You can’t hear the survivors’ muffled sobs or the clunk of oars in lifeboats’ oarlocks anymore. You can’t hear the occasional chink of pack ice taunting against the sinking wreckage. Now, you can no longer hear firsthand a survivor’s dramatic, eyewitness account of the final hours of the Titanic.
Winifred Quick Van Tongerloo, Michigan’s last survivor of the 1912 sinking of RMS Titanic, died on July 4, 2002. She was ninety-eight years of age and had lived in East Lansing for the past six years. Winifred was eight years old when she, along with 704 others, survived the sinking of the White Star liner Titanic. She was the last person in the world who could tell of the event from her own memory; the three survivors still living were too young at the time to form memories of the disaster.
Since July 1984, when it was my great pleasure to meet Winifred Quick Van Tongerloo, I enjoyed many visits where she shared some of her Titanic memories. Each time, there was the anticipation that she might relate some new and untold details of the days aboard the great ship as well as events of the sinking. On the other hand, sometimes when she was sharing a story, she would suddenly stop and say, “Oh, it is just too horrible to talk about.” She was often reluctant to reminisce about “that night,” and during some visits the Titanic was never mentioned.
The initial visit with Winifred brought four men – artist Ken Marschall from Redondo Beach, California; George Behe from Mt. Clemens; Ray Lepien from East Lansing; and me – to her home in Warren, Michigan. Winifred appeared younger than her eighty years when she greeted us at the door and gave us a hearty welcome. She introduced us to her husband, Alois, whom she married when she was nineteen years old. They seemed happy together and talked with us about their five children. Mrs. Van Tongerloo also related some of what she remembered of the Titanic and its sinking. She brought out a little White Star flag that was stuffed into a coat pocket sometime during the voyage. These flags were given as mementos to the children aboard ship.
Eight-year-old Winifred Quick and her two-year-old sister, Phyllis, were two of those children. They were among the more than 2,200 passengers aboard the great liner, and they were two of sixty-four heading for Michigan. Winifred’s destination was Detroit, where she, Phyllis and their mother, Jane (Jennie), were going to meet Winifred’s father, Fred.
Winifred was born in Plymouth, England, to Fred and Jennie Quick on January 23, 1904. Fred immigrated to the United States in 1909 and was working in Detroit. When he had earned enough to pay for their passage, he sent for his family. He anxiously awaited their arrival, expected to be April 17 or 18.
On April 10, 1912, Winifred, Phyllis and Jennie boarded the Titanic at Southampton, England. Initially their passage was booked for another ship, but a coal strike at the time caused the White Star Line to transfer their passage to the new Titanic. Mrs. Quick complained at the White Star office that she wished to sail instead on a “tried, true and tested” ship, but staff assured her the great new ship was safe and she had no reason to worry.
Winifred told us that once on board the great ship, she and her sister and mother found their stateroom in the second-class section. The Titanic departed shortly after noon from Southampton and sailed to Cherbourg, France, to pick up more passengers. Following lunch, the Quicks looked around and were impressed by the luxury and accommodations of the vessel. Not long after the Titanic departed from Cherbourg that evening, Jennie and her two daughters retired to their stateroom.
Mrs. Van Tongerloo told us that the odor of fresh paint was so strong in their room that they left the door ajar each evening for ventilation. Winifred was seasick from the time of departure until two days into the voyage. Then, she and her sister and mother began to enjoy some of the shipboard activities and deck games. They also enjoyed the sumptuous food and accommodations. One of Winifred’s most significant memories of the ship was the awesome Grand Staircase: “It was like something from a palace.” The days passed quickly for the trio, who were anxious to reach America.
Sunday evening, April 14, was very cold. Winifred, Phyllis and Jennie retired to the warmth of their stateroom at 9:00 P.M. The three were sound asleep at 11:40 P.M. when the Titanic grazed a huge iceberg. The collision popped rivets and separated steel plates for several hundred feet along the starboard side of the ship. Shortly after midnight a woman from the neighboring stateroom knocked at the Quicks’ door, awakening Jennie and informing her of the collision. It was suggested that the Quicks dress and go up to the boat deck. Jennie Quick did not think the situation was serious, but she got up and put on a skirt over her nightdress. While Jennie was waking Winifred, a steward shouted through their doorway, “For God’s sake, get up! Don’t stop to dress! Put your lifejackets on! They’ve hit an iceberg and the ship is sinking!”
Jennie hastily prepared to leave the cabin with her two daughters, quickly dressing Winifred and merely wrapping a shawl around Phyllis. Jennie carried Phyllis and took Winifred by the hand, and they made their way to the deck. A sailor put lifebelts on the two girls, assisted Jennie with hers and then guided them up an iron ladder. Once they reached the open deck, Jennie looked over the railing and down the side of the Titanic. She noted the forward, downward slant to the ship and sensed the danger. Moments later, the Quicks were helped into lifeboat No. 11, which was swung out to be lowered seventy feet to the water.
Winifred was terrified, screaming and crying, thinking she would have to jump into the ocean. Jennie could not calm Winifred as the lifeboat rocked and jolted down the side of the doomed ship. Soon the boat was down in the water and was quickly rowed away “to avoid being sucked down when the ship foundered.” Shortly thereafter, Winifred stopped crying. She told her mother, “I have prayed and we will be safe.” Although no longer afraid, Winifred started crying again because her feet were wet and cold.
Winifred remembered the reflection on the water of the lights from the sinking liner. She recalled how terribly cold it was as she watched the ship slowly sink beneath the surface. The last lifeboat was lowered at 2:06 A.M., leaving more than 1,500 people still aboard as the ship began its death throes. The 705 in the lifeboats watched in stunned disbelief as the stern of the Titanic rose high into the night sky. Winifred remembered the sounds that echoed across the water as the great ship reared up before it went down. “We were about a mile away when the lights went out and there was a terrible noise that followed.”
It was 2:20 A.M. on April 15, 1912. For a few minutes Winifred heard the screams and cries from the hundreds of people who had been thrown into the twenty-eight-degree water. Then it was quiet across the icy ocean.
Winifred, her sister and their mother huddled together for warmth while awaiting rescue. The woman seated next to Winifred wrapped her coat around the girl to keep her warm, and soon Winifred was asleep, oblivious to her surroundings.
At around 3:30 A.M. the lifeboat passengers heard the boom of a cannon and saw the green running light of the passenger liner Carpathia approaching swiftly from the south. Shouts of joy from the people in the lifeboat awakened Winifred with a start.
The Carpathia had traveled fifty-eight miles since receiving the Titanic’s wireless distress call just after midnight. As dawn began to streak the sky, the rescue of the Titanic’s survivors got underway. Burlap bags carried Winifred and Phyllis aboard; their mother was strapped into a chair and hoisted to the deck. The trio went to a dining area where hot food and drinks were served.
After the Titanic’s survivors and thirteen of the liner’s lifeboats were hauled aboard the Carpathia, a service of thanksgiving was held in a salon. Prayers were offered for the passengers and crew lost aboard the Titanic, then the Carpathia headed for New York.
Winifred remembered that the Carpathia was crowded with the extra passengers. The two Quick girls and their mother slept on a bunk in the cargo hold and spent each day much as they had the first day after rescue. Winifred remembered many people grieving over lost family members, and the somber tone throughout the ship. She also recalled being well-fed and cared for by the crew of the Carpathia.
The Carpathia arrived in New York on Thursday evening, April 18. Fred Quick had arrived just before the docking and apprehensively waited to see his wife and daughters. He couldn’t be sure that a survivors’ list published by a Detroit newspaper, naming his loved ones among the saved, was totally reliable. An anxious Fred asked a sailor to go aboard the Carpathia to find his family. The sailor returned in a few moments, telling Fred his family would soon emerge. Finally, Jennie appeared, with the two girls in the arms of sailors. “Oh, Fred,” Jennie cried amid a family embrace, “I was afraid that I would never see you again.”
The Quick family spent the night of April 18 at the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society. On April 20, the Quicks arrived home in Detroit by train. Their ordeal was over.
Not long after that, Winifred’s mother took their story of survival to Detroit’s National Theater and became a vaudeville performer. “Phyllis and I would walk out on stage, our mother would introduce us and then she would tell the story to the audience about how we survived.” The appearances went on for some time, until Jennie became ill and gave up performing.
Mrs. Van Tongerloo told us that “eventually only close friends and family knew that my sister, mother and I had been on the Titanic. With the passage of time, few people ever mentioned anything of the tragedy.” The years passed and in 1954, Phyllis died. Jennie passed away in 1965.
Winifred and Alois lived a quiet life in the Warren area. With three sons and two daughters (three of whom survive today), the family traveled whenever possible. The Van Tongerloos visited every state in the Union, except Hawaii, and every province of Canada. On one excursion they crossed Lake Michigan at night on the car ferry City of Midland. Winifred said she was almost asleep when she was sure she heard someone yell, “All hands on deck!” With a start, she quickly got up and looked outside before realizing “that was another time and place.” She never again crossed the ocean aboard ship and she never flew.
Winifred Quick Van Tongerloo enjoyed relative obscurity until the subject of the Titanic began to surface in the 1960s and 1970s. Eventually, individuals such as the four of us made contact with her and learned of her memories. Our 1984 meeting led to a long, enduring friendship.
In 1996, Mrs. Van Tongerloo fell and fractured a hip. After recovering from surgery, she moved to an assisted-living center in East Lansing. A grandson was her devoted caregiver and she continued to enjoy a quiet and relatively obscure life.
Worldwide Titanic-survivor interest found Mrs. Van Tongerloo in 1997 with the release of the blockbuster movie Titanic. Media from around the world clamored for an interview with her – one West German newspaper called at 2:30 in the morning, and news reporters from Canada, Great Britain and the United States wanted to know what she remembered of the sinking. Several people used a variety of excuses and tactics to get inside the facility where she lived in attempts to see her or conduct interviews. She refused all interviews and wished only to be left alone. The staff had to be diligent in screening visitors until the movie hoopla died down. Before it was over, Winifred had her phone turned off because of the dozens of calls that came day and night.
In June 2002, Winifred’s health began to decline. Her grandson had her hospitalized on July 2, and she died two days later in Lansing.
On July 8, George Behe, Ray Lepien and I met at the Warren funeral home where the body of Winifred Van Tongerloo rested. We hesitated in the parking lot, unsure we were ready to say goodbye. Inside, many floral arrangements adorned the room, including a tribute from the Titanic Historical Society (THS), of which Winifred was an honorary member. On an easel was Ken Marschall’s painting Farewell to Cherbourg, a view of the Titanic on April 10, 1912. A photo collage was also there, depicting Winifred’s life from about the time that she arrived in America.
Other than the painting and the THS flowers, very little was there to indicate the fame of the lady to whom we paid our last respects. Even in death, Winifred was modest about being one of the very last survivors of the world’s most famous shipwreck.