Mrs Helga Elisabeth Lindqvist Hirvonen, née Lindqvist, was born on 2 January 1890 in Salo, Finland, then the Grand Duchy of Finland, an autonomous state of the Russian Empire.
She was the daughter of Karl August Lindqvist and Elisabeth Vik. She had three known siblings, including brothers Eino and Matti (Martin) and a sister, Lydia. In adulthood she was described as standing at 5’ 6” and having a fair complexion, with brown hair and blue eyes.
By 1912 Mrs Hirvonen lived in the predominantly Swedish-speaking (it is understood that Helga was fluent in both Finnish and Swedish) town of Taalintehdas (Dalsbruk in Swedish) in southwestern Finland, the birthplace of her husband Erik Aleksanteri (Eric Alexander) Hirvonen (b. 18 May 1886). The pair made a handsome couple and their only child, Hildur Elisabeth, was born in Dalsbruk on 15 February 1910.1
Erik Hirvonen left Finland in late 1911; he travelled to the USA aboard the Lusitania—arriving in New York on 3 November 1911—destined for the home of a friend at Motheral Avenue in Monessen, Pennsylvania. A slight man, he stood at 5’ 5½” and brown hair and blue eyes. Setting up home in Monessen, he garnered a position as a tin worker and saved enough money to send for his wife and child to join him.
Helga and her daughter Hildur boarded the Titanic at Southampton as third class passengers (ticket number 3101298 which cost £12, 5s, 9d). She was travelling to Monessen, Pennsylvania to join her husband who lived at Motheral Avenue in that city. Besides her daughter, she was travelling with her brother Eino Lindqvist and fellow-Finn August Abrahamsson. Whilst aboard she also became acquainted with the Finns Eirikk Jussila, the newlyweds Pekka and Elin Hakkarainen and the Panula family. In Southampton Helga wrote a card with picture of the Titanic to friends in Dalsbruk. For a long time there Helga was believed to be dead.
On the night of the sinking Eino Lindqvist placed his sister and niece into a lifeboat.
‘I was the last to be given a place on the last life boat. I was very carefully picked because I had my baby with me. I suppose we had been away from the Titanic twenty minutes when it went down. I saw it plainly. When it took its final dive people were leaping from all sides into the water. Some of them were saved. When our boat left the Titanic’s side it was only about half filled. It wasn’t long however, before we picked up enough to completely fill it. My brother was found on a raft after we had been six and a half hours at sea....I was in the boat with the managing director of the steamship company, J. Bruce Ismay, although at the time I didn't know it....'' - Charleroi Mail, April 23, 1912
Her husband Erik, whom the Daily Independent (20 April 1912) described as a screw boy at the American Sheet and Tinplate plant in Monessen, received worked on 19 April 1912 that his wife and baby daughter were among the rescued from the Titanic and were then currently recuperating in hospital in New York. Having had no knowledge that they had been aboard that ship, he immediately hastened to New York to find them.
In an image published in several New York newspapers, Helga Hirvonen is shown after her arrival in New York, her daughter Hildur on her knee whilst a sleepy Margit Sandstrom wipes her eye beside them. In front is (believed to be) Ilias Yarrad.
Arriving in Monessen with the freshly-widowed Elin Hakkarainen in tow, whom she cared for several weeks, Mrs Hirvonen gave several interviews to the local media; in one interview, published in the Charleroi Mail on 23 April 1912, it was—inevitably—stated that she was the last person placed in the last lifeboat to leave the ship. She said:
Most of the third cabin passengers were awakened I guess about midnight on that last Sunday. Grabbing whatever clothing they could they rushed forth. They were met by officers of the ship who said: ‘Get back to your places; there’s nothing wrong.’ All went back. However, there was considerable excitement. Some time later—I don’t know just how long—it seemed that the big steamer was tilting. Then there was another rush for the promenade deck. The officers couldn’t drive us back then. After some time there came a shouted order for the women to come up on another deck. Some of us understood and started.
There was great confusion and a babble of tongues. Many of the third cabin passengers could not understand English and didn’t know what was being shouted to them. The rest of us were too badly frightened and excited I suppose to help them much, and as a result half of the women and children and a majority of the men did not get away from the steerage at all. One of the last persons I saw before leaving was Mrs John Paluna (sic). I knew her well. She was so much confused that, poor woman, she hardly knew which way to turn. She was one of the last to come on deck.
Helga and her family initially lived for a brief period in Monessen before moving to Syracuse, New York where her husband worked for the Holcomb Steel Company up until retirement and where he worked alongside Eino Lindqvist until the latter moved to California; by 1918 their address was 506 Willis in that city. The family settled on a farm in Victory, Cayuga, New York in 1936 where Mrs Hirvonen spent the rest of her life. Family recall visits to the farm, which was complete with animals.
Helga made two known return trips to Finland, once in April 1914 when she sailed aboard the Lusitania to Britain, her eventual destination being Åbo (Turku in Finnish), Finland and not returning to the USA until late the following year. In the 1920s she and Hildur visited her mother in Dalsbruk.
Helga outlived her daughter Hildur, who died from cancer in 1956. She herself died following a long illness aged 71 on 17 May 1961; several newspapers that carried the news of her death incorrectly stated that she was the last living Titanic survivor. She was buried beside her daughter at Union Hill Cemetery, Cato, New York. Her will was admitted to probate and her estate, not exceeding $10,000, was left to her widower Erik.
Erik, having weathered the loss of both his wife and daughter in a few short years, spent a mournful existence for the rest of his life, living in different hotels in and around Cato, New York. Having no close surviving relatives (except for a niece in Buffalo, New York), he passed his time daily by meeting and conversing with a lone friend, a Mr Arthur Hart. When one day he did not show up as usual, this alerted the suspicions of those who knew him and he was found dead in his hotel room in the Cato Hotel on 17 March 1964; he had taken his own life. He was buried with his wife in Union Hill Cemetery.