A Night to Remember…
A personal account about my great-grandfather and the Titanic
This Sunday, the 15th of April 2012, is the Centennial of the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic. Of the passengers aboard “the ship of dreams”, more than 1,500 perished, including Gerios Yousseff Abi-Saab, my great-grandfather.
Gerios, a native of the village of Thoum, in Northern Lebanon, left his wife and children including Wehbe, my grandfather, who was six years old, for a better life in America. Lebanon, under Ottoman rule at the time, was struck by famine and poverty and religious tensions pervaded. Lebanese migration became widespread resulting in several waves of departures to faraway lands such as Australia, South America, Canada and the United States.
I can imagine Gerios, age 45, waving goodbye to his wife Marta and his six children before taking the boat from the port of Beirut to Marseille, with promises of a successful voyage and a vision of a bright future in the New World.
Gerios traveled to France with his four relatives: a female cousin named Shawneene Abi-Saab (In Arabic, Shawneene means “Palm Sunday”), Tannous Thomas, Tannous Daher and Banoura Ayoub, a thirteen-year-old relative who was coming to America to be re-united with her family in Detroit. They embarked the RMS Titanic at Cherbourg, France on Wednesday, 10th April 1912. Gerios purchased his 3rd class ticket (#2628) aboard the ship. It cost him 7 pounds and 4 shillings. The RMS Titanic had sailed from Southampton, England making stops in Cherbourg, France where some Lebanese passengers boarded and Queenstown, Ireland, before heading out to the high seas and its intended destination: New York City. Gerios, a shoemaker, was planning on continuing his voyage to Youngstown, Ohio to work in the steel mills.
There were approximately 165 Lebanese immigrants on the Titanic occupying cabins close together, and sharing a dining room. According to survivor Shawneene, the steerage accommodations were very good, far better than any other accommodations she had had on previous boat trips. The Lebanese immigrants passed the time together on the ship, very much enjoying themselves.
Ray Hanania, wrote in “Arabs on Titanic: We Share the Pain But Not the Glory” that according to witnesses, the Arab passengers had the liveliest “haflis” (parties) and celebrated three on-board weddings. I cannot help but wonder if Gerios participated in such festive gatherings. Anecdotes even tell the eerie story that when fate struck the liner, passengers from Lebanese villages danced the traditional “dabke” to the rhythm of a piper. Was Gerios amongst them, resigning himself to the fact that as a 3rd class passenger, he would be cast aside by the ship’s crew frantic attempt to escort 1st class passengers to safety?
Shawneene Abi-Saab, my great grandfather’s cousin, told her story to the Sharon Herald based in Sharon, Pennsylvania on April14, 1937, commemorating the sinking 25 years later. According to her account, while chaos and confusion reigned everywhere, some crew members as well as passengers who were “very finely dressed in their beautiful suits”, came down into the steerage department where she and other third class passengers were located and “pushed and pulled us up to the deck.” Shawneene remembered with disbelief how these men not only stood by so that she, a poor immigrant, could get in a lifeboat and be saved, but that they actually helped her get out of her steerage compartment, up onto the deck in first class, and into a lifeboat (probably collapsible C). This act of selfless bravery by first class male passengers had a lasting impact on her.
My father recalls the story told by his uncles, Gerios’ sons. One of the surviving women, presumed to be Shawneene since Banoura never returned to Lebanon, came back after the Titanic disaster to the village of Thoum, where Gerios’ wife, lived with her children. The survivor revealed that she offered to disguise Gerios, with women’s clothing in the hope of getting him into one of the few lifeboats but that he declined the offer by solemnly declaring: “ I was born a man and I will die as a man.” As he tried to steer his cousins Shawneene and Banoura to the safety of a lifeboat, Gerios handed his relative a lock of his hair asking her to deliver it to his wife back in Lebanon. “Tell her I love her”, were Gerios’ last words to his cousin.
In her testimony to the Sharon Herald in 1937, she recalls:
“I saw Gerios Yousseff, one of my cousins. He pushed me toward one of the lifeboats. Sailors armed with revolvers drove the men away from the boats shouting, “Women and children first!”. They shot into the air to frighten the men. Many passengers were overcome with fright”
“Banoura and I were placed into the next to the last lifeboat to be lowered from the ship. A scared young man leaped over the side of the liner and landed in the bottom of the lifeboat. Women shielded him with their night clothing so the sailors wouldn’t see him. They would have shot him.”
“After we had pulled about a half-mile away, the sailors stopped rowing. We watched the lights of the big boat with our hearts in our throats. Then we saw it sink.”
Shawneene saw her male cousins including Gerios remain on-board. She sat with other passengers in the lifeboat, dressed only in a nightgown and life jacket, shivering in the frigid cold. Two hours and forty minutes after the Titanic struck the iceberg, the unsinkable ship was swallowed by the roaring sea. Doomed passengers including my great grandfather were left in the dead of the night under a starry sky to splash futilely in the sub-zero waters. Gerios, having spent his youth on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, was a good swimmer. Like most who perished, including 41 Lebanese passengers, he died on April 15th, 1912 because of the arctic-like cold waters, not because of drowning.
The Minia, one of four ships chartered by the White Star Line to search for bodies in the aftermath of the sinking, left Halifax on Monday, April 22nd, 1912 and arrived in the search area on the following Friday. Bad weather hampered the search and only 17 bodies (body numbers 307 to 323) were eventually recovered after a week of searching. Gerios Youssef Abi-Saab, my great grand father, was number 312. As a Roman Catholic, he was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada on Friday, May 10th, 1912.
I shudder at the thought of my great-grandfather’s final moments. It is common medical knowledge that it can take a long time to die of hypothermia. Within 20 to 30 minutes, depending on water temperature, body core temperature drops to below 35° C (95° F), cognitive functioning and judgment become affected. Such hypothermia leads to disorientation, unconsciousness and eventually death. Reports from Titanic survivors describe the cries of victims, who were wearing cork life vests, lasting for more than one hour, even in the frigid -0.5º C (31º F) waters of the Labrador Current. I imagine Gerios furiously attempting to secure himself to floating wreckage, as portrayed by Jack Dawson in the epic movie Titanic. In the dreadful silence of this fateful night and before he drifted into unconsciousness, what were his final thoughts? Surely, he was distraught about the fate of his wife Marta and children: Tanios, Wadih, Joseph, Antoine, Noha, Georgette and Wehbe. Did he have visions of his village in Northern Lebanon abundant with olive and fig trees, fragrant with jasmine and myrrh or did he close his eyes in an attempt to see the awe-inspiring mountains of Lebanon studded with ancient monasteries and magnificent biblical cedars? In the daze of his vanishing mind, could he comfort his dying soul with the lyrical words of his compatriot and author of The Prophet, Gibran Khalil Gibran?
“Braving obstacles and hardships is nobler than retreat to tranquility. The butterfly that hovers around the lamp until it dies is more admirable than the mole that lives in a dark tunnel.”
Rest in peace, Gerios Youseff Abi-Saab, your wings have crossed the Atlantic and your descendants have made it to America.
-Josyann Abisaab, MD
New York, NY, April 12, 2012