The human condition, triumphant and tragic, is the stuff of stories. Today’s Friday Five features thousands of human beings who died (or survived) in various disasters. Each one of them has a story. They lived, loved, hoped, cried, worked, and fully expected to see their efforts come to fruition. Sadly, they did not.
One hundred two years ago, on April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic sank two hours and forty minutes after striking an iceberg. Survivors totaled 705, 31% of the passengers and crew aboard, and 1,523 people died in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.
The fascination with the ship continues to this day. A search of Amazon revealed 413 books on the subject. At least nine films portray the end of the majestic ship.
In 1985, Robert Ballad of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Massachusetts, discovered the ship’s final resting place and put to rest many of the questions surrounding its fate, including the commonly-held belief that it sank in one piece.
In 1963, Indian Orchard, MA, opened the first museum dedicated to memorializing the event, but there are others. In addition museums in England and Ireland (where many of the passengers originated) also honor the victims.
Lesser known tragedies which seemingly haven’t caught the public eye include:
I used an institutional fire to ramp up the drama in Where Is Papa’s Shining Star?
They were about to leave for the office the next morning when Sam Bernard arrived. He didn’t return Lenore’s greeting. “I need to speak with you, Alan. Privately.”
“We’ll step into the study.”
“It’s about Bobbie, isn’t it?” Lenore clutched the banister for support.
Alan slipped his arm around her. “ Is it about Bobbie, Sam?” “I’d prefer to speak with you privately,” the attorney hedged. “If it concerns Bobbie, Lenore must know.”
“Let’s have it, Sam.”
The attorney stepped closer. “Last night there was a fire at the Home. No one got out.”
Lenore crumpled to the floor.
Mrs. Swane knocked on the study door. “She’s awake. I think you should go up.”
“All right. Has she said anything?”
“She blames herself, of course. Have you found out any more?”
“I spoke with the fire marshal. He said it was the furnace. Lenore had mentioned that it frequently gave trouble. I’d planned to speak with Miss Ervin about it today, when we went to get Bobbie, and offer to replace it.”
“The county was responsible.”
“The county has no money.”
“You did all you could, Mr. Alan.”
“Did I? I’ve been sitting here wondering about that.
” “Go up to Miss Lenore. She needs you.”
He found Lenore curled on the loveseat before the fire, clutching a china doll in her arms. “This is all I have left,” she murmured, breaking into tears as Alan joined her. “Bobbie asked me to bring her doll home to wait for her here. It’s her most precious possession, the last thing her father ever gave her. She named it for him...Alberta.” Lenore buried her face against the doll. “I left her to die. I left my little girl to die.”
Alan gathered her in his arms. “You couldn’t know. I’m so sorry, my darling Lenore. She was the daughter I never thought to have.”
“All those children...Constance...she was my friend, the first I’d had in such a long time.”
“I told the fire marshal that I’d see to the burial. They deserve more than a pauper’s grave.”
“It all happened very fast.”
“She was so brave. She never complained about anything. That awful little room where we lived, cardboard in her shoes, being taken to the Home. She never complained about any of it.”
Alan winced at the pictures her words painted in his mind. “She learned that from you, I’m sure.” “Sometimes it was as if she were taking care of me.”
“You took care of each other.”
Lenore shook her head. “No, I didn’t take care of her. Oh, Alan, I left her to die.”
In Finding Papa’s Shining Star, I wrote a ferry sinking in the English Channel after some consultation with a good friend in England.
Annie thought there would never be another day so long or so cold as the one she spent huddled on the pier at Calais. The day which had begun with so much joy and anticipation had ended abruptly in a shuddering moment of smoke and flame.
The four of them had just strolled out onto the second-level deck when the tremors of an explosion deep within the ferry billowed upward. Helpless as feathers in the wind, their bodies skidded on the buckling planks. Annie thought she heard someone call her name. Her last glimpse of Lenore was of her clinging to Alan as they teetered against the shattered metal rail.
She would never forget the screams of terror, at least one of which was hers, or the way her body flailed about, weightless, until crashing painfully into the cold Channel water. She’d lost consciousness briefly, regaining it when someone hauled her upward into a smaller craft.
Not understanding the words spoken to her, shaking violently with the icy chill of the wind against her drenched body, she could only stare in horror as the ferry stood on end for a brief second before disappearing beneath the sparkling water.
When David found her among the survivors milling about the pier, he wrapped her first in a blanket, then in his arms, murmuring words that she comprehended no more than the ones from the men who had saved her.
Fortified by several mugs of steaming coffee, her body grew still. Only then could she manage to ask, “Mum and Pa?”
“Not yet, sweetheart.”
Later, when a French official approached and offered them transportation to a hospital, Annie refused. “I can’t leave,” she said. “I have to wait for my parents.”
“They’ll be brought to the hospital, too,” David said. “They’d want you to be looked after.”
“No!” The word echoed like a gunshot in the cavernous building. “No, I’m all right. I have to stay here.”
Late in the afternoon, they began bringing in the tarp-wrapped bodies and laying them out in the warehouse next door. “I can’t,” Annie moaned when she understood that the man wearing a Red Cross armband was asking people to accompany him there and identify whom they could. “Oh, David, I can’t do it! They’re not…they can’t be…”
“I’ll go,” he said, pressing a kiss on her forehead. “Will you be all right here by yourself?”
She nodded, pulling the damp blanket closer around her. “Please, David, don’t find them. I couldn’t stand it.”
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