible boat." It had canvas sides and a wooden bottom, but it had not been assembled, so the bottom floated slightly underwater. "I hung on to it," Williams would write, "and after a while got aboard and stood up in the middle of it. The water was up to my waist. About 30 of us clung to it." Nineteen of them would freeze to death.

For as long as three hours Williams waited in the partially submerged lifeboat. He watched as the body of the Titanic cracked and the stern belly flopped into the ocean. By 2:45 a.m. on April 15 the ship had sunk to the bottom of the sea.

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