It happens about this time every year. When the calendar flips though March and April looms, long-ago conversations with Marjorie Newell Robb will surface in my memory. Those memories are especially vivid in this 100th anniversary of Robb’s life-shattering experience.
Although Robb has been gone several years, those old afternoons spent with the survivor remain as fresh as ever today.
And the tales that strong New England woman recounted made history come alive.
Robb was one of the lucky 706 who survived the sinking of the Titanic. Her name is listed at the Titanic Museum in Branson, Missouri.
It was a century ago on the night of April 14 that the unsinkable Titanic struck an iceberg and began the downward plunge that would take 1,517 souls to a watery grave.
After almost a lifetime, the tragedy – which took the life of her father and left nightmarish memories with her and her sister Madeleine – was never easy for Robb to describe.
Usually, the soft-spoken woman would begin by describing her childhood at the turn of the century. She was born Feb. 5, 1889, in Westport, Mass.
Her father, Arthur Webster Newell, began his career as an errand boy for the Fourth National Bank of Boston and ended it as president of the bank’s board of directors.
Then her father decided it was time for the family to see some of the world. And one spot at the top of his list was the Holy Land.
Robb’s mother and sister Alice thought the particular trip too rugged so they decided to stay at home. Robb, her sister and father went up the Nile, saw the tombs of kings and then boarded the Titanic at the French port city of Cherbourg for the homeward trip.
It was the Titanic’s maiden voyage and the luxury ship has been widely billed as unsinkable. Robb was then 24.
Captain E.J. Smith and his White Star Line employers had been hoping to win the blue ribbon awarded to the fastest ship afloat. Therefore, as historians have since noted, some of the usual safety precautions were disregarded.
SHIP HITS ICEBERG
Robb remembered that the evening of the sinking a sumptuous dinner had been served and that she and her sister had sat in the foyer to watch some of the great people in all their finery.
Some of the richest people in the world were aboard the Titanic and some went down with her – Colonel John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Mr. and Mrs. Rothschild, Isadore Strauss and his wife, who refused to leave him for the afety of a boat.
At about 11:40 p.m., the two sisters were awakened in their stateroom by an awful crash and noise. But they weren’t frightened. After all, they were on the unsinkable Titanic.
Then her father appeared, telling the two young women to put on warm clothes and follow him. Robb said she and her sister were concerned that they had to leave behind all their religious relics and beautiful gowns.
By that time, the ship was listing badly. The Newell sisters boarded the second lifeboat to be launched.
The last thing Robb remembered her father saying was that he didn’t know whether it was better for his daughters to get in the lifeboat or stay on the Titanic. “He hustled us into the boat anyway,” she recalled. “The last time I saw my Father, he was standing there just as stately and calm as if he were in his living room.”
SINKING OF THE TITANIC
Once the boat was lowered, the importance of putting as much distance between it and the sinking ship was evident. As the youngest person in a boat of middle-aged women paralyzed with fright, the rowing duties fell to Robb. “I was young then and strong,” she said.
As her lifeboat moved away from the Titanic, Robb could see that the ship was listing badly. “People were in the water, gasping and yelling for help. You could see them in the light of the ship and the rockets that were going up.”
By 1:55 a.m., the last distress rocket had been fired and the great ship was in its final death throes. “We could see the remaining passengers and crew moving towards the stern of the ship.” Robb said she and others in her lifeboat looked on with horror and helplessness as they watched people die.
“Then we heard this enormous awful roar,” she said. It sounded as though some monstrous metal beast was making its final gasp for life. The ship rose up almost perpendicular to the water, sending people on board skidding, slipping and catapulting into the sea. The lights of the ship flickered, flashed and went out.
At 2:20 a.m. on April 15 – less than three hours after the iceberg ripped a 300-foot hole in her hull below the waterline – the Titanic plunged bow-first three miles down to the ocean floor, picking up speed as it went.
And the roar of that dying ship never left her memory, Robb always said.
“I can remember to this day, the noise the ship made as it went under,” she said. “You could actually feel the noise, the vibrations, the screams of the people as it went down. It was a terrible terrible nightmarish sound.”
When the dawn came, the women saw themselves completely surrounded by great towering icebergs. Robb was among the survivors who were picked up by the Carpathia, a Europe-bound liner with a capacity load of passengers.
The Carpathia reversed her course to take the rescued to New York. For lack of room, Titanic passengers were obliged to lie on the Carpathia’s deck.
It was impossible to get an accurate list of the survivors but the two sisters expected to be reunited with their father in New York.
It was later learned that few men had survived the sinking, adhering to the unwritten code of the sea – “Women and children first.”
Later, the Newells were told that several bodies had washed ashore on the Newfoundland coast. Arthur Newell was identified by an onyx ring on his finger and the watch and diary in one of his pockets.
When her mother saw the two daughters standing on the dock without their father after the Carpathia arrived in New York, she fainted and never fully recovered. Robb’s mother forbade mention of the Titanic in her home and always slept with her husband’s watch under her pillow.
For the rest of her days, Robb always said she felt an icy chill go down her spine when April came around. She went on to become a music teacher and one of the founders of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. It wasn’t until later in life that Robb would talk about the Titanic. Marjorie Newell Robb died in her sleep on June 11, 1992. She was 103 years old.
That icy feeling, she said the last time we talked, was a reminder of the awesome power of Nature and the importance of relishing each day as a unique gift that will never come again.
For more information: Contact the at www.TitanicBranson.com, (800) 381-7670 or Branson Tourism at www.explorebranson.com, (800) 296-0463.