Sunday, April 15, 2012

Guest Post from Titanic: Voices from the Disaster Author, Deborah Hopkinson, on the 100th Anniversary of the Disaster

Deborah has stopped by to talk about chance and how it played out in the lives of survivors of the Titanic. To my complete delight she's chosen to talk a little about Ole, a Norwegian immigrant, who reminded me so much of my great-grandparents while reading!

I love old photographs. So when I first began doing the research for my new book, Titanic: Voices from the Disaster, I started by looking at photos. That’s when I discovered Father Frank Browne. His story – and so many others – have made me think of the role that chance played in the lives of those involved in the Titanic tragedy in 1912.

Frank Browne was studying to be a priest, following in the footsteps of his uncle. His uncle had given him a camera a few years earlier, and Frank had gotten quite good with it. Maybe it was the thought that Frank would enjoy taking pictures at sea that prompted his uncle to give Frank a ticket on the Titanic – first class!

There was only one catch. Frank wouldn’t be going all the way across the Atlantic, but would only be on board for the first day. He would get off when the ship stopped at Queenstown to pick up passengers from Ireland.

The story goes that at dinner in the First Class Dining Saloon that first night, Frank made such an impression on a rich American couple they offered to pay his way to New York. But when he sent a wireless telegram to his religious order asking for permission, it was denied. So the next day Frank disembarked, along with what would be the only photos of the ship at sea. (To read more Frank Browne and see his rare and heartbreaking Titanic photos visit his website.)

Chance also played a role in the survival of another Titanic passenger, Ole Abelseth. Ole was 25. He was returning to the U.S. from a visit to his native Norway with a group of friends and relatives. Since Ole had been homesteading in South Dakota he understood and spoke English.

As the ship was sinking, he led his group from their third class accommodations up to the Boat Deck. The women in their party were able to get into boats, but Ole, his cousin and brother-in-law were left waiting on deck.

Suddenly Ole heard an officer call out asking if there were any sailors who could help row one of the last boats. Now, Ole had grown up fishing and knew he could handle a boat. He faced a decision. Here was a chance to save his own life..

“I would have gone, but my brother-in-law and my cousin said, in the Norwegian language, as we were speaking Norwegian, ‘Let us stay here together.’”

Loyalty won out. A short while later, with the Titanic’s deck only five feet above the sea, the three men jumped. Ole held his brother-in-law’s hand, but in the water Ole got tangled in a rope, and let go to try to free himself. Water closed over his head.

“I’m a goner,” he thought.

When Ole surfaced he was able to make his way to a dark shape nearby: Collapsible A, one of the last lifeboats. He hung onto the side until he got the strength to pull himself in.

Ole never saw his cousin or brother-in-law again.

Ole Abeseth returned to his farm, married in 1915 and had four children. He died in 1980 at the age of 94.

- Deborah Hopkinson

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