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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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RMS Carpathia, a steamer from the rival Cunard line, had been en route from New York City to the Adriatic when it received the distress signal at 12:20 a.m. Chugging through the North Atlantic and slaloming around the ice fields, it arrived at around 4:10 a.m. at the spot where the Titanic had gone down.

The Carpathia crew rescued 712 Titanic passengers and crew, fewer than one third the number of people on board. They were in various states of distress. Behr, Newsom and the Beckwiths moved without trouble from their lifeboat to the steamer. But the exhausted Williams was hoisted aboard the Carpathia looking cadaverous, his body on the verge of collapse. Had he not been young and in peak physical condition, he might well have died.

Once on board Williams, whose legs had turned reddish-purple, tried warming himself by standing near an oven and a galley wall. Eventually he was examined by a doctor, who told him he was suffering from hypothermia, and that to prevent an onset of gangrene he should consider having both legs amputated. "I refuse to give you permission," Williams said politely. "I'm going to need these legs." Instead he walked the deck of the Carpathia, trying to restore circulation, feeling as if a thousand needles were piercing his skin.

It was on the Carpathia that Williams and Behr finally met. Williams would later say Behr was one of the rescued passengers who was particularly nice to him. (Quincy Williams, Dick's grandson, gave SI access to his grandfather's memoirs on condition that they not be quoted directly.) Behr, too, would write about the meeting, noting that Williams had "had a harrowing experience" in the water.

The mood on the Carpathia was grim. Grief and shock were setting in. The London Independent quoted Behr as saying, "Although the sinking of the Titanic was dreadful ... the four days among the sufferers on the Carpathia was much worse and more difficult to forget." Behr was one of a seven-man ad hoc survivors' committee that organized passengers and advised them not to speak with reporters.

On the night of April 18 the Carpathia passed the Statue of Liberty and docked at Pier 54 on the West Side of Manhattan, five berths south of where the Titanic was to have ended her maiden voyage. Thousands of New Yorkers had gathered to watch in morbid curiosity as the survivors disembarked but also to hand out food, blankets and clothes. Keeping his sense of humor, Williams remarked that for once he breezed through customs.

Imagine the Titanic sinking not in 1912 but in 2012. Passengers' Twitter feeds and Facebook posts would describe the disaster in real time as they were rescued. Cable networks would provide round-the-clock coverage, complete with theme music, a catchphrase—Catastrophe at Sea!—and digital animation of the sinking. Morning shows would book survivors, literary and film agents would hustle story rights, class-action lawyers would troll for clients. Just see the media frenzy that followed the sinking of the Italian luxury cruise liner Costa Concordia earlier this year.

Now consider a scenario in which two of the survivors were dashing, world-class athletes in the same sport, destined to face off against each other many times. The hype surrounding those matches would be immeasurable. After their playing careers, the two men would be bracketed together—the Ralph Branca and Bobby Thomson of the sea—perhaps cowriting a book, then hitting the speaking circuit.

A century ago the culture was different. Look-at-me sensibilities were considered gauche. Many passengers lucky enough to have ended up on the Carpathia struggled with what today would be diagnosed as post--traumatic stress disorder. This was especially true for the men, whose survival was seen by some as evidence of cowardice. Ismay, the White Star director, was pilloried in the British newspapers. Ostracized by London society, he moved to Ireland and spent the remaining 25 years of his life out of the public eye.

Behr, according to family members, suffered profound survivor's guilt. His granddaughter Helen Behr Sanford, known as Lynn, spent 10 years meticulously researching his story and recently published Starboard at Midnight, a fictionalized account of Behr's experience on the Titanic. "He wished he had saved someone from the water so that at least an act of heroism could have resulted from his survival," she writes. "He was crushed by [an] inarticulate sadness beyond anyone's understanding."

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