Bodies in the sea: Halifax recalls Titanic sinking

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia Tue Apr 10, 2012 3:16pm IST

1 of 3. A boat from the ship MacKay-Bennett examines an overturned lifeboat from the Titanic in waters of the Atlantic in 1912.

Credit: Reuters/Courtesy of Dalhousie University Archives and Special Collections, Halifax, N.S. Thomas Head Raddall Fonds/Handout

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (Reuters) - Canadian sailors spotted the tiny body floating among icebergs six days after the Titanic sank.

The 19-month-old boy was wearing four layers of clothing and a pair of leather shoes - a futile shield against the icy waters but the best a parent could do as the liner foundered.

The Unknown Child, as the infant became known, now lies in a graveyard with many other Titanic victims in the Atlantic Canadian port city of Halifax, which had to deal with the ghastly aftermath of a calamity that killed about 1,500 people.

After the disaster most eyes were on New York, where the 700 or so survivors landed and told their stories.

Yet it was Halifax that sent out ships to pick up the bodies, turned an ice rink into a morgue and interred the dead in three cemeteries.

"They built it in Belfast, sank it in the Atlantic and we buried it. In that sense, one very final part of the Titanic story is right here in Halifax," said local author Alan Ruffman.

The story of the Titanic still resonates in Halifax, which has many visible reminders of what was the worst peacetime maritime disaster ever: 150 graves, more than 20 sites linked to the recovery effort and dozens of artefacts.

A century after the liner hit an iceberg and sank on April 15, 1912, the city of 300,000 is holding a series of concerts, readings and other events to mark the occasion.

TITANIC THEMES

Special Titanic-related menus will be on offer at some local restaurants, one of which was a funeral home where victims were taken. Walking tours help visitors recreate the path of the bodies from wharf to morgue to undertaker to church to grave.

In the early hours of Sunday April 15, the moment the pride of the White Star Line went down some 700 nautical miles (1,300 km) to the east, a moment of silence will be held, followed by flares shooting through the night sky.

Halifax had no connection to the Titanic, which was built in Belfast and sailed from Southampton for New York on its maiden voyage. Yet it was the best place for the recovery effort.

The port of St. John's in Newfoundland was closer to the disaster, but harder to reach, and it did not have enough undertakers.

"It was just easier to get on a train in Boston, New York, Montreal or Toronto and come to Halifax," said local historian Blair Beed.

The city's hotels and boarding houses filled up as undertakers, reporters and relatives poured into the city, few able to quite comprehend what had happened.

"(This is) the worst marine disaster there has ever been. People are simply astounded by the terrible news," Halifax museum curator Harry Piers wrote in his diary.

The White Star Line chartered vessels to recover the bodies. The cable ship Mackay-Bennett set sail on April 17 with a minister, undertakers, coffins, canvas bags, 100 tonnes of ice and all of the embalming fluid in Halifax.

The ship's crew - who drew double pay - found the first victims early on April 21.

"Recovered 51 bodies, 46 men, four women and one baby ... bodies in good shape but badly bruised by being knocked about in the water," crew member Cliff Crease noted in his diary that day.

BURIED AT SEA

The ship eventually picked up 306 bodies, but a shortage of embalming fluid meant 116 were buried at sea. As the ship approached Halifax harbour on April 30 with its sombre cargo, church and fire bells rang throughout the town.

"The SS Mackay-Bennett was coming in with her decks and hold piled with dead picked up at sea from the terrible Titanic disaster," Piers wrote. "It cast a heavy gloom over Halifax and interest in the tragedy now centres here."

Men working on the waterfront took off their caps as the ship passed by.

"Many of the shops had purple and black bunting - which are the signs of mourning - in their window displays ... all of the public buildings had their flags at half mast," said Garry Shutlak of the Nova Scotia Archives.

Horse-drawn hearses pulled the dead - some in coffins, some in sacks - to a temporary morgue in the Mayflower Curling Rink, where undertaker Frank Newell was working. He uncovered one victim and collapsed.

The body was that of his uncle Arthur Newell.

At least Frank could put a name to the corpse. More than a quarter of the victims buried in Halifax remain anonymous.

The description of one woman read: "Probably an Italian; wore two green cotton blouses, green cotton skirt, striped petticoat; nothing else to identify."

As each body was recovered, it was numbered and the corresponding personal effects were put in a canvas bag with the same number in the hope the victim could one day be named.

Most of the dead are buried at Fairview Lawn Cemetery in the north end of the city, where four lines of mostly simple gray stone markers denote Titanic victims.

"No matter what language you use, Titanic, it tells you the whole story right away. You have an image in your head, even if there's a language barrier," Beed said.

On a chilly Saturday at the cemetery, which overlooks the water, he notices a tribute that hadn't been there two days previously.

"Things appear like that," he said, pointing to the fake tulips in front of many graves for the nameless victims.

Some visitors are intrigued to see the headstone for a J. Dawson. But he has nothing to do with Jack Dawson, the lead character in James Cameron's blockbuster movie "Titanic".

"He was actually Joseph Dawson. He was a young Irishman in his 20s and he worked shovelling coal on Titanic," Beed said.

The Unknown Child has his own monument, funded by Crease and other members of the Mackay-Bennett's crew. On this day a small stuffed animal, six pennies and a dime lie on the headstone.

The boy's shoes are on display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, which has a permanent Titanic exhibit, next to the gloves of millionaire Charles Hays, the then president of Canada's Grand Trunk Railway.

"I would be shocked if every person who has children were to look at those shoes and not somehow have a very visceral reaction to what they represent and the enormity of the calamity," said curator Gerry Lunn.

Crease acted as a pallbearer at the child's funeral and laid a wreath at the monument every year, but said nothing about his experiences. Only in the last years before his death in 1961 did he talk about hauling frozen water-logged corpses into a small rowing boat.

"They would go from the Mackay-Bennett out into the icy waters of the Atlantic to recover the bodies that were floating in amongst ... huge and small pieces of icebergs," said Crease's granddaughter, Rabia Wilcox.

"He was 24 years old and here was a little baby, basically a year and a half old, floating past, that he pulled in. He was just moved to tears," she said.

Crease is buried in the same cemetery as the boy.

The Unknown Child continued to fascinate Titanic fans, so much so that his body was exhumed in 2001 and initially identified as a Finnish boy.

In 2007, more advanced testing determined he was Sidney Leslie Goodwin, the youngest in an English family of eight on board. None survived.

UNPRECEDENTED LOSSES

James Delgado of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a leading Titanic expert, says it is the unprecedented loss of life that makes the disaster stand out.

"Other ships had sunk, yes, but it was as if a small town had been wiped out ... the horror of mass death that would really be seen with both world wars, that really hadn't played out yet," he told Reuters.

Halifax would soon experience that horror first hand. In December 1917 an ammunition ship blew up in the harbour, killing 2,000 people and demolishing large parts of the town - including the rink used as a Titanic morgue. It was the largest manmade explosion in history until the atomic bombs in 1945.

Halifax used the same system of numbered bodies and canvas bags that it used for the Titanic victims.

(Writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Janet Guttsman)