The Lusitania : Part 11: In The Water; A Lethargic Drift into Death

Passengers who sank with the Lusitania who did not drown in the first few minutes soon faced a subtle but efficient killer. The water temperature was later given as low to mid 50’s, and under a beautiful, blue spring sky on a sunny afternoon, the Lusitania’s people began to succumb to hypothermia. The human body can lose heat up to 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air. According to cold water survival charts, exhaustion and unconsciousness will set in one to two hours after immersion in water 50-60F, and the overall expected survival time is one to six hours. People with personal floatation devices, or something upon which to cling, survive longer. Swimmers whose entire bodies are submerged, such as those without lifejackets, fare the worst.

A common theme among accounts left by those rescued from the water was of the fairly rapid onset of hypothermic symptoms. Limbs grew heavy. Grips relaxed. Thoughts became muddled as people sank into stupors. Men and women seemingly secure atop debris or rafts suddenly let go and drifted away, still alive but unable to maintain their grasps or, once back in the water, swim. Many survivors and rescuers mentioned people pulled from the water who were apparently dead, but were revived upon being warmed. With sunset, time ran out for those unfortunates who drifted still alive, but inert with shock, in their lifebelts.

Survivor May Barrett recalled:

We had gone into the second saloon and were just finishing lunch. I heard something like the smashing of big dishes, and then there came a second and a louder crash. Miss MacDonald and I started to go upstairs, but we were thrown back by the crowd. Then the ship stopped and we managed to get up to the second deck where we found sailors trying to lower the boats. There was no panic, and the ship’s officers and crew went about their work quietly and steadily. I went to get two lifebelts, but a gentleman standing by told us to remain where we were and he would fetch them for us. He brought us two life belts and we put them on.

By this time the ship was leaning right over to starboard, and we were both thrown down. We managed to scramble to the side of the liner. Near us I saw a rope attached to one of the lifeboats and I thought I could catch it. So, we murmured a few words of prayer and then jumped in to the water. I missed the rope, but floated about in the water for some time. I did not lose consciousness at first, but the water got into my eyes and mouth and I began to lose hope of ever seeing my friends again. I could not see anybody near me, and then I must have lost consciousness for I remember nothing more until one of the Lusitania’s lifeboats came along. The crew were pulling on board a woman who was unconscious, and they shouted to me “You hold on a little longer!”

After a time, they lifted me out of the water and then I remember nothing more for a time that seemed to be an age. In the mean time, our boat had picked up twenty others, and when I became conscious it was getting late in the evening. We were transferred to the trawler and taken to Queenstown. Miss MacDonald told me how she floated nearly four hours in a dazed state. She had little remembrance of what passed until a boat saved her. She remembered someone saying “Oh, the poor girl is dead.” She had just the strength to raise her hand and they returned and pulled her on board.

F.W. Schwarte, of Nottingham, England, was returning from a business trip to Mexico and Cuba. He was leaving the first class dining room after spending lunch with his friend and business associate, C.T. Hardwick, when he heard the explosions. He recalled that the immediate reaction was ejaculations of “Torpedo! Torpedo!” by those standing around him. Everyone, it seemed, knew exactly what was happening.

Mr. Schwarte struggled upstairs to the boat deck, where he joined in the attempts to load and lower the lifeboats. He found himself in one of the boats dragged under and destroyed before it could be freed from the rapidly sinking ship:

Either the sailor above us lost his head or he was thrown backwards, and there was only a ship’s boy in the bow of our boat, and he was unable to unhook the cables. One of the passengers got a knife and started cutting them. He cut three or four, but just as he was on the last one the ship gave a lurch and dragged us all down with her. I don’t think there were many people saved out of our boat.

I was sucked under, going down, down, down….how I got up again, I don’t know.  I can’t swim, but I struggled hard and when I came near the surface there were lots of things on top of me: people struggling and shouting in the water; pieces of wreckage and I don’t know what. There was fearful confusion.

I thought the best thing to do was get on my back and strike out. After about an hour I got hold of an oar and a piece of mast, which I worked under my arms. There was not a ship in sight when we went down, but I managed to keep afloat for four hours. I don’t remember being picked up; the next thing I knew was finding myself by the stokehold on a destroyer or trawler.

Mr. Hardwick, I am pleased to say is saved…another gentleman saved who is well known in Nottingham is an American named Mr. Myers…he was one of the first I found in Queenstown hospital when I regained consciousness. He was badly injured, having two ribs and a thigh broken, and was removed to Cork hospital.

Schwarte’s first person narrative ended here. His hometown paper inexplicably paraphrased his account of his awareness of impending death, and of the sunset which spelled doom for most of those still alive in the water. This deprived researchers the opportunity to read, first hand, the sensations felt by one of the few to watch the sun set while adrift and survive:

He did not feel the water cold, at first, but soon became numbed. The thing that struck him was the sinking of the sun and the gradual approach of darkness. Once he saw a boat in the vicinity and called for help, but whether it was that boat that rescued him he has no idea.

Mary Popham-Lobb, profiled earlier in the article, was a Spiritualist. A letter she wrote, in response to a question from Arthur Lodge, regarding what it was like, from a Spiritualist’s perspective, to come so close to death, gives excellent insight to what those adrift in the cold water experienced.

What you ask me to do is not easy, as I am only one of those who are puzzling and groping in the dark—while you have found so much light for yourself and have imparted it to others.

I would like, however, most sincerely to try to recall my sensations with regard to that experience, if they would be of any value to you.

It would be absurd to say now, that from the beginning of the voyage I knew what would happen; it was not a very actual knowledge, but I was conscious of a distinct forewarning, and the very calmness and peace of the voyage seemed, in a way, a state of waiting for some great event. Therefore when the ship was rent by the explosion (it was as sudden as the firing of a pistol) I felt no particular shock, because of that curious inner expectancy. The only acute feeling I remember at the moment was one of anger that such a crime could have been committed; the fighting instinct predominated in the face of an unseen but near enemy. I sometimes think it was partly that same instinct—the desire to die game—that accounted for the rather grim calmness of some of the passengers. After all—it was no ordinary shipwreck, but a Chance of War.

I put down my book and went round to the other side of the ship where a great many passengers were gathering round the boats; it was difficult to stand, as the Lusitania was listing heavily. There seemed to be no panic whatever; I went into my cabin, a steward very kindly helped me with a life-jacket, and advised me to throw away my fur coat. I felt no hurry or anxiety, and returned on deck, where I stood with some difficulty— discussing our chances with an elderly man I just knew by sight.

It was then I think we realised what a strong instinct there was in some of us, not to struggle madly for life, but to wait for something to come to us, whether it be life or death; and not to lose our personality and become like one of the struggling shouting creatures who were by then swarming up from the lower decks and made one’s heart ache. I never felt for a moment that my time to cross over had come, not until I found myself in the water, floating farther and farther away from the scene of wreckage and misery, in a sea as calm and vast as the sky overhead. Behind me, the cries of those who were sinking grew fainter, the splash of oars and the calls of those who were doing rescue work in the lifeboats; there seemed to be no possibility of rescue for me; so I reasoned with myself and said, ‘The time has come, you must believe it, the time to cross over,’ but inwardly and persistently something continued to say, ‘No—not now.’

The gulls were flying overhead and I remember noticing the beauty of the blue shadows which the sea throws up to their white feathers: they were very happy and alive and made me feel rather lonely; my thoughts went to my people, looking forward to seeing me, and at that moment having tea in the garden. The idea of their grief was unbearable; I had to cry a little. Names of books went through my brain; one specially, called ‘Where no Fear is,’ seemed to express my feeling at the time! Loneliness, yes, and sorrow on account of the grief of others, but no Fear. It seemed very normal, very right, a natural development of some kind about to take place. How can it be otherwise, when it is natural?

I rather wished I knew some one on the other side, and wondered if there are friendly strangers there who come to the rescue.

I was very near the border-line when a wandering lifeboat quietly came up behind me and two men bent down and lifted me in. It was extraordinary how quickly life came rushing back; every one in the boat seemed very self-possessed, although there was one man dead and another losing his reason. One woman expressed a hope for a ‘cup of tea’ shortly, a hope which was soon to be realised for all of us in a Mine Sweeper from Queenstown. I have forgotten her name, but shall always remember the kindness of her crew, specially the Chief Officer, who saved me much danger by giving me dry clothes and hot towels.

All this can be of very little interest to you. I have no skill in putting things on paper but, you know. I am glad to have been near the border; to have had the feeling of how very near it is always, only there are so many little things always going on to absorb one here. Others on that day were passing through a Gate which was not open for me, but I do not expect they were afraid when the time came; they too probably felt that whatever they were to find would be beautiful, only a fulfilment of some kind. I have reason to think that the passing from here is very painless—at least when there is no illness. We seemed to be passing through a stage on the road of Life.

Allan H. Adams, of Winnipeg, was returning to England aboard the Lusitania, hoping to find work as an electrician. His account is, perhaps, the best available in which a passenger describes his or her own death.

Allan H. Adams

Allan H. Adams

To me, personally, there was once incident in my journey, which was a very impressive dream I had on the night of Wednesday, May 5. I don’t think I am more superstitious than most, but in light of subsequent events, I feel that this account would be incomplete without this reference. On the night in question, my dream (or was it a nightmare?) was this. It seemed to me that there was great excitement on board, as we were being chased by submarines, but amidst it all I seemed to see a friend, dead and in his coffin, rise up and beckon me. The scene was so realistic that it took firm hold on my mind just then. On talking it over with my fellow travelers, in the reassuring light of morning, it assumed its true aspect as a dream, and so we laughed off the idea of any possible significance being attached to it. But still it remains q part of that awful memory which is ever present with me. The person of my dream is still alive and well, in Winnipeg.

About half an hour after lunch, when some of us were on deck but many still below in dining saloon or cabins, a tremendous blow was felt, which seemed to shake the ship from bow to stern. Cold fear gripped our hearts Shivers of apprehension sent chills down our spines, and with blanched faces, yet courageously calm in all appearance, we heard the dread news- We are torpedoed!

The greatest order and discipline was observed when the order to “Man the lifeboats” rang out. I went in the direction of the boats and found that everything possible was being done to get them filled with women and children and safely lowered. The vessel, however, was listing heavily so great care was needed in lowering the boats, and some were overturned in spite of all efforts. The difficulty being great, the deck captain ordered “Everyone leave lifeboats: ship will float” then changed the order to, “All in lifeboats stay there, but take no more.”

Just then, I realized that I had no lifebelt on, so I rushed off in search of one. The first-class quarters were handy, so I searched there, but in vain; they were all gone. On that errand I was unsuccessful in my quest, but on the way I was witness of the bravest deed I ever saw, or hope to see. A woman passenger was distracted and quite beside herself with fear. She was also without a lifebelt, and could find none. She stood there crying pitifully when up came a stewardess who had a lifebelt adjusted and ready to take a chance in the water. Seeing the passenger’s plight, that noble woman took off the belt from her own body and fastened it on the other woman. My hearty swelled with pride and deep emotion in the face of such sacrifice…If it is possible, I wish I could discover if that stewardess was rescued.

I returned to the deck and found that no more boats had been lowered. I awaited developments, and reflected that, being a good swimmer, it might help some in the coming struggle. Just then came the order to lower the boats. I got a place in the last boat,, which was practically filled with passengers from the third class section. All were, of course, greatly excited…I tried to calm them somewhat, saying that once the boat was lowered we would be in comparative safety. Even that small consolation was denied us; for whether, owing to the acute angle to which the vessel now listed, or whether that last order, “Every man for himself” was given, I know not. Either reason is quite possible, for she was sinking fast. Anyway, our boat overturned ere it reached the water.

On coming to the surface, I was quite near the ship…My first impulse was to put some distance between myself and the ship, as I feared being caught in the maelstrom which must succeed the final plunge. To that end, I bent my mind and strength, and in a few minutes paused and looked back, just in time to see the funnels disappear.

The time of immersion was one of horror. The hoarse voices of desperate men, the shrill cries of despair from women, and the pitiful wails of helpless children, together with the utter wantonness, the criminal waste of human life, go to make a situation unthinkable. The only thing with any promise of assistance in sight was a collapsible boat. Towards it I went, and found that there were about fifty people on it, and it was partly submerged… I dived, and swam around for a bit: then saw a lifeboat which seemed only a short distance off. I started in that direction, but after using my best efforts to get nearer to it, it still looked further off than when I first saw it. I looked around for something to which I might cling to conserve my strength, but the boat I had left was my only hope. Towards that I again set my face. I realized that there was now only about half the number on it which I had left there. The seas were now washing right over it. My strength was now pretty well gone, and the utter hopelessness of the situation seized me. I decided that my hour had come, that I could struggle no more; so, saying “Good-bye” to wife and children, I commended my soul to God- and sank.

On coming to the surface, however, I took a long breath, and reflected “After all, life is sweet; so long as I am conscious I will fight; I will struggle to the very end, if end this is.” It just seemed as though that momentary relaxation, when I decided all was over for me, had relieved the awful tension of heart and brain and muscle…and so I struggled on.

Still, the only hope min sight was the collapsible boat, now just visible, and only one or two of the crowd which I had left still clung to her. I decided to try and reach her again. On the way, my course was impeded by the dead bodies of my late companions, some locked together in in deadly embrace; while the cries for help rang out from those who still fought for dear life. But, no help came.

…tried to climb on myself, when the boat turned turtle and threw all back into the water. It acted on the same principal as an empty barrel, yet, being our only hope, we still struggled to get on top, with ever the same result, and ever our numbers grew pitifully smaller….During the struggle to get a hold on the upturned boat, one poor fellow seized me around the neck. As he was in his death agony, it was impossible to release myself. I had a vision of we two soon floating on this waste of waters, such as we had for company all around. There was not an instant to lose. To think was to act. I made one desperate effort and dived deep, and so managed to escape that deathly grip. On reaching the surface, I was very much spent; my strength was almost gone. When my late companion rose to view his struggle was over….there were now only five of us left, out of the fifty or sixty whose only hope of escape had lain in that collapsible boat. Our case was indeed desperate. Besides our physical sufferings from shock and exposure, battered and bruised all over as we were, our mental condition was much worse, with such harrowing sights and sounds of which we were the unwilling witnesses, as one after another of our unfortunate companions succumbed. By the aid of a dead man’s leg, I once more managed to climb on top. Once there, gasping to recover my breath, I anxiously looked to see if there was any help in sight, only to meet with disappointment. All that met my gaze as far as eye could see on that dreary waste of water was wreckage…To my nearest companion (one of the stewards from the ill-fated steamer) I said, “Let’s end it; I can fight no more.” My last spark of consciousness went then. For me the end had come. I had been three hours in the water without even a life belt.

When consciousness returned to me, I was being pulled aboard the trawler Blue Bell. Her crew worked heroically top save as many as possible. There were twenty or thirty of us laid out on deck when I was taken aboard, many, alas! Past human aid. Every means was used by the aid or stimulants and respiratory measures, to restore vitality where possible. I was put to bed, and well cared for. At 11 p.m., Friday, May 7, we were landed at Queenstown.

Allan H. Adams Immigration Record

Adams returned to Winnipeg, in July 1915, via New York, aboard the Orduna. His Immigration record seems to be the only one to specifically mention the Lusitania disaster. He would eventually abandon his family, and return to England. He committed suicide at age 67, in Barrow-in-Furness, England, on September 16, 1941.