By now, everyone is familiar with the story of the Titanic: On April 10, 1912, the 52,000-ton luxury ocean liner began its maiden trans-Atlantic voyage and sank five days later, after hitting an iceberg, killing 1,496 people. But for some, this tale is more than history, or the subject of blockbuster movies; it’s family lore. Inezita Gay recalls how her great-grandfather “heard the bump and woke right up.” She is one of seven relatives of Titanic passengers, ranging from a department store magnate to poor immigrants, whom PEOPLE gathered at New York City’s Jane Hotel (where rescued survivors stayed) to share their family memories.
LEIGHTON H. COLEMAN III
Distant cousin of Douglas Spedden
Great-granddaughter of Christian “Charles” Stengel
Great-great-great-niece of James Clinch Smith
Great-grandson of William and Lucile Carter (right)
Great-granddaughter of Bella Moore
Great-grandson of Isidor and Ida Straus
Granddaughter of Helen Baclini
Distant Cousin of Leighton Coleman III
As the family tells it, Douglas, age 6, awoke during the evacuation to his nanny saying they were taking a “trip to see the stars.” (A year later his mother, Daisy, wrote a book about the rescue from his stuffed bear’s point of view.) His father, Frederic Spedden, earned a place in lifeboat No. 3 because “he knew how to sail,” says Coleman, an interior designer in St. James, N.Y., who began asking questions when he found a trunk in his grandparents’ barn. Frederic and survivor Molly Brown raised funds to help the Titanic crew return to England when the White Star Line wouldn’t pay. Son Douglas died at age 9 in a car accident in Maine.
Grandmother of Rosie Foster
At 9 months old, Helen was carried onboard in Cherbourg by her mother traveling to meet her husband in New York. They had missed an earlier ship, as one of Helen’s two sisters had pink eye. “If they had not survived, I wouldn’t be here,” marvels Foster, a medical writer in New York. Baclini later wed salesman Albert Mueller (with her at right) but died of cancer at 27. There was a younger baby onboard, Elizabeth Gladys “Millvina” Dean, 2 months old. At her death in 2009, she was Titanic’s last survivor.
CHRISTIAN “CHARLES” STENGEL
Great-grandfather of Inezita Gay
“My great-grandfather survived, but he caught pneumonia and died a couple of years later,” says Gay, a professor. “My great-grandmother Annie May never remarried. In her 80s, in her dementia, she would escape my mother’s apartment saying that she had to get to the Titanic.”
ISIDOR & IDA STRAUS
Great-grandparents of Paul Kurzman
Recognizing the elderly Macy’s co-owner, officers were willing to let him on a lifeboat, but Isidor wouldn’t go. Upon hearing this, Kurzman says, Ida returned to the ship, saying, “‘We will die as we have lived.’ And they wrapped their arms around each other on the main deck, according to a survivor who saw them from the lifeboat. Then an enormous wave threw them into the sea,” says Kurzman, a professor. He inherited a gold locket (left) recovered with Isidor’s body, which he calls “the most precious connection that I have.”
Great-grandmother of Lee Moore
A Russian immigrant, Bella was traveling with her son Meyer, 7. The story passed down to Lee, a rabbi, was that Bella recalled being lifted up the stairs from third class during the evacuation. After Meyer, Lee’s grandfather, died, the tale lived on: “My grandfather always had this memory of a wealthy woman giving up her seat on the lifeboat.”
JAMES CLINCH SMITH
Great-great-great-uncle of Camilla White
White is related to both passengers John J. Astor (developer of the Astoria Hotel) and lawyer Smith, who saved women and children and then headed below deck to help the dogs. “That’s always something I can be proud of,” says White. Neither man survived.
WILLIAM E. CARTER
Great-grandfather of Michael Carter
Michael, a Washington, D.C., business consultant, learned of his family’s link only when Titanic director James Cameron’s assistant called about a car. W.E. Carter had brought aboard a Renault. Cameron set a love scene in the car, though in reality it was crated. The family-including an 11-year-old son who, by wearing a woman’s hat, got in a nearly full boat-all survived.
People TABLET BONUS VIDEO
Passengers remembered by relatives