The horror that unfolded off the Old Head of Kinsale as the Lusitania began to sink after being crippled by a German torpedo can only be compared in the history of this century with what happened in New York on 9/11 when two passenger jets were flown into the Twin Towers in a terorist attack that shocked the world, writes Ray Ryan.
As was the case in Manhattan in 2001, people were trapped on the luxury ocean liner. Some jumped for their lives from the skyscaper ship or leaped into the sea. Some died from injuries sustained on their way down. Others disappeared and drowned. There were also survivors with memories that haunted many of them for the rest of their lives.
Boats of all descriptions rushed to the scene, after Lusitania’s radio officer Bob Leith kept sending out SOS radio messages, just as the firefighters of New York responded 86 years later with little concern for their own safety. Some of the craft didn’t even have motor power. Yet, they put to sea fully aware of the risks they faced from German submarines.
The horrors of 9/11 and the sinking of the Lusitania have other similarities. Each provoked global revulsion, resulted in the United States of America going to war and changed the structure of world politics and the eventual course of history.
Wth a terrible moan and a mighty suction, the ship that many people thought was practically unsinkable, quickly slipped beneath the water. The dead and dying floated in the sea as other screamng passengers struggled to get on board lifeboats or just catch a grip on any piece of wreckage in despetate efforts to stay alive.
Women and chidren were given priority on the lifeboats while men who could swim gave their places on the boats to those who could not. And, in keeping with the cruel tradition of the sea, Lusitania’s master, Captain William Turner, went down with his ship, but was rescued from the water, his watch stopped at 2 36 pm.
There were pathetic scenes as families who had been together on board the Lusitania a short time earlier were parted in the growing chaos. Mothers franticlly searched for missing children. Men who had gone to fetch lifelbelts couldn’t find their wives on return.
John Davies, a deckhand in his sixties who could not swim, calmly kept releasing lifeboats, his stub pipe clinched between his teeth, until the sea took him. His bravery, grit and magnificient work saved hundreds. He was rescued and quickly became known as “Bo’sun Joe of the Lusitania.”
Many of the passengers had been dining or viewing the beauty of the sun draped West Cork coast when the Lusitania was attacked. Samuel Abramowitz, a 36-year-old furrier from Paris, who made the Atlantic crossing twice a year to attend auctions, went up on deck for some fresh air.
He looked out and saw a long black object rapidly approaching just below the water line. It was the torpedo. Wooden chips went fying into the air and the ship went to starboard.
The Frenchman later recalled how Captain Turner started to calm the people but the time was short and Lusitania went to the bottom. “All those people with their eyes to God and looking at death were swallowed up by the sea,” he said.
A father of eight, he said he picked up a little child on deck and climbed down a rope into a boat that had been lowered. He handed the child to another man and picked two other children out of the water.
Dr Ralph McCredy, a 26 year old Olympic cyclist from Bray, who was on deck when the torpedo struck, said it was as if the ship was suddenly checked by a gigantic and invisible hand.
It seemed to be pulled back, went on again a bit and was pulled back again Then there was an explosion and everything seemed to turn black. Huge spouts of water gushed all round and then washed down over the decks
Realising that the Lusitania was going to sink, he rejected the temptation to jump and instead slid down a long rope hanging over the side.
“When I reached the water I must have gone down a few feet. And when I came up to the surface I was bumped into by one of the stokers who was coming down the rope after me and I was driven under the surface again.”
Dr McCredy said he swam as far as he could from the sinking ship, saw a boat and climbed into it. He had left everything behind on the ship but was given a rail pass from Queenstown to Dublin, and borrowed a shilling from Cunard - his fare from Dublin to Bray.
J Preston Smith, one of the Welsh singers, who had entertained the boarding passengers in New York with a rendition of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” was in the ship’s dining room with his girl friend when the tragedy occurred.
He procured lifebelts for them both, put them on and jumped. But she must have struck the side of the ship because there was no sign of her when he reached the water. After swimming around he caught hold of a little iron tank and held on to it until he was picked up by a trawler
Oliver Bernard, the 34 year old old resident scenic artist of Covent Garden, who got away in a lifeboat, saw the torpedo strike the ship, spotted the American millionaire Vanderbilt looking unpreturbed, holding a lady’s jewel bag.
Vanderbilt was last seen by a steward handing his lifebelt to a lady passenger with the words: “Have this Madam. I shan’t need it.” His body was never located, despite an intensive search along the coast.
Another survivor, 16 years old William Myers, a British citizen from Ontario, Canada, on his way to England to join the British Navy as a cadet, was returning from the dining room with two friends when one of them saw “a white streak” coming straight at the ship.
They watched until it struck the boat. There was an awful explosion. They rushed down to the boat deck and as they got to the bottom of the steps there was a huge quantity of wood splinters and dense masses of water were flying into the air.
“When we were pulling away, our boat nearly sank and we had to pull for our lives at the oars to prevent us from being taken in with the suction. When I was in the water a row boat came along in five or ten minutes and I was taken in. It turned over and we were pitched out. Another boat came near us and took us in and then a steamer came along. The Almighty saved me. It was a terrible disaster,” he said.
Julian de Ayala, the Cuban Consul General at Liverpool, was ill in his bunk when the torpedo struck the Lusitania. He was thrown against the partition by the explosion, and suffered an injury to his head and had flesh torn off one of his legs.
He went on deck. The boat which he got into capsized. He was thrown into the water but was rescued. He later become Cuban Ambassador to France.
The diplomat graphically descrbed Lusitania’s final moments.“Her stern went up so high that we could see all of her propellers, and she went down with a headlong plunge, volumes of steam hissing from her funnels.”
As the passengers in the water screamed and cried for help, every available boat was despatched to the scene by British Navy Vice Admiral Sir Charles Coke.
He had been alerted of the Lusitania’s fate at Admiralty House in Queenstown by a message from the signal station at the Old Head of Kinsale. But it would be many hours before the flotilla would return with survivors and bodies.
British Naval Torpedo Boat 052, stationed at Queenstown, was on duty that morning in a triangle that extended from Ballycotton out to sea and back to the Old Head of Kinsale. It was keeping a sharp look out for enemy ships. There were none in sight. Seagulls flying overhead were the only distraction. Fifty years later, in 1965, Leadng Seaman Jack Flavin recalled what happened when he spoke with a reportrer at his home in Ballinacurra, Midleton. His boat was nearing the end of it’s patrol out to sea when the crew saw vessels away in the distance.
As they had no wireless, they decided to investigate. The news that the Lusitania had been sunk surprised Jack Flavin.
He was used to seeing the ship and figured she was well off her usual course. On arrival at the scene, the Navy torpedo boat began picking up survivors and bodies from the sea. It launched a small dinghy.
Flavin and another crewman rowed through dead bodies and debris to reach survivors struggling in the water. A women who was pulled into the boat asked in a West of Ireland accent if there was any drop of the “cratur” available.
The patrol boat rescued fifteen survivors. They were taken to the crew’s quarters and gven a change of clothing. A number of dead bodies were also taken on board.
A strange silence descended on the calm sea, Jack Flavin recalled. Hardly a word was spoken. It was as if the survivors were too horror stricken and the Navy men too busy to talk about the disaster.
Robert Dyer from Pittsburgh was taking a glass of beer in the lunch room and talking to Pat Carroll from Dundalk when the ship was struck. He said Pat, who had spent 30 years working as bricklayer in Chicago and was on his way home to see his father, was like a man who saw Heaven from the moment he first sighted the Irish coast.
He last saw him afterwards floating around dead.
Back in Queenstown, a huge effort was already underway to await the arrival of the search and rescue boats with the survivors and those who had perished.
It would become the harbour town’s own night to remember but also its finest hours in the way the people opened their hearts and their doors to the victims of a terrible disaster.
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