Titanic Survivor Interviews: What It Was Like to Flee the Sinking Luxury Liner

Mil­lvinia Dean, the last sur­viv­ing pas­sen­ger of the RMS Titan­ic, died in 2009. She’d lived a full life of 97 years, but that meant that she’d been only two months old when the famous­ly lux­u­ri­ous and inno­v­a­tive ship hit the ice­berg that sent it to the bot­tom of the Atlantic in the mid­dle of its maid­en voy­age. Despite being human­i­ty’s last direct link to the Titan­ic, she would have retained no mem­o­ry of the ship or its sink­ing. That’s very much not the case with the sur­vivors inter­viewed in the 1970 British Pathé doc­u­men­tary footage above. One of them, Edith Rus­sell, remem­bers the Titan­ic as hav­ing been “so very for­mal.” The “cozi­ness” of oth­er ocean lin­ers, the “get-togeth­er feel­ing — it did­n’t exist.”

A celebri­ty styl­ist and Paris cor­re­spon­dent for Wom­en’s Wear Dai­ly, Rus­sell was trav­el­ing first-class: one state­room for her, and anoth­er for her lug­gage. Not so Gur­shon Cohen, who’d been “sleep­ing six in a bunk” down below. Unlike many of the Titan­ic’s third-class pas­sen­gers, pro­hib­it­ed as they were from enter­ing the upper decks, Cohen man­aged to find a place on a lifeboat (after jump­ing ship first).

What­ev­er the dif­fer­ences in their sit­u­a­tions, Rus­sell and Cohen had con­gru­ent mem­o­ries of the dis­as­ter, espe­cial­ly as regards the pop­u­lar notion that the ship’s band con­tin­ued per­form­ing until the bit­ter end. As Rus­sell puts it, “when peo­ple say that music played as the ship went down, that is a ghast­ly, hor­ri­ble lie.”

Eva Hart, inter­viewed in 1993, does recall hear­ing music — specif­i­cal­ly, a ren­di­tion of “Near My God to Thee” — right up until her escape. The vivid images she retained from the lifeboat also includ­ed the ship’s break­ing in half, an event wide­ly denied until it was proven decades there­after. You can hear more sto­ries of how the Titan­ic real­ly went down, as it were, from the 1956 and 1970 BBC inter­views with Kate Gilnagh Man­ning, Maude Louise Slo­combe, and Frank Pren­tice (the lat­ter two of whom were work­ing on the ship) just above. They all remem­ber the incon­gru­ous­ly “slight bump” of the impact, the “dead calm” of the sea, the per­ilous sight of lifeboats dan­gling 70 feet above the water — and the feel­ing of impos­si­bil­i­ty that the “unsink­able” Titan­ic could real­ly have met its end.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch the Titan­ic Sink in Real Time in a New 2‑Hour, 40 Minute Ani­ma­tion

The Titan­ic: Rare Footage of the Ship Before Dis­as­ter Strikes

How the Titan­ic Sank: James Cameron’s New CGI Ani­ma­tion

Real Inter­views with Peo­ple Who Lived in the 1800s

Watch 85,000 His­toric News­reel Films from British Pathé Free Online (1910–2008)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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