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By now many of us are familiar with the terrible events surrounding the sinking of the "unsinkable" luxury liner, Titanic on that horrifying night in 1912. Countless lives were lost and others forever changed in many parts of this country and indeed the world, but few people know that the Titanic catastrophe touched lives right here in Beaver County.
Twenty-one year old Alice Phillips and her father Robert were living in Devonshire, England, when following the death of her mother Hannah in the summer of 1911, they decided to immigrate to America and start a new life. Robert's brother, William Phillips, lived in New Brighton, and had asked the pair to stay with him until they got settled. William had arranged a job for his brother Robert so that he would have employment upon his arrival. Looking forward to making their new home in New Brighton, and seeing her uncle for the first time in nearly twenty years, Alice and her father booked passage on the liner, S.S. Philadelphia. In an unfortunate twist of fate, the Philadelphia was unable to leave port due to a coal strike, and the Phillips' second-class passage was transferred to the Titanic.
On April 10, 1912, the Phillips left their Southampton hotel and boarded the ill-fated liner. Their voyage was uneventful as Alice and her father made friends with other passengers and settled into their new routine as the ship steamed into the North Atlantic toward its rendezvous with history. That fateful Sunday morning of April 14, 1912, dawned clear and pleasant as young Alice attended worship services and spent the greater part of the day promenading along the decks on the arm of her father. In her own words, Alice described the events leading up to the disaster to a Beaver Falls Daily Times reporter in an April 28, 1912, news article:
"There was no evening worship and I spent the early evening on deck. The night was one of those beautiful Arctic nights, with the stars shining and the sea running smooth. The air seemed perfectly clear. I did not retire until late and was yet awake when the ship struck the iceberg."
The Titanic struck the iceberg at exactly 11:40 P.M., yet most passengers and crew were ignorant of the extent of damage and were only slightly concerned.
Alice continues: "I did not at the time, think it of any consequence as the shock was light, but when the ship began rocking, I became anxious and hurriedly dressing, went to a steward and asked him what had happened. He told me that it was nothing serious and to go back to my cabin and go to sleep. Being reassured by his words, I returned to my room but did not undress.
Soon after this I heard the engines stop. Father came in and asked me to go on deck with him. I accompanied him above. We had been on the upper deck for some time when someone shouted, 'All on deck with life belts.' My father and I and other passengers immediately slipped life belts around us and remained on deck awaiting further orders. "
Typical of the confusion and uncertainty of what was happening, the first distress calls were not sent until 12:10 A.M. - almost 30 minutes after striking the iceberg. At 12:25 A.M., the orders went out to begin loading the lifeboats. Alice Phillips' life boat No. 12 was loaded with women and children and not launched until 1:30 A.M., with only 40 out of a total capacity of 65 persons aboard.
"The officers then began ordering out the life boats, and when this order was given, some passengers became frightened and made a rush for the boats. The officers lined them up and some one cried, 'Women and children first.' After this, the order was good. The women and children were helped into the lifeboats, and as fast as they were filled, the boats were lowered to the water, rowed off a short distance and stood by to be joined by the boats that were filled later. .... Before I entered the boat my father kissed me 'good-bye' and told me he would join me later. I do not think father thought there was any doubt but that we would be together shortly. This was the last time I saw him as he perished with the others who were left behind on the sinking vessel."
After her life boat pulled away from the Titanic, Ms. Phillips looked around her and gave us her thoughts: "When I came on deck with father, I had not taken time to put on a coat, and seeing me shiver in the cold north wind, one of the lady passengers handed me a coat and I put it on. Only two sailors manned the boat in which I was placed. Three men had scrambled into the boat as we were being lowered but the officers made them get out. Another man then entered but when he was ordered out he refused to leave and was saved with the balance of the passengers in our boat. After being lowered to the water, our boat was rowed as far away as possible from the sinking ship. I could not help but note how courteous the men were to the ladies.
There was not, as far as I saw, any panic aboard the vessel and no confusion after the officers began giving their orders. While our boat was safe enough, we had no provisions aboard, and the two sailors who were rowing were not adequate to handle the boat, so we rowed to another and some men were taken aboard. After this our boat was handled in a satisfactory manner. "
As her lifeboat sat a safe distance from the sinking liner, Alice was able to witness the final death throes of the Titanic. On board the doomed ship, countless acts of selflessness and bravery were occurring, but the one outstanding act of bravery that most survivors recounted was the band playing music as the liner continued to sink beneath the cold Atlantic waters. At 2:20 A.M., nearly fifty minutes after her lifeboat was launched, the Titanic was gone. It would not be until sometime later that Alice would realize that her father, Robert, was one of the 1,528 persons that had perished.
"The lights on the Titanic had remained burning, but I could see the vessel was now sinking out of sight. To my ears came, faintly, the strains of 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' and I knew the band had moved on deck and was playing. There was no other sound from the great ship until the lights went out and she plunged beneath the waves. Then I heard an awful moan from those on board and all was over; the great Titanic was lost, buried in the depths of the ocean. We did not row near the spot where the ship went down as many of us were suffering severely from the extreme cold. Many of the women were thinly clad and became ill. We rowed about for some hours and later picked up seventeen men who were floating on a raft, but one of them was dead. The others got into our boat and helped to row it for nearly nine hours when we saw the great bulk of the Carpathia steaming carefully through the ice. Men lined the rails on the lookout and presently we were seen."
Fortunately for the survivors, a rescue vessel, the Carpathia, was only 58 miles away when she received the Titanic's distress signals. She immediately changed course and began rushing to the scene at full speed through the dangerous icy waters. The Carpathia arrived at 3:30 A.M., and began picking up the survivors. After nearly seven hours of exposure to the numbing cold, Alice Phillips and the other survivors in her lifeboat were pulled from the freezing ocean at 8:30 A.M., ending their seven-hour nightmare.
"The big steamer slowed up and we were taken aboard where we were given every attention. We were served first with hot coffee and someone wrapped me in a large rug. There were no beds left so I was forced to use a steamer chair. A young man nearby told me that one of the lifeboats had not been plugged before it was lowered and that it had sunk. He said he witnessed the sinking. I saw two icebergs but do not think either was that which wrecked the Titanic I was too ill to move about much and did not see or talk with many of the Carpathia passengers but the officers gave us every consideration and I was treated very well."
Unbeknownst to Miss Phillips, two of her future New Brighton neighbors were on board the Carpathia bound for southern Europe when the Titanic's frantic distress calls came through. Mrs. Fred S. Merrick and her son, Fred I. Merrick were the sister-in-law and nephew of the founder of the Merrick Art Gallery, Edward Dempster Merrick. Apparently an acquaintance of Mrs. Merrick, William Phillips hoped that Alice would meet Mrs. Merrick aboard the Carpathia so as to receive "every comfort and attention". Unfortunately for Alice, that meeting never occurred. After landing the Titanic survivors, the Carpathia and the Merricks continued their voyage. Upon learning that his niece was one of the 705 survivors that had been rescued by the Carpathia, William Phillips rushed to New York to meet her and bring her home to New Brighton. Never having met his niece, William Phillips carried a picture with him to help identify her. The Carpathia docked in New York on April 19th. Still ill from exposure aboard the freezing lifeboat, Alice anxiously stepped from the Carpathia into the unknown.
"I was feeling slightly better and when the ship docked I heard some one call my name and looked around. I saw a man with a photograph in his hand and asked him if he were my uncle Will. He said he was and that he recognized me by the photograph he had brought with him to New York. I saw too, that he slightly resembled father. I went with him and after getting some warmer clothes, we started for New Brighton. I was the only child and now being homeless, I am content to remain with my relatives. I fully appreciate their efforts in making things so home-like for me. I think I will like New Brighton and would be perfectly happy if it were not for the awful memories I have of the Titanic disaster."
As a result of her ordeal, Alice was ill for some time, but after a long recovery at her Uncle William's home, she trained as a stenographer at his work place. A few weeks later, a homesick Alice Phillips returned to her relatives in England.
At this point in the story, one would hope that after all that she had endured, Alice would have ended her days dying quietly in her bed of old age surrounded by the love of her children and grand children. Sadly, her story would end as another heartbreaking footnote to the Titanic tragedy. Having survived one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century, Alice, at the tender age of 25 years, was to follow her father and mother in death during a flu epidemic in England in 1916.
Milestones Vol. 30 No. 3
A publication of the
Beaver County Historical Research and Landmarks Foundation
Written by Roger Applegate
Research assistance by Ron Ciani
1. "New Brighton Man Loses Brother in the Titanic Wreck," The Daily Times, Beaver Falls, April 19, 1912.
2. "Survivor of Titanic Disaster Tells Story of Wreck and Rescue," The Daily Times, Beaver Falls, April 28, 1912.
3. "Brother of Local Man Victim of Titanic Disaster," The Daily Times, Beaver Falls, April 16, 1912.
4. Encyclopedia-Titanic, www.Encyclopedia-britanica.org, Biographies of Alice and Escott Robert Phillips.
5. The Titanic Nautical Center, www.titanic-nautical.com, Titanic Chronology: A Clear Timeline of Events Related to the Titanic.