I recently learned that I died on RMS Titanic.
My name was William Gilbert and I was traveling alone on Titanic from Cornwall, England to Butte, Montana, where I had worked for several years as a miner with my father and in a joinery shop. My ticket number was 30769.
I had spent the last three months in England on vacation visiting my mother and brother and my plans upon my return were to live with my sister in Butte, where she ran a boarding house for Cornish miners. I had originally planned on returning to Montana in March 1912, but I purposely delayed my trip a month so I could sail on Titanic, which everyone was saying was the greatest ship ever built.
I was a Second Class passenger, and when the Captain ordered us to abandon ship, I wasn’t able to find a seat in one of the lifeboats. I ended up in the water when the ship broke in two and I died sometime around 3:00 A.M. on April 15, 1912. My body was never recovered. Twenty-four days after the sinking, my brother’s wife Annie gave birth to a son. They named my nephew William in my honor.
I believe I didn’t make it because I was only Second Class. Only 43% of Second Class passengers survived the sinking of Titanic. 63% of First Class passengers survived. Only 25% of Third Class steerage passengers survived.
No, this is not some kind of past-life regression. I, Stephen, “became” William Gilbert when I was handed a Boarding Pass at the Titanic Artifacts Exhibition, which we recently attended at the Foxwoods Hotel and Casino in Connecticut. Each visitor, as part of the tour, is given a Boarding Pass which includes the name of a real Titanic passenger and a brief story of how he or she ended up on Titanic. At the end of the tour, you visit the dimly-lit Memorial Room where you learn if your passenger lived or died. My passenger, William Gilbert, didn’t make it.
April 15, 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. We visited the Artifacts Exhibition as research for a book I’m writing on Titanic and we were granted special permission to take photos inside the Exhibition for inclusion in the book.
Artifacts we saw included an actual porthole from the ship (with a giant crack through its glass), a leather purse with a satin lining that looked as new as the day it was made, dishes, letters, parts of the ship’s engine, and a man’s grey houndstooth suit. We also saw the giant model of the wreck that James Cameron borrowed to use in his movie version of the Titanic story, 1997’s Titanic.
The Exhibition also has an ice wall shaped like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. The helpful attendants at the Exhibition tell everyone, “Be sure you touch the iceberg.” This gives one a sense of the temperatures of the water that night when there was no moon, and the “unsinkable” Titanic sank.
The Exhibition we visited is one of several touring Titanic Artifact Exhibitions. The largest one is the permanent Exhibition at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. That one has the “Big Piece” (a piece of the ship’s hull) on display, as well as an actual-size reproduction of the Grand Staircase, and replicas of the outer Promenade Deck (cooled to the temperature it was that night), and staterooms.
As I work on the book, I can’t help but reflect on 47-year-old William Gilbert — did his friends call him Bill? Or Billy? Or Will? — and how excited he must have been to set foot on Titanic. Sure, he could only afford a Second Class ticket, but Second Class on Titanic was almost as good as First Class on some other ships. I wonder how long it took for his sister to get the news that he wouldn’t be coming home to Butte?
The story of Titanic is very sad. Twenty lifeboats, capable of carrying 1,178 people, for a ship carrying over 1,500 people? Today, that would be unconscionable, yet when Titanic was built there was more concern as to how the decks would look instead of the safety issues. The 48 lifeboats Titanic could have carried would have made the decks look “cluttered.” This was the prevailing opinion; thus, twenty lifeboats were deemed enough, and that number met the legal requirements. And what makes it even worse is that the lifeboat boarding procedure was grandly screwed up: lifeboats were launched with far fewer people than their capacity. An additional 500 people could have fit in the lifeboats. People died needlessly.