Did the lifejackets kill the passengers and crew

Paul Lee

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Aug 11, 2003
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Hi all,
In the book about the Empress of Ireland sinking "Fourteen Minutes", its stated that the recovered bodies seemed to have their necks broken, by the lifejackets (similar in design to the Titanic's) riding up their bodies as they struck the water. This same problem was nearly encountered by the stuntmen for "A Night to Remember", until they replaced the cork with another material.

Any thoughts?

Cheers

Paul
--
http://www.paullee.com
 
Dec 2, 2000
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It's possible. During my Navy career, we had inflatable life vests just incase we needed them to abandon ship. Normally, we had them deflated and stored in a pouch worn on a belt. When we weren't at general quarters, they were kept stored in lockers by the Repair Lockers. When abandoning ship, we were trained to not inflate the things until already in the water as to do otherwise was an invitation to a broken neck.

If anybody jumped into the water from the stern with these things on as the ship was going down, my bet is that they would have died almost instantly as a result.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Dec 3, 2000
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Several Morro Castle passengers broke their necks jumping with a life preserver on. Most of the stories are vague, but in the case of Dr VanZile, he was seen to jump wearing a life preserver; blood 'gushed' out of his face and he rolled over in the water and drifted away. Passenger Morton Lyon, Jr, also wearing a life preserver, was encountered in the water by shipboard friends. He had done "something" to his neck where he could not hold his head upright- it kept rolling forward- and he soon died. Chances are that at least few who jumped or fell from the Empress met with similar accidents.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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One can come into some serious hurt jumping into the water from any great hight, and you don't need to be wearing a life preserver to end up that way. Water is incompressible, which can't always be said for whatever splashed down into it. Anyone ever do a belly flopper from the pool's edge?

Imagine doing that from up to 70 or 80 feet up...or even higher.
 
Dec 4, 2000
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Cork lifevests were known to cause injuries for some time before their "type acceptance" was revoked in the U.S. A WW-II manual for merchant sailors ("How To Abandon Ship," Richards & Banigan, Cornel Maritime Press) advised on pages 20 and 21:

"Do not jump into the water....If you are wearing a lifejacket containing cork, you are in danger of breaking a rib or your collar bone."

The main advantage to cork was incompressability which meant the floation was not degraded in stowage. Kapok, a natural air-trapping fiber, replaced cork, but can be compressed by weight or tightly-packed stowage. This reduces the available flotation. Kapok also becomes waterlogged while cork is relatively immune to this problem.

Kapok eventually won the flotation battle in part because it allows better design of lifevests. The flotation can be concentrated on the wearer's chest and behind the head. This floats the person with mouth and nose in a better position for breathing, even if the wearer is not fully conscious. And, someone wearing a kapok lifevest is less likely to suffer broken bones (shoulder as well as neck) when falling or jumping into the water from height.

Like cork, kapok is no longer "type accepted" due to its potential loss of floation in storage and when wet. Today, accepted lifevests must have closed-cell foam as the flotation medium.

Titanic's cork life vests were white canvas. White remained an acceptable color through WW-II when international orange became the required hue. White vests are highly visible against dark water, but may be confused with white foam or even small bits of ice when searching for victims of a shipwreck. Nothing except distress equipment (rafts, lifeboats, lifevests, etc.) on the surface of the sea is international orange.

-- David G. Brown
 
Dec 2, 2000
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Cork has another disadvantage when stored over long periods of time in that eventually, if not cared for properly, it will decompose. Hardly a surprise since this is an organic material. What may look like a sound lifevest may turn out to have nothing in the pockets other then a powder which will actually soak up water like a sponge.

This came as a nasty surprise to those who were aboard the General Slocum when she caught fire, a number of people put on those life preservers, jumped in and basically went strieght to the bottom of the East River. To my knowladge, not one of them ever came back up.

Kapok is not without it's vices too, and one of them is flammability. They found out about this in the Normandie. Remember the hotwork that started the fire? Guess what the sparks from that cutting torch landed on!
 
Jan 28, 2003
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So many of these 'life-saving' devices hold hidden dangers, it seems. I was watching the D-Day 60th Anniversary celebrations at the weekend, and an American veteran was explaining how, when landing in supposedly shallow water (but often 6ft deep or more) they had to decide whether to fasten their helmets tight - in case of bullets - or leave them loose, because if they filled with water they could snap the neck. The official line was to leave them loose, but under those circumstances one might well choose the other option.
I don't know if you guys in the States saw the D-Day celebrations, but it was wonderful, and definitely a 3-hanky event. All those amazing and modest old gentlemen, Germans too, getting together. One of the landing-craft pilots at Omaha was on TV. I thought he looked pretty sprightly - he lied about his age. He was 15 years old when he took them onto the beaches ... 15 ...
 

Bob Godfrey

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Not at all uncommon, even among those who were actually fighting on the beaches: "I was the oldest kid on the barge. I was 18. One kid was from Missouri. He faked it. He was 14 or 15 years old." And by that time the Germans were actually drafting boys as 'auxiliary soldiers' within days of their 15th birthday. Worried mothers were assured that the boys would be kept back from the front line, but that distinction was soon lost. From a French civilian account of D-Day and its aftermath: "By mid-July, we saw German tanks rolling the other way. They were retreating. We took heart and waited. Toward the end, two German soldiers, no more than 15 years old, in oversized, scraggly uniforms, came to our door to ask for food and water. They were lost. We had no pity. We chased them away". All those old war movies made in Hollywood and Pinewood in the '40s and '50s gave entirely the wrong impression by using actors who were generally 10 or 15 years older than the authentic average.
 
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As a parent, and a human, one would weep. Still, some bright spots. I learned at the weekend that the Germans shot (this isn't the bright spot..) all French resistance fighters in the jail at Caen - except a 15 year old boy. The other French were outraged, as they faced the firing squad, and the Germans agreed - and let him live. Quite what he made of his escape in later life, of course, is a matter for compassion.
And, yes Bob, I read the average age was 19 - which means an awful lot of them must have been several years younger.
 

Kyrila Scully

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Apr 15, 2001
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There is an actual lifebelt worn by a Titanic passenger/crewman with bloodstains about the neck area. Of course, they do not point this out to visitors, but they do explain that when the passengers hit the water, the cork lifebelts (being buoyant) would violently jerk against the wearer's neck, breaking it upon impact. What is quite interesting is that this lifebelt is displayed in a glass case in the center of a darkened room, and at the level of a person standing. When one stood facing the back of the lifebelt on that side of the case, the person on the opposite side would get the visual impression that the other person was actually wearing the lifebelt. And the image, due to the reflections of light, make it ghostly in appearance.
Yes, you could break your neck wearing one of those things as you hit the water. It's hard to say just how many of the Titanic passengers/crew may have perished that way, but for them, perhaps it was a blessing that their suffering ended so quickly.

Kyrila
 

Noel F. Jones

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May 14, 2002
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Although not part of official lifeboat drill, legend had it that, if having to jump into the water from a height, hauling down on the neck aperture of a standard kapok lifejacket with both hands would lessen the chance of neck injury. I never saw it put to the test...

Well into the 'kapok era' I recall being on a World War II 'samboat' equipped with very basic lifejackets consisting of cork blocks encased in burlap! I guess they must have been original equipment from her shipyard fitting-out.

Noel
 

Inger Sheil

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Had a very interesting discussion about William Hoyt's injuries with Ben Holme once. It will be remembered that Lowe described Hoyt's injuries as such:

But one died, and that was a Mr. Hoyt, of New York, and it took all the boat's crew to pull this gentleman into the boat, because he was an enormous man, and I suppose he had been soaked fairly well with water, and when we picked him up he was bleeding from the mouth and from the nose. So we did get him on board and I propped him up at the stern of the boat, and we let go his collar, took his collar off, and loosened his shirt so as to give him every chance to breathe; but, unfortunately, he died.
Various suggestions have been offered as to why Hoyt was bleeding from the mouth and nose, including baratrauma. I find it difficult to believe - as did Ben - that he could have survived as long as he did with internal injuries. I thought he might have been battered by debris. A simple explanation, offered by Ben, was that his lifejacket had slapped him in the face when he hit the water - not broken his neck, but had caused him comparatively superficial nose and mouth injuries.
 

Ben Holme

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Feb 11, 2001
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Hi Ing!

I remember we mulled over this very topic in the best of Leicester Square curry houses. I think we agreed that the lifebelt theory was by far the most plausible. Didn't you allude to one researcher's faintly ludicrous hypothesis of Hoyt's death, in which he became trapped in an air bubble on the way down, his facial injuries being caused by the bursting of the air bubble!?

Hi Paul -- I believe one (or several) boat #14 accounts mentioned that Hoyt was wearing a lifebelt when recovered. By that late stage, Hoyt would have been immobile, and there is no evidence to suggest he was clinging to any wreckage. Hence, the lifebelt would have provided the only means of keeping his large frame afloat.

Best Regards,
Ben
 

Inger Sheil

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Cheers for that response, Ben - was it in a Leicester Square curry house, or was it in one of the salubrious Covent Garden bars? Or both? (Faint memories of 'Moon Under Water' surface...) At any rate, it was at one of the points when the ideas were flowing thick and fast - those are some of the most fruitful conversations I've ever had, not even dimmed by the 'Algae cocktail'.

Paul, the evidence on Hoyt is a bit ambiguous. Crewmen giving testimony didn't give many specifics - Crowe, for example, described the rescue in these terms:
Mr. CROWE. Returning back to the wreckage, we heard various cries, and endeavored to get among them, and we were successful in doing so and in picking one body up that was floating around in the water; when we got him into the boat - after great difficulty, he being such a heavy man - he expired shortly afterwards.
Evans, however, used the term 'picked up off the wreckage', but he seems to be using it to describe all four rescued by 14. Evans also uses the term 'wreckage' or 'wreck' to describe the general area of individual pieces of wreckage and bodies.
Mr. EVANS. We had one dead and three alive, that we picked up off the wreckage. This man died on the way from the wreckage, sir.

Senator SMITH. This man was a large man?

Mr. EVANS. A very stout man, sir.

Senator SMITH. Do you know his name?

Mr. EVANS. No, sir.

Senator SMITH. Was it Mr. Hoyt?

Mr. EVANS. I could not say; I do not know his name.

Senator SMITH. Did you unfasten his collar?

Mr. EVANS. No, sir; some of the stewards did, sir.

Senator SMITH. In the end of your boat?

Mr. EVANS. Yes, sir.

Senator SMITH. In order that he might breathe?

Mr. EVANS. Yes, sir; in order that he might breathe.
When Smith later says that he picked Hoyt up 'out of the water', Evans doesn't correct him:
Senator SMITH. This Mr. Hoyt, whom you picked up out of the water alive, was there?

Mr. EVANS. He was alive when we got him over the side of the boat, into the boat.

Senator SMITH. You picked him up out of the water alive?
I have some more sources at home I'll have to dig up - Lowe's affidavits and an account of Hoyt's rescue that graphically described how difficult he was to haul into the boat with his sodden clothes. I did wonder if, given his large frame, Hoyt might have had trouble properly securing the lifebelt, which could have resulted in the injury if it was loose or not fully fastened.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>Mr. EVANS. He was alive when we got him over the side of the boat, into the boat.<<

Only was he? Really? At the Symposium, Rachel Howland mooted the possibilty that he may have already been dead from drowning. The bleeding from the mouth and the froth are apparently consistant with that sort of thing.
 

Inger Sheil

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Lowe's attention was apparently drawn to him by a moaning sound he was making, Mike - he later gave a statement to that effect, in order to help legally establish Hoyt's death. Lowe spoke to Hoyt's family in New York about what had happened. I did consider secondary drowning, but the symptoms don't really seem consistent with that condition and - again - doubt he would have survived long enough for Lowe to hear him. The men in 14 had a considerable struggle to get him in the boat - I doubt they would have missed ascertaining whether he was really alive or not. What's the source for the frothing?

According to one source, Lowe's statement was enough to make Hoyt the first Titanic victim to be declared 'legally' dead.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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This was something mentioned at the symposium a couple of months ago. Can't speak as to it's overall sourcing as it was Rachel who did the homework on this. If there's a pathologist in the house, maybe s/he can speak to this.

Personally, I'm a little leary of the moaning. In the dark of the night, one could hear it, but that doesn't nesseccerily mean that they pulled the source of the moaning out of the water. I'm open to alternative views however.