A young husband and wife held hands and jumped together for their lives from the deck of the sinking Lusitana, writes Ray Ryan
They became separated in the chaotic seas, were rescued after harrowing ordeals, were put ashore in two different ports and didn’t know for eighteen hours if the other had survived.
Flor Sulivan, a native of Clonleigh, Kilgarvan, Co Kerry, and his wife Julia, an O’Neill from Rosscarbery, Co Cork,were returning to work his family farm.
They had both spent a number of years in New York, and their epic ordeal after the ship was sunk had all the emotions associated with a terrible disaster.
The couple met in New York, where Julia worked for eight years with a childless wealthy Long Island family, the Branders, who also found Flor a job at the fashionable Stuyvesant Club in the city.
Sadly, the Branders died within three months of each other and left everything to Julia.
She and Flor married and planned coming back to Cloneigh after his father died.
Part of the funeral cortege to the cemetery on Monday, May 10, 1915. Picture: Examiner Archives, Ref 44
They travelled second class on the Lusitania, treated the crossing as a second honeymoon and had enjoyed a concert on board the night before the disaster.
It was a happy night with those on board in a relaxed mood after six days at sea. One passenger even sang “When I Leave this World Behind”, not knowing what lay ahead.
After fog lifted the following morning, the Sullivans went on deck, recognising landmarks along the West Cork coast through a pair of binoculars.
They had borrowed the glasses from Flor’s friend, the ship’s chief purser James McCubben, who was himself planning to go farming in Golder’s Green, then open countryside on the edge of north west London.
Glandore, Rosscarbery Bay, and Piper’s Hill reminded 25 year old Julia of her school days. She was disappointed the ship would not be calling at Queenstown but was delighted to see her homeland again. She was still gazing through the glasses as it passed the Seven Heads.
It was then the torpedo struck. There was a dreadful explosion and the liner rolled from side the side. Julia clung to her husband to restore her balance.
They rushed from the deck to their room to retrieve their savings but the door was jammed and Flor, a powerfully strong man, had to kick it open.
He secured two lifebelts, put one on himself and placed the other around his wife. Unlike her husband, she could swim. He also gave her £100 in notes and gold, as well as a large bank draft, as he felt she had a better chance of rescue.
They had earlier witnessed a lifeboat being lowered from the starboard side of the Lusitania.
Fourteen men entered it, but it got smashed on entering the water, and its occupants were drowned. It convinced them it would be safer to jump.
Back on deck, Flor and Julia held each other tight and leaped into the sea, now crowded with struggling and screaming people and pieces of furniture and other debris which had been thrown overboard for use as makeshift rafts.
Flor grabbed on to Julia’s lifejacket as she swam them clear but they were parted by the disturbance caused by the water closing over the ship and not long afterwards she lost consciousness. There was no sign of her when Flor surfaced.
He found a large tin vessel or box that looked like a buoy. He grabbed it with both hands and held on but he was barely able to keep his head above water.
A survivor is pictured at Cobh (Queenstown) shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania. Ref 44
Stewardess Mary Jones, who was struggling in the water, caught him by the right forearm in the hope of being rescued. They drifted around the sea in this way for over two hours, striking against lifeless bodies in the water.
Her grip was so tight it left deep marks on his arm. She kept asking if there was any rescue boat in sight. As her strength went, she relaxed her hold and disappeared. “It was heartbreaking,” he said.
Flor’s own great strength also weakened and with bodies that had fallen off rafts and upturned boats floating past, he became depressed and concluded his time to perish was at hand.
“The most terrible sight I have ever seen. There were men, women, and children struggling in the water. Their screams and shouts were simply awful. There were bodies all around.
“When bodies were floating past me, it was a toss of a penny whether I would hold out or go down,” he said.
Shortly afterwards, a torpedo destroyer arrived. Flor was taken on board and collapsed. On arrival in Queenstown, he was given medical attention and recovered later that night.
There was still no news of his wife and he spent many hours examining the bodies that had been recovered but she was not amongst them and he feared she had been lost.
Morning brought the Cork Examiner to Queenstown. He bough a copy for a penny and scanned the detailed accounts of the disaster with intensity.
Suddenly he burst into joy when he saw that his wife’s name was among the list of survivors in a late night report from the paper’s Kinsale correspondent.
She had been rescued along with eight others by the Naval patrol boat Heron but due to her condition she was landed in Kinsale instead of Queenstown and treated in the local hospital. Five bodies were also brought ashore by the rescue ship.
My wife is saved”, Flor shouted. “I must go to Kinsale to be with her.”
The coffins of victims of the Lusitania disaster outside the offices of
the Cunard Company. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
When Julia awoke in the hospital at Kinsale, she asked a priest what had happened to her husband.
He told her there was no Florence Sullivan in the hospital, but he urged her not to give up hope as there were several more survivors in Queenstown.
“I’ll get in touch with them and let you know. Get some sleep now, and put your trust in the Mother of God,” he said.
That evening the priest returned and whispered to Julia, “Your husband is alive and well! He’s been told you are here. When you join him in Cork put your heads together and plan some way of giving thanks to God for your deliverance.”
Julia sent money to a little girl who had lost her parents, brothers, and sisters in the disaster and back in Kilgarvan she arranged to have several Masses offered for “all the souls that went down on the Lusitania.”
Five months after the ship down, a leather case was delivered to her. It had been washed ashore and was handed over to the RIC. It contained her savings of £324 10s. 0d.
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