by Floyd Andrick
Winnifred Quick VanTongerloo died on July 4, 2002 at the age of 98 years. She was one of only four remaining Titanic survivors and the only one who could still tell of the 1912 event from her own memory (the other three survivors ranged from age 10 weeks to 52 years and were too young to remember the tragedy). Winnifred was 8 years of age when she survived the sinking Titanic along with her younger sister and mother.
Winnifred Quick was born in Plymouth, England to Fred and Jane Quick on January 23, 1904. On April 10, 1912, Winnifred, along with her 22-year-old sister Phyllis and mother Jane Quick, boarded the Titanic. They would travel to America on the new luxury liner and make their way to Detroit to join Fred Quick, who had emigrated earlier. Fred was working as a plasterer in Detroit and was anxiously awaiting the arrival of his wife and two daughters from England.
All of us know well what transpired on the night of April 14-15, 1912 – the trip did not go as planned. Winnifred Quick was there to experience that event first hand. Even though she was only 8 years and 4 months of age, she remembered the night very well. Although often reluctant to share those memories, she occasionally reminisced of “that night.”
Since July of 1984, when it was my great pleasure to meet Winnifred Quick VanTongerloo, many visits have been enjoyed in which she shared some of her Titanic memories. Most of these visits took place in East Lansing, Michigan after Winnifred moved there in 1996. Sometimes, when she was sharing details of the story, she would suddenly stop and say, “Oh ...it is just too horrible to talk about.” That would be the end of any Titanic discussion until the next visit.
My initial visit with Winnifred in July 1984 at her Warren, Michigan home was a memorable occasion. Four of us (Ken Marschall from Redondo Beach, California, George Behe from Mt. Clemens, Michigan, Ray Lepien from East Lansing, Michigan and I) arrived in early afternoon at her home. Winnifred appeared younger than her 80 years when she greeted us at the door and gave us a hearty welcome. She introduced us to her husband Alois whom she married when she was only 19 years of age.
Winnifred and Alois seemed to be very happy in their marriage and with their five children (three of whom survive today). During the course of the visit, Mrs. VanTongerloo shared some of the details of what she remembered of the Titanic and the sinking. She also brought out a little White Star flag that she had stuffed in her coat pocket sometime during the voyage. These little flags were given to the children aboard ship as mementos of their trip.
Winnifred related that she, her sister Phyllis and mother Jane were all asleep in their second class stateroom when the Titanic collided with the iceberg. They had retired at around 9 p. m. and did not hear or feel the impact of the iceberg against the hull of the ship. Winnifred remembered that her mother had left the stateroom door ajar for some fresh air, as they were bothered by the smell of fresh paint. Sometime after the collision, a lady passenger knocked at the door and told Mrs. Quick that there had been an accident. It was suggested that the Quicks get dressed and go to the boat deck. Jane Quick did not think it was anything serious, but she did get up and put a skirt on over her nightdress. While Jane awakened Winnifred, a steward yelled into the doorway, “For God’s sake, get up! Don’t stop to dress. Put your lifejackets on. They’ve hit an iceberg and the ship is sinking!” Jane Quick carried Phyllis in one arm and held on to Winnifred’s hand while the three quickly made their way to the deck. A man put lifebelts on the two girls, assisted Jane with her lifebelt and then guided them up an iron ladder to the waiting lifeboats. No sooner were they loaded into lifeboat No. 11, when the 70 foot descent to the water began.
Winnifred recalled being absolutely terrified thinking that she would have to jump into the ocean. She became hysterical and cried hard until the lifeboat was down in the water. The ropes were released and the lifeboat was rowed out away from the Titanic to “avoid being pulled down by the suction when the ship sank.” While they rowed away, Winnifred prayed. Believing that they would now be safe, she soon stopped crying.
Mrs. VanTongerloo once told of the reflection of the lights on the water from the sinking Titanic. She remembered that it was so very cold as they watched the ship slowly sink beneath the surface. She also recalled the terrible sounds that echoed across the water as the great ship reared up before it went down. “We were about a mile away when the lights went out and there was a terrible noise that followed.”
Winnifred said that she, her sister and mother huddled together for warmth while awaiting rescue. A lady passenger wrapped part of her coat around Winnifred to help keep the girl warm. When the Carpathia arrived, Winnifred and Phyllis were lifted aboard in burlap bags, while their mother was hoisted to the deck in a chair. The Carpathia was very crowded with all the extra passengers and the two girls, along with their mother, slept on bunks in the cargo hold. “I remember, though, that we were very well-fed and cared for by the crew of the Carpathia,” Winnifred emphatically stated.
The Carpathia arrived in New York on Thursday evening, April 18 and Fred Quick was there waiting in the crowds. He was terribly worried because he did not know if his wife and daughters had survived. For a long time he waited as dozens of dazed Titanic passengers made their way down the gangplank. Finally, when he had about given up hope of seeing his wife and daughters, they appeared at the doorway and were soon into the arms of the joyous husband and father.
Winnifred related, during subsequent visits, that shortly after they reached Detroit, her mother took her story of survival to the National Theater and became a vaudeville performer. “Phyllis and I would walk out on stage, our mother would introduce us and then she would tell the story to the audience about how we survived.” The appearances went on for some time until Jane Quick became ill and had to give up performing.
Mrs. VanTongerloo related that, eventually, only close friends and family knew that she, her sister and mother had been on the Titanic. With the passage of time, few people ever mentioned anything of the tragedy. Phyllis died at the age of 44 on March 15, 1954 and their mother died 11 years later in 1965.
Winnifred Quick VanTongerloo enjoyed relative obscurity until the subject of the Titanic began to surface in the 1960s and 1970s.
Eventually, individuals like the four of us named earlier in this story made contact with her and learned of her memories. My initial contact with Winnifred turned into a long friendship that endured until her recent demise. Throughout those 18 years since meeting Mrs. VanTongerloo, many treasured memories remain from the visits with her. It was always exciting on the drive to her East Lansing apartment to spend a portion of the afternoon with her. Each time there was the anticipation that she might relate some new and untold details of the days aboard the great ship and memories of the sinking. Sometimes, however, the subject of the Titanic was never even mentioned.
Ray Lepien and I would always visit Winnifred on her birthday (January 23rd). Winnifred loved chocolate, so we always bore gifts of chocolate chip cookies, assorted chocolate candies and, as often as possible, chocolates from Swizzerland or Germany. She never failed to be a gracious hostess as she expressed interest in our lives – what we were doing, our recent travels, etc. Once, while talking about traveling, Winnifred related that she had never flown and had no desire to do so. She also stated that she had never again crossed the ocean aboard ship. On one occasion, she and her husband Alois were crossing Lake Michigan on a ferry boat at night. They were in a stateroom and she was nearly asleep when she was sure that she heard someone call out, “All hands on deck!” For a startling, frightening moment, she thought she was again on the Titanic. But she soon realized, “...That was another time and place.” Winnifred and Alois traveled extensively, visiting 49 of the 50 states and almost all of the Canadian provinces before Alois died in 1987.
Mrs. VanTongerloo lived a quiet life at her Warren home subsequent to her husband’s death. In reality, she was a shy individual and did not wish to draw attention to herself. Her experience in 1912 made that somewhat difficult. After breaking a hip, she moved to an assisted living center in East Lansing, Michigan. When the blockbuster Titanic movie debuted in 1997, the media of the world clamored for an interview with Winnifred. She refused all interviews and wished to be left alone. A grandson looked after her and ensured her wish for privacy.
The phone call that informed me of Mrs. VanTongerloo’s death came as a great shock. Even though Winnifred had not been feeling well over recent weeks, the situation had not seemed to be serious. We had all hoped that she would live on for many more years, being able to share more stories and memories of the subject that fascinates us all. That personal wish was not to be fulfilled, as Winnifred passed quietly in her sleep early on the morning of July 4, 2002.
On the evening of July 8, George Behe, Ray Lepien and I met at the Warren, Michigan funeral home where the body of Winnifred VanTongerloo rested. We hesitated in the parking lot before entering the building, asking ourselves if we were really ready to say ‘good-bye.’ Once inside the chapel, we were greeted by Winnifred’s daughter Janette. She was thrilled that we had made the trip to pay our respects to her mother. We reminisced for a time, sharing memories and stories from past visits. Janette expressed that her mother thought a great deal of us and our friendship. She was sure to mention that “...mother really enjoyed all the chocolate that each of you brought for her.”
Slowly, the three of us approached the closed gray steel casket. Many floral arrangements adorned the room. Near the foot of the casket on an easel was the beautiful Titanic painting by Ken Marschall, “Farewell to Cherbourg.” On the far side of the room was a photo collage depicting Mrs. VanTongerloo’s life, starting about the time that she arrived in America. Other than the Titanic painting, there was little to indicate the fame of the lady for whom we were there to pay our respects. Even in death, Winnifred was modest about being one of the very last Titanic survivors.
With lumps in our throats, we quietly shared our feelings for this special lady and how much we would miss her. Before we left the chapel, we each made a contribution to the Burcham Hills Foundation where Mrs. VanTongerloo had lived for six years. With a final nod and farewell, we slowly walked out of the building into the summer heat. After a few moments of quiet discussion, we each departed for our respective homes. With a heavy heart, the drive back to Midland, Michigan seemed extra long that night.
Funeral services for Winnifred were conducted at 10 a. m. from St. Dorothy Church in Warren, Michigan on July 9, 2002. Burial took place at Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Detroit following the funeral service. With the passing of Winnifred VanTongerloo, there are now only three remaining Titanic survivors – Lillian Asplund, Barbara West Dain-ton, and Millvina Dean. I hope these remaining survivors will remain with us for a long time to come.
This article and photographs first appeared in Voyage, journal of Titanic International Society, Freehold, N.J. and appears here with permission of H. Floyd Andrick.