Encyclopedia Titanica

Interviews with survivors

First Hand: 2: The Sinking of the 'Titanic'

BBC Television

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With eye-witnesses and film and photographs taken at the time, Peter West tells the story of one of the most dramatic disasters at sea.

Interviews with four survivors of the Titanic: Edith Russell, James Witter, Walter Hust and Gershon Cohen and the wireless operator of the Carpathia Harold Cottam. The interviews were first Broadcast on 27 November 1956 in First Hand (Episode 2) the presenter was Peter West.

Titanic Survivors Interviewed in 1956

Peter West. - And now let's take up the story from survivors of the Titanic themselves first of all an American passenger Miss Edith Russell travelling first-class. Where were you just before it happened Miss Russell?

Edith Russell

Edith Russell

in the library the steward had just called out 11:30 lights out so I gave him a few letters to post in the morning told him I'd pay for the stamps picked up a book and walked forward to my stateroom which was on the same deck A-11. as I got in my stateroom I switched on the electric light and I noticed a slight jar followed immediately by a second one and a third one which was quite strong enough to make me hold on to the bedpost. The boat came to a full stop I walked forward to our window and saw a grayish white mass drifting by. Very much surprised I decided to take my fur coat and go out on deck and see what was all about.

Well I got out on deck I noticed a gentleman standing by the rail and several people and the large... again this grayish mass, I said what on earth is that there a madam "that's a lifeboat... that's an iceberg". "Iceberg? Gracious! I have always wanted to see one of those things since I was a child", "well you're seeing a corker now, there's one eight above the water and seven-eighths below and believe me that some iceberg". So after that we picked up bits of ice played snowballs for a little while and was very very cold I asked one of the officers if there was any danger he said no so I went back to bed

As simple as that no danger as far as you were concerned?


Now what about Mr. Witter, second class smoking-room steward. What did you think the Titanic had hit Mr. Witter?

James Witter

James Witter

Well I didn't think she'd hit anything I thought she dropped a blade from the propeller, you know.

How did you find out what in fact it happened

Well I went down to the working out way where my cabin is, number seven glory hole, I was standing there talking to two or three fellows and the carpenter came along and I heard him say the bloody mail room was full of water. I said, what's that mail room full of water? He said yes. I said well what about those bulkhead doors forward he said they're not holding Jim. Of course then I walked into my cabin, number seven glory hole, and I opened my box I called everybody I said come along fellas get up she's going down so they opened my box took up some matches some cigarettes and I said come on fella get out... "what the hell are you talking about" he said "get out of here" someone threw a boot at me. I said good night gentlemen just as easy as that.

As far as they were concerned, said no danger either, not at that time. Well now commander Lightoller the second officer of the Titanic died recently but in 1936 he broadcast his story of that night and... [segment missing] it left six compartments open to the sea the water flowed into the first six compartments forward of number four boiler room and caused her bows to sink so much that the water flowed over the top of the after most watertight bulkhead filled the next compartment then overflowed again into the next one and so on well from that moment, as the captain very well realized, nothing could save the Titanic and the order was given lower the boats. Quartermaster Rowe who is here tonight was a very surprised man. Where were you quartermaster?

I went on watch on the poop at eight o'clock, at ten o'clock I read the log and passed it on to the fore bridge, at twenty minutes to twelve I was pacing up and down the deck and I felt a good jar I thought that was peculiar I looked along the side and I saw what I thought was a windjammer but as it came astern I saw it was an iceberg. The engine was going full speed astern then and so I pulled the log in, after that had got a bit quiet except for the blowing off of steam and heard nothing or see nothing until I saw a lifeboat being lowered on the starboard side so I reported it to the bridge. I asked him if they knew there was a boat being lowered, they said they did and wanted to know who I was, I said I was the after quartermaster, they asked me if I knew where the distress rockets were, I said yes they said bring them on the bridge. When Captain Smith saw me bring them up he told me to fire one and fire one every five or six minutes after about two or three minutes he said to me "Can you Morse?" I said "yes, a bit" he said "call that light up, tell them Titanic's sinking please get all your boats ready." She never answered

And that's your strange story quartermaster, just like that. Now what about a third class passenger Mr. Cohen I think Mr. Cohen, you'd had a bit of a celebration with the boys that night?

Gus Cohen

Gus Cohen

I did, we had a celebration with a glass of lemonade.

Am I supposed to believe that?

Yes, you are, it's what my pals do.

Did you get yourself a life belt early on in the proceedings?

No, not at the time, the reason was because we thought the Titanic was unsinkable.

When did you really believe at last that she was going down?

When the boat was listing and then I decided to find a lifebelt. I found it very quickly and then I went towards the lifeboats I never had a chance to get in any one of them because the order was women and children first, so as I was a lad of nineteen I was out of it, so I decided to find my own salvation. I went across to the davit, climbed across the davit, which was a dangerous thing entirely, and went down the rope about 80 feet long and went into the water into the sea rather.

It sounds easy now, quick doesn't it when you tell it?

Yes it does.

I bet you wouldn't want to do it now.

No not with this! [laughs,taps leg]

I don't know whether they can see you lower down, but they can imagine... it's not as bad as they may think.


Now that lifeboat that you picked you up eventually was it full?

No, it's about 25 people in it. The reason it was fairly empty as it was was because the people on the boat both never realized that the boat would sink and not many people took the opportunity of going into the lifeboats

A greater risk leaving the ship than staying aboard?


Let's ask Miss Russell to take up her story again. Let's jump ahead in time the last we heard from you Miss Russell you were getting to bed, you decided to go to bed, now let's go forward to the time when you were on deck and you askes Wareham, your steward, to go and find your little pig, your mascot, would you take up from there?

I was on A-deck in the lounge when Wareham came along and I said to him here are my trunk keys would you mind taking care of my trunks if I don't get back in time in the morning so he said you better grin and kiss those trunks goodbye I see don't think there's any danger do you if there is why, you better go back and get me a mascot. My mascot was a little pig, a music box it had been given to me by my mother after a motor accident fatal to everybody but me in France so he brought the little pig back it played the Maxixe and after that I was in the direct line of light with Bruce Ismay who saw me and picked me up like a puppy and threw me down the steps and I was wearing a sheath dress very narrow skirt, a long fur coat, a woolen cap, some furs, evening slippers, and one thing and another... thin stockings and I went forward to the rail looked at that very very high rail with a lifeboat swinging way out on its davits and I knew I never could make it not that skirt so as I stood there hesitating a sailor grabbed this little pig from under my arm and said well if you don't want to be saved we'll save your child and he threw the pig into the lifeboat well I stood there hesitating as I said to a gentleman alongside, "should I leave?" he said "definitely, madam", Well I said I can't make, it so now if you will just sit on my hand this sailor and I will make a little cradle of our hands you sit down put your hand around my neck and we'll toss you right into the lifeboat and they did. The first thing I did then was to hunt for the little pig, I found it the bottom of the boat with its legs broken but it still could play the Maxixe and I played it all night long to keep the children from crying.

Thank you Miss Russell. Well meantime, the entire crew and all the officers of the Titanic were working frantically and in the wireless roo the chief radio officer Jack Phillips was trying to contact nearby ships the nearest was the Californian but her solitary operator had gone to bed the officer of the watch reported the Titanic's Rockets and the disappearance of her lights to the captain but no action was taken. Meantime Phillips from the Titanic was sending out the old CQD call, a standard distress signal of those times, but then he changed to SOS the first time it had ever been used at sea and one of the ships to pick that up was the Carpathia the captain Captain Rostron. Now Harald Cottam, there he is, was the operator of the Carpathia and he received the signal and here he is sending his answer now. Now this equipment you're using now Mr. Cottam I understand is the same as in the Titanic except for the buzzer that Marconi marine supplied for the Titanic now, is that not right? Yes. We've got the coil there, the tuning here, Yes, And the receiving yes and here was the transmission, was it not? Yes, With a spark flying from the points when you pressed the buzzer, Yes, and here are the charging and distributing apparatus, Yes. Now Mr. Cottam the Titanic called you in distress what was your reaction?

Harold Cottam

Harold Cottam

She didn't call, I called her. About 1 o'clock in the morning, after I've taken the press or listened to the press I took a batch of messages for her and with the intention of redirecting them on to her I called her up and they only reply I got that she'd struck ice, I said was it serious? and she said "yes this is a CQD old man, here's the position, report it and get here as soon as you can." So I took the position and on the scrap of paper and rushed up to the bridge with it when I got on the bridge I contacted the officer of the watch and the information didn't seem as though it had sunk in as fast as I thought it ought to so I rushed down off the down the ladder - and knocked on the captain's cabin and as I saw a light I rushed in and he said "Who the hell" or words to that effect and so I said "Well, the Titanic struck ice sir, and she's in distress, I've got the position here." So he said "Well, give it me" and he put a dressing gown on and went so he said "will you confirm this? Go aft and confirm it if you can."

Which you did.

Yes, which I did

And when you came back what did he do?

Harold Cottam

Well, when I came back he said well you better go back and tell her that we're going to double bank all the watches on deck and below and tell him we're on our way.

As fast as you could go.

Yes, as fast as you could go.

Fine, thank you Mr. Cottam. Well, the Carpathia was on its way and back on the Titanic the last lifeboat got away round about 1.20 in the morning and it had over 60 people on board. From the boat they watched the ship with husbands, relations and friends still aboard, still unable to believe that she was doomed. Commander Lightoller was less than a hundred yards away on the top of an upturned boat.

Charles Lightoller: As I watch I could see her bow getting deeper and deeper in the water with the foremast sticking up above the surface whilst her stern lifted higher and higher till it was right out of the water. When she got to an angle of about 60 degrees there was a sudden sort of rumbling roar as her massive boilers all left their beds and went crashing down through the bulkheads and everything that stood in their way. Up to that moment she had stood out as clear as clear with her rows of electric lights all burning, when the boilers broke away she was, of course, plunged into absolute darkness. Though her huge black outline was still perfectly distinct up against the stars and sky. Slowly she reared up on end till at last she was absolutely perpendicular then quite quietly but quicker and quicker she seemed just to slide away under the surface and disappear.

In the lifeboats, the survivors braced themselves for the rigours of a long night, and one of those survivors a greaser, Mr. Walter Hurst got there in a very strange way what's your story Mr. Hurst?

Walter Hurst

Walter Hurst

Well, I saw the for'ard part of the boat deck dip under water so I jumped overboard swimming away from the ship turned around to look at her but down came the funnel and smashed into the water right in front of my face I got a gush of wind and dirt through through that nearly blinded me and I'll felt the cap go from my head, and one slipper off of my foot, but it didn't take my attention off of this boat... the collapsible boat that washed straight over off the deck within a few yards of me but I managed to get onto it and I was followed quickly by the second officer and a few others anyhow she soon got filled up. There was an old man stood next to me he was complaining all the night long about his head was so cold well I took particular was that because mine was pretty cold too but a friend of mine, a shipmate named Lindsay, gave me a drink from the bottle I thought I was on a good thing I think it was whiskey or brandy instead it was essence of peppermint, it nearly choked me

Thank you very much Mr. Hurst. Well, meantime the Carpathia was speeding to the Titanic's rescue herself dodging patches of ice and huge iceber

[end of tape]


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Encyclopedia Titanica (2019) Interviews with survivors (BBC Television, Tuesday 27th November 1956, ref: #21996, published 8 February 2019, generated 1st June 2023 07:35:43 AM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/interviews-with-survivors.html