As family stories go, it would be hard to top the one that’s come down to Jill Carrizales of Gastonia.
She had four relatives aboard the Titanic when the ocean liner sank April 14, 1912.
The 100th anniversary of that historic event has come and gone, but it’s stirred a momentum that’s taking Carrizales and her daughter, Jennifer Ramsey of Gastonia to the west coast.
Later this month, they’re headed to the city of Issaquah in King County, Wash., to attend a Titanic anniversary fundraising program sponsored by the local Kiwanis Club.
The speaker is Titanic expert Donald Lynch, who interviewed Carrizales’ cousin Ruth Becker Blanchard, who survived the disaster. In time, Blanchard and Lynch became friends.
The official historian of the Titanic Historical Society and a consultant on James Cameron’s epic movie about the liner, Lynch wrote a detailed account of Carrizales’ family story.
They’ve never met, but because of his association with her cousin, she thinks of him almost as family.
Carrizales has lived in Gastonia for 20 years, but her roots are in Michigan.
She grew up in the small town of Eau Claire, aware from an early age of the family connection to the Titanic.
The story started in India, where her great-uncle, Allen Oliver Becker, was a Lutheran missionary. He and his wife, Nellie, had four children, but one died.
That tragedy weighed heavily on the parents. When another child got sick, Nellie Becker panicked. A doctor recommended taking the child back to the states. The trip was arranged, but then Oliver Becker got sick and had to stay behind.
Meanwhile, his wife and three children left India for England, where they were booked on the new ocean liner Titanic.
Asleep in their second-class cabin that night, Nellie Becker woke up and noticed the ship’s engine wasn’t running. They all piled out of bed and made their way up four flights of stairs to a waiting room. At that point, Nellie Becker remembered how cold it would be outside and sent 12-year-old Ruth back to their room to get blankets.
Ruth did as she was told and got back just in time to see her mother climbing into a lifeboat with her brother and sister.
Nellie Becker yelled for Ruth to get in another boat, which she did.
In the years ahead – and Blanchard lived to be 91 – she seldom spoke of that night.
For reasons known only to her, she didn’t want anyone to know she’d been on the Titanic.
When she finally did feel comfortable talking in public about the experience, she was in her 80s.
‘One of the best’
Lynch told me he’d made contact with Blanchard in 1975, hoping she’d talk about the Titanic. But she wasn’t interested.
Lynch kept in touch. The breakthrough came in 1982. At first, she declined his request to attend a Titanic Historical Society convention. When she changed her mind, it marked the opening of a floodgate of memories.
Lynch, who has interviewed about 20 Titanic survivors, called Blanchard “really one of the best…and a wonderful woman in her own right.”
He found her recollections clear, accurate and delivered with the touches of a true storyteller.
From the viewpoint of old age, she could look back and see herself as a child in a lifeboat afloat on the dark North Atlantic. Even though she was separated from her mother, brother and sister, she wasn’t afraid. It didn’t occur to her she might die. She was a 12-year-old following instructions, staying calm, taking everything in.
In front of her eyes, the tragedy unfolded. She was among 705 of the 2,200 aboard who would be picked up.
Flares exploding in the night sky reminded her of the Fourth of July. She watched the mighty ship break in two as it went down.
A mountain slipping beneath the surface, into the ocean of her memory.
A retired teacher, Blanchard died in 1990 in Santa Barbara, Calf. She was one of the oldest remaining survivors of the Titanic.
The Los Angeles Times reported she had avoided ocean voyages since the Titanic disaster, but about five months before her death had taken a cruise to Mexico.
I wish I could catch Lynch’s program in Issaquah June 16. He’s one of the world’s leading authorities on the legendary ship. In 1992, he wrote the text for the New York Times bestseller, “The Illustrated History of the Titanic,” which was one of the inspirations for Cameron’s movie “Titanic.”
Cameron hired Lynch as consultant to the “Ghosts of the Abyss” project where they dove to the Titanic in a submersible to film the wreck for a 3-D documentary. Lynch wrote a companion book to the film, “Ghosts of the Abyss,” and is co-writing a book about Cameron’s expeditions to the Titanic wreck.
He’s speaking at the Issaquah Kiwanis Club at the invitation of his cousin, so the trip will be something of a family reunion.
It will also feel that way to the visitors from Gastonia.