Wealthy widow of Bucknell Colleges namesake, Emma Eliza Bucknell at nearly 60 years old, helped row a lifeboat for nearly 6 hours after the titanic hit an iceberg. She recounted her ordeal in detail for several newspapers, you can read her entire account below.
Emma Eliza (Ward) Bucknell was the 3rd wife of wealthy businessman William Bucknell. A real estate dealer and agent, builder of gas and water works, owner of coal and iron mines, , when the University at Lewisburg was in dire financial difficulties, Bucknell made a large donation. In 1886 the university changed it's name to Bucknell University in his honor. Bucknell was friends with Emma's father, and after marrying her, boasted that she was younger than his youngest child. They had 4 children together, before his death in March of 1890. (Although Bucknell was a trustee of the Lewisburg University, which now bears his name, I found no evidence that he ever lived in Lewisburg. He worked in Chester county and had a mansion in Philadelphia)
A wealthy widow, Mrs. Bucknell had been traveling to see her daughter Countess Margaret Pecorini in Florence, Italy annually. During the winter of 1911, Mrs. Bucknell’s son, Howard, asked his mother to either cancel or change the date of her upcoming visit to Italy so that she could attend his gradation from Medical School in Georgia in late April 1912. Mrs. Bucknell opted to move up her trip to see Margaret and planned to return in Mid April on the Titanic.
Mrs Bucknell's Premonition
“Margaret, the closer I get to going home, the more frightened I become… it isn’t as though I haven’t been traveling by sea for years and really enjoying doing so, but this time I awaken in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning with such a foreboding and it doesn’t make sense. The ship we’re taking is brand new, touted as the safest ship ever built; you have heard all the hype about it.” Margaret asked her mother to change her travel arrangements if she felt in danger, but Mrs. Bucknell was determined to fulfill the promise she had made to her son Howard. To make the graduation, Mrs. Bucknell had to travel on the Titanic. Justifying her decision, Mrs. Bucknell told Margaret, “That’s all they are, instincts, a sorry excuse for being late.”
Mrs Bucknell boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg as first class passenger, along with her maid Albina Bassani (ticket number 11813 which cost £76, 5s, 10d). She occupied cabin D15.
The "Unsinkable Molly Brown" was also traveling on the Titanic. She had received news that her grandson was ill and quickly booked the trip on the first ship that was leaving for New York - the Titanic. Mrs Brown and Mrs Bucknell both traveled frequently and had crossed paths enough to become friends.
The two met up as they were boarding, and said "I have a premonition about this ship". "Nonsense," Brown replied, knowing Mrs Bucknell had four children anxiously awaiting her return. "you are just anxious to see your family."
Later as the two women went to dinner, they saw Captain Smith enter and sit at a long table reserved for a private party. "Shouldn't he be on the bridge?" whispered Mrs Bucknell "I've heard rumors of icebergs and such."
"Nonsense" replied Mrs Brown. "He often dines with first class passengers." After dinner the two women, along with Dr Arthur Jackson Brew, retreated to the Palm Court to listen to the Titanic's band play ragtime.
After retiring to bed, around 11:40, Mrs Brown felt a crash and was knocked to the floor.
Mrs Bucknell's Detailed Account Of Her Ordeal
And the Titanic's Pitiful State Of Preparedness
The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 20 1912
"It is only the fact that no provisions of an adequate nature were made to safeguard the lives of the passengers of the Titanic that made me consent to this interview, explained Mrs Bucknell.
"The Whole affair has been so terrible that I feel as though the true conditions on the titanic should be known. I have been across the ocean thirty or more times in the past four years, and I have seen many life boat drills, but I never saw one on board the Titanic."
Perhaps I had better start my story at the time of the crash. I was accompanied by my maid, Albina Bassani, and my cabin was on the starboard side of the front of the ship. I was awakened by the crash as the vessel struck the iceberg. Of course I immediately got up and dressed partly. My mad came to my room, and when I went out into the corridor between our cabins I found pieces of ice on the floor. They had been forced through a broken port hole when the iceberg was hit.
By this time a man I believe he was one of the stewards, came through saying that there was no danger as a result of the collision. But while his voice was calm and he delivered his message easily, his face belied the confidence of his words, expressing the fear he had in his mind.
I returned at once to my cabin and began to dress as warmly as I could. I anticipated that there would come greater difficulties and I intended to be prepared. I told my maid to dress also. And about this time another man came through the hallways crying out that everyone should dress immediately and go on deck. I called to my maid to fasten my gown and only tarried long enough to get a heavy fur coat.
Out in the corridor I met a young women who was telling another one that we had struck and iceberg. The second woman said it could not be possible. I picked up the pieces of ice on the floor and holding them out towards her in the palm of my had said to her, 'Here is ice, It is an iceberg'. Then I returned again to my cabin.
My maid pleaded with me not to go up on deck. She cried out that we would surely be lo if we did not stay in the safety of our room, but I told here that the only thing to do under the circumstances was to obey orders implicitly. And our orders were to proceed at once to the deck.
There as no excitement on the deck among the passengers. They were in groups talking to one another. I saw Colonel and Mrs John Jacob Aster and the Wideners and a number of others talking about the collision with what was said to have been a submerged iceberg.
It couldn't have been a submerged iceberg, there was too much ice in the hallways by the portholes for it to have been and I distinctly heard one of the women passengers declare that it has been higher than deck D, upon which she was at the time.
To describe the hitting of the iceberg is difficult. The nearest I can come to that is to say that it sounded like a continuous and terrific peal of thunder mixed in with many violent explosions.
While we were on the deck there was no confusion, and when I arrived there I stayed for a time on the starboard side where the ship had struck. A man passing through declared that the bow had only been slightly damaged and they were then lowering the bulkhead doors.
Then came the order for the women and men to separate. I had crossed from the starboard to the port side of the Titanic by that time. I saw Colonel and Mrs Astor leave that side of the ship and walk towards the other. He was bending over her as they walked. And it was then that I saw the Wideners for the firs time. They were all together.
I was put in the second lifeboat from the bow and I think it was Captain Smith himself who put me in the boat.
"It is only a matter of precaution" explained the captain, "and there is really no danger"
It was lifeboat #8 and it was manned by four men, a steward and three ordinary seamen. We were in that boat ten minutes while the for men endeavored to lower it from the davits. They did not seem to understand how to operate the ropes and the process of launching the lifeboat, which should not take more than two minutes, took ten.
On the vessels that were beginning to be the signs of great tragedy about to descend. Wives and husbands were separated when the women were placed in our boat. A few of the men grew seemingly desperate, and Captain Smith who was standing by cried out "Behave yourselves like men! Look at all the women. See how splendid they are! Can't you behave like men!"
All of the women were calm though, they had just been torn from their loved ones. There was only one, a little Spanish bride, who cried out hysterically for her husband, who was held back by other men.
Then Captain Smith himself picked up a big basket of bread and handed it across to me in the lifeboat. That was all the provisions I saw. There may have been water on board, but I did not see it. I took the precaution to drink a glass of water just before I departed from the cabin.
"There is a light out there" said Captain Smith, to the man in charge of our lifeboat, which container thirty-five persons. "Take the women to it and hurry back as speedily as possible."
And away off in the horizon almost we could make out a light. We could not tell whether it was a steamer or a fishing vessel or what it was. One of the three seamen on the lifeboat protested against leaving the side of the Titanic. He declared that we did not have a sufficient number of passengers on board.
A voice from somewhere in the boat said "The Titanic is not sinking"
But I said look at those portholes, and by the dark line of the water edge, we could see that the big ship was pointing her bow down into the ocean. Another declared that the speaker would rather stay with the people on the ship. But again I pointed out that it was best to obey the orders of the captain and four oars were put out by the men.
And they could not row!
It was tragic. I have known how to row for a great many years as the result of much time spent in the Adirondacks and I slipped into the seats beside a man and showed him how to work the oar. The Countess Rothe and her maid, both of them expert rowwomen, followed me in this as did another woman of about 40 years who was in the boat, and we began the long pull towards the light.
The titanic was settling rapidly by that time, although we were the second lifeboat to crest off. On the deck we could see the people and we could see the launching of the lifeboats. Again I pointed out the danger in being close when the ship would sink and I was told that it would not sink before 2 o'clock that afternoon, a full twelve hours distant.
Meanwhile we rowed towards the light which ever seemed to recede. We were about a mile from the Titanic when she sank. The lights went out just a moment before. We heard faint cries as the big ship raised to the angle to slide into the sea, and we heard the roar of the air as she finally plunged to the bottom at the angle.
There was only a small lamp on board out lifeboat. The steward who was in charge called back to turn it low so as not to burn it too greatly. Some one suggested putting it out when an inquiry was made as to where there were any matches aboard.
And it was found that there were none!
I asked if the lifeboat had a compass, only to find it was not equipped with even that. One of the seamen exclaimed that it would be possible to steer by the starts at night and the sun by day. I said that we would be unable to determine our direction should a heavy fog prevail. Whereupon the man replied that in all probability we would not have to worry about it anyway.
So with our lantern turned low, and with eight of the women passengers assisting with the rowing, we pushed towards the light to which we had been directed by Captain Smith. The men soon learned to handle the oars as they should be handled, but even though they were used to rough work, their hands were soon inflamed and blistered.
The plight of some of the women in our boat was pitiable. While some were fully dressed, others wore only their nightgowns and kimonos. The maid to the Countess Rothe, who pulled one of the best oars, was dressed in this fashion and her hair was steaming down her back and shoulders all the time we were in the little boat. The women would row until they would fall from exhaustion, their place being taken by another woman who would gently move aside the collapsed woman and work in her place until exhaustion also overcame her.
Meanwhile, with our lamp burning low, we proceeded. We learned that one of the women on the boat had an electric cane. She said the battery was in good shape and she was delegated to flash it every once in awhile.
Then I sighted the Carpathia. It was still dark, and as the person in front of me stooped over and I bent on the stroke of the oar I saw a row of lights on the horizon. I cried out that the chief officer in charge of the lifeboats must have assembled them together and suggested that we join them. And one of the sailors looking over in the direction I indicated said "we are saved, it's a steamer, because I can see her masthead lights." I could make out a green light and has thought it was the light the commanding officer of the lifeboats was carrying.
The lantern was all lit to full flame and the electric cane was flashed at intervals and when we looked again for the light we had been sent out to reach, by Captain Smith, we found that it had gone. We never learned what it was, but we all believed it to be a fishing smack.
And then the sun came up in all it's glory on a beautiful morning and off about ten miles we could make out the Carpathia.
Then began the long row back to the boat. By that time the hands of the inexperienced oarsmen were in terrible shape. The man sitting beside me and whom I was helping to row, showed me the palms of his hands and they were in a sad condition. The wind was freshening too, and the cold had become more intense.
On all sides of us of course there was ice. But not once during the time we were in the water were we endangered by the ice floes. While we were rowing back, practically the entire journey was made with twelve pairs of hands pulling the four oars. each of the men was assisted by two women.
This served to warm us and the nearness of the Carpathia, upon which we slowly gained, gave us courage. Some one threw me a knit jacked, and I wrapped this around the hands of the seaman beside me, and around my own, and side by side we pulled with might and main for the rescue ship.
One woman in the party declared that there was no necessity for us to row to the Carpathia. She wanted to stay where we were do that we could be picked up. She cried out that if we rowed after the ship we might lose her. Some one explained to her that the only thing for the Carpathia to do was remain stationary and have all the smaller craft row to her. And after a brief colloquy between them, the woman who wanted us to rest our oars stopped her quibbling.
We saw no bodied on the surface of the water as we dew near to the Carpathia. Nor did we see any dreckage other than a log, which many of us believed did not come from the Titanic. The only strange thing was a yellow scum on the surface of the water.
Never was there such kindness as received on the Carpathia. The passengers turned out to help us, the sailors, the stewards, the stewardesses and everybody did nothing but attend to the wants to those from the Titanic. I did not see the captain at all. he ever left the bridge during the entire voyage to New York.
But again I want to tell you of the poorly equipped lifeboats. From the fifth officer of the Titanic, who was among those saved, I learned that one of the collapsible lifeboats had been launched with the plug out of the large hole at the bottom. The nineteen people in it were slowly sinking, despite their efforts to plug up this hole with clothing. The force of the water was too much for them and they could not plug it. This boat was only about three inches above the water when the fifth officer directed the rescue of the entire party.
Our boat did not see a single person in the water. I learned from the fifth officer that when the Titanic slanted for the final dive into the depths all of the persons on her deck were thrown together into a unpitable mass of humanity unable to move and being crushed by the weight of those above.
And then as the cold waters rushed into the engine rooms and caused the explosion of the boilers, a number of those were saved by being blown high into the air. In this fashion they were out of the water at the time of the greatest turmoil following the sinking of the Titanic. and a number were subsequently picked up.
Delaware County Times
April 12, 1912
You ask me if this will have any effect on my ocean traveling? I hardly know what to say have seeing how unprepared the most modern vessel was in the matter of life saving decided. I always did shudder when I witnessed lifeboat drills on the German vessels, and when I saw them changing the food and water in lifeboats, but after an experience like this where an inefficient crew, untrained in any of the necessary requirements, not even knowing how to lower the boat into the water, one naturally hesitates. Anyway it will be some little time before I venture again. I shall have to completely recover from the effects of this ordeal.
More Accounts From Mrs Bucknell
Delware County Times, April 19 1912
The following clipping is transcribed below:
CHESTER TIMES – April 20, 1912
MRS. BUCKNELL SAVED, TELLS OF SHIPWRECKWell-Known Chester Woman, Declares Titanic’s Equipment Poor – Graphic Description
Graphic descriptions of the wreck of the white Star Liner Titanic ware given by Mrs. Emma Ward Bucknell for many years a resident of Seventeenth and Walnut Streets, this city, who was a passenger on the ill-fated ship. Mrs. Bucknell is the widow of the late William Bucknell, founder of Bucknell College, and a sister-in-law of Garnett Pendleton, president of the Cambridge Trust Company, Fifth and Market Streets, this city.
Mrs. Bucknell was seen at the home of her son-in-law, Samuel Wetherill, Twenty-third and Spruce streets. She told her story in a collected fashion, but with an occasional nervous movement of her hands across her eyes as though trying to blot from her vision some of the terrible scenes through which she passed.
She was one of the first to get into a lifeboat and leave the doomed Titanic and one of the last to be drawn aboard the Carpathia. She and her companions had rowed over a wind-tossed sea in freezing air for hours and were ten miles away from the spot where the liner sank before the Carpathia was sighted.
“I was asleep in my cabin when the crash came,” said Mrs. Bucknell. “I cannot explain just what the noise was like, except that it was horrible and sounded like a mixture of thunder and explosions.
“In a moment there was a roaring sound and I knew that something serious was the matter. The corridors filled rapidly with frightened passengers and then the stewards and officers came, reassuring us with the announcement that everything was all right and that ‘only a small hole had been stove in the bow.’
“As I stepped out of my stateroom I saw lying before me on the floor a number of fragments of ice as big as my fists. More was crumbled about the porthole, and it flashed over me at once just what had happened.
“We have hit an iceberg,” I said to my maid, “get dressed at once.”
We hurried into our clothes and I took the precaution to get fully dressed. So did my maid. I even thought to wrap myself in my warm fur coat, for even then I felt sure we would have to take to the lifeboats. Something told me the damage was greater than we had been told.”
“My fears were realized a few minutes later when a steward walked briskly down the corridor, calling to the passengers who had retired again to hurry into their clothes and get on deck at once. I could see by this man’s drawn and haggard face that something dreadful had happened.
COWARDS DRIVEN BACK – “There was very little confusion on the deck. Once a group of men shouted that they would not be separated from their wives if it became necessary to take to lifeboats and made a rush to find accommodations for themselves. The captain seemed to straighten out his shoulders and his face was set with determination.
“Get back there, you cowards,” he roared. “Behave yourselves like men. Look at these women. Can you not be as brave as they?”
“The men fell back and from that moment there seemed to be a spirit of resignation all over the ship. Husbands and wives clasped each other and burst into tears. Then a few minutes later came the order for the women and children to take to the boats.
“I did not hear an outcry from the women or men. Wives left their husbands’ sides and without a word were led to the boats. One little Spanish girl, a bride, was the only exception. She wept bitterly and it was almost necessary to drag her into the boat. Her husband went down with the ship.
“Right here I want to say something about the utter unpreparedness of the Titanic for a shipwreck. The lifeboats were so bunglingly fastened to the davits in the first place that it was hard work to get them free. Half the collapsible boats were so stiff that they could not be opened and were useless. Those that were not already opened and ready for use were unavailable also for none on board seemed to understand how they worked.
“Hundreds more could have been saved if these collapsible boats had worked properly.
“One of the lifeboats had a big hole in the bottom. A plug had fallen out, I believe. When it was loaded and lowered over the side into the sea, it began to fill at once. AT this point the fifth officer proved himself a hero. Women in the leaking boat were screaming with fright and tearing off their clothing in wild and fruitless efforts to plug up the hole.
“The boat filled to the gunwales before any were saved. The brave fifth officer to my knowledge rescued 19 of the women in this boat, some of whom had fallen over the side into the sea. It was finally hauled alongside and re-plugged, loaded and relaunched.
“Nothing impressed me more about the whole terrible affair than the absolute absence of panic. They tell me that something of a panic ensured after our boat had pulled away, but I do not know anything about it.
“We rowed all night. I took an oar and sat beside the Countess De Rothe. Her maid had an oar and so did mine. The air was freezing cold, and it was not long before the only man that appeared to know anything about rowing commenced to complain that his hands were freezing. A woman back of him handed him a shawl from about her shoulders.
“I took it, sat beside him and wrapped my hands with his, and we pulled together.
SAW THE TITANIC SINK – ‘As we rowed we looked back at the lights of the Titanic. There was not a sound from her, only the lights began to get lower and lower, and finally she sank. Then we heard a muffled explosion and a dull roar caused by the great suction of water.
“As we passed over the spot where the Titanic had gone down we saw nothing but a sheet of yellow scum and a solitary log. There was not a body, not a thing to indicate that there had been a wreck. The sun was shining brightly then and we were near to the Carpathia.”
Mrs. Emma Bucknell told a reporter what happened when men initially heard the Captain's idea:
"Once a group of men shouted that they would not be separated from their wives if it became necessary to take to the boats and made a rush to find accommodations for themselves. The captain seemed to straighten out his shoulders and his face was set with determination."
"'Get back there, you cowards,' he roared. 'Behave yourself like men. Look at these women. Can you not be as brave as they?"
"The men fell back, and from that moment there seemed to be a spirit of resignation all over the ship. Husbands and wives clasped each other and burst into tears."
"I did not hear an outcry from the women or the men. Wives left their husbands' side and without a word were led to the boats. One little Spanish girl, a bride, was the only exception. She wept bitterly, and it was almost necessary to drag her into the boat."
Emma Eliza Bucknell, Titanic Survivor