Barbara Kharouf has difficulty being the center of so much attention.
In the last four months, she's been on television several times, been interviewed for a book, and is slated to speak about her family history at a couple of dinner
engagements this month.
That history is closely bound to the legendary tale most recently respun in James Cameron's epic film "Titanic."
But Kharouf, probably the Pittsburgh area's closest living link to the Titantic, didn't need to see the fictionalized account of the world's worst maritime tragedy
to understand it.
Her father, William Coutts, was on board the fabled liner when it sank 86 years ago today.
Coutts, who died in 1957, was traveling to the United States for the first time on the Titanic with his mother and brother. He was almost 10 years old when the
great ship sank.
His daughter's one regret is that he can't speak in her place." "He would have loved this, " says Kharouf of the current Titanic craze. "He was a professional musician and loved the limelight."
Kharouf, who grew up in Shadyside, heard many tales of the Titanic from her father, but fewer from her grandmother, Minnie Coutts, who lived in Dormont for
many years. "She just blotted it out of her mind," remembers Kharouf. "She never wanted to talk about it."
Nevertheless, Kharouf was able to piece together a story dramatic enough for inclusion in a new Fox TV documentary "Titanic: Secrets Revealed," not to mention all the school reports Kharouf wrote as a child.
The story she recounts is a compilation of her father's tales, a few comments from her grandmother, and newspaper clippings the family saved from 1912.
Kharouf's grandmother, Minnie Coutts boarded the Titantic in Southampton, England where she lived with her two sons, William, and Neville, 3.
Coutts' husband had been working in New York City as an engraver for more than a year, and had sent her enough money to book second-class passage on
But Coutts, her grand-daughter says, had been born in Ireland and was used to saving money wherever possible. So, in order to save money for use in the United States, she decided to travel third-class.
Once onboard, the Coutts were in their cabin toward the bottom of the ship went it struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m., April 14, 1912. "My grandmother felt
a slight jolt," says Kharouf. "She didn't think too much about it, but went up to see what happened."
"People were scurrying around, there was a little excitement, not much at first, but she decided there was some kind of trouble. So she decided to dress
the boys very warmly, and put two life vests that were in the cabin on each of them."
Mrs. Coutts, then age 36, rushed out of the cabin, and was directed to the upper decks by a seaman. But her progress was impeded, recounts Kharouf.
"The gates were locked at that point," Kharouf says. "She told my father that's when she started to get a little bit panicky. She never got afraid for herself, just
for her boys. She told my father: 'If anything happens to me, take care of your brother.'"
But another seaman came to the rescue. In addition to pointing out the way, he took her to his cabin, and provided her with a lifejacket, saying "I won't be
needing this. But you'll remember me, and say a prayer for me."
"That was touching," says Kharouf, adding that her grandmother never learned the man's name, and never saw him again.
The next piece of drama occurred on the deck, before the family entered what Kharouf believes was the second lifeboat to be launched. After his mother
remonstrated with Willie for petting a dog that was being loaded onto a lifeboat, she had some trouble convincing officers to allow her son to
leave the ship.
"My dad at the time looked pretty old," says Kharouf. "He was pretty tall and had a straw bowler hat on. They didn't want to take him into the lifeboats.
They thought he was 14 or 15. My grandmother said -- 'If he doesn't go, then we don't go..' So they kind of shoved him into the lifeboat, so there wouldn't be anymore confusion."
Kharouf says her grandmother did share a few impression of that night -- one was that her ability to speak English may have saved her life. "A lot of
people did not speak English, and my grandmother remembered foreigners carrying all their belongings on their back -- including steamer trunks and carpeting."
Her other comments centered on her experience in the lifeboat, surrounded by hundreds of people freeezing in the water. "I remember her saying something
about the cries and the moans," says Kharouf. "She likened it to a stadium sound, the roar of a crowd, when the ship was going down. But at first, there was no panic."
The Coutts were rescued by the ship Carpathia, as were all the other Titanic survivors, and re-united with the children's father in New York. The family moved
to Pittsburgh in 1920. Mrs. Coutts and her son Neville left for California about 1940, and later moved to New Jersey, where she died in 1960 at the age of 84. Neville Coutts died in 1976.
William Coutts was interviewed from his hospital bed for Walter Lord's book "A Night to Remember" about the Titantic just before he died, Kharouf says.
That book started a wave of interest in the shipwreck that increased when the Titanic's remains were discovered in 1985 and has culminated with the release
of Cameron's film, she says.
Kharouf has been interviewed for an upcoming book on the surviving children of the Titanic and other shipwrecks.
She's hoping to visit St. Petersburg, Fla., to see an exhibition of artifacts collected from the wreck. "I'd like to see if they found my father's engraving tools,"
she says. The exhibition closes May 15.
Kharouf will speak about her father's experience. at two "Last Dinner on the Titanic" events locally -- one at the Pines Tavern, in the North Hills, on Thursday night, the other at the Edgewood Community Club April 26.