HULLS COVE — “It was a brilliant, starry night. There was no moon and I have never seen the stars shine brighter; they appeared to stand right out of the sky, sparkling like cut diamonds. …”
That’s how John B. Thayer Jr. remembered the night of April 14, 1912, when he and his parents were bound for New York aboard the RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage. He survived the sinking of the great liner struck by an iceberg 400 miles off Newfoundland. His mother escaped in a lifeboat. His father drowned.
Thayer, the 17-year-old son of Pennsylvania Railroad vice president John B. Thayer III, threw off his overcoat and jumped from the Titanic’s starboard railing. Sucked down into the icy water, he surfaced and bumped up against an overturned lifeboat. He and 27 other men — among them the Titanic’s second officer in command, a wireless operator and stokers — clung to the craft, praying and singing hymns until they were finally rescued hours later.
Eventually becoming an investment banker in Philadelphia, Thayer summered for years on Mount Desert Island. In 1940, he wrote an account of his harrowing experience for his children. In 1943, his 22-year-old son was reported missing in action flying a bomber mission over New Guinea during World War II. Two years later, Thayer killed himself.
Thayer’s eldest daughter, Lois Frazier, lives year-round in the Mount Desert Island village of Hulls Cove. A modest, gracious woman, she agreed to be interviewed in light of renewed public interest in the disaster sparked by James Cameron’s recently released epic “Titanic,” currently packing cinemas in Maine and across the nation.
“Pop was a loving, caring father,” she recalled last week. “We never knew he agonized over this. He’d had the Titanic. He’d had the war, the Depression. His son Eddie was lost in action in New Guinea.”
Frazier says her grandmother never recovered from the loss of her husband, John B. Thayer III. Her grandfather was last seen standing on the deck beneath the Titanic’s second funnel with George D. Widener, a Philadelphian whose family made a fortune building street cars, as the ship slowly sank.
Nicknamed “Grannie Muz,” Marian Thayer was a great beauty who never married again after her husband’s death. She spent her time writing and poring over newspapers in her rambling, Tudor-style home in Haverford, Penn.
“She took to mirror-writing and would get messages from her husband,” her granddaughter remembered. “It was an eerie old house. It was always dark and gloomy.”
As a child, Frazier says she was aware her father had survived the Titanic’s sinking, but knew little else about it. She says the disaster was rarely talked about during her childhood. Her father’s slim green volume, self-published when she was a teen-ager, provided the details of his ordeal.
Called “The Sinking of the S.S. Titanic,” Thayer’s vivid account has proved a valuable resource for the numerous books and movies about the tragedy. From the overturned lifeboat, he had a harrowing view of the Titanic in the final moments before the great ship vanished beneath the sea.
“Sitting on my haunches and holding on for dear life, I was again facing the Titanic …” he wrote. “Her deck was turned slightly toward us. We could see groups of the almost 1,500 people still aboard, clinging in clusters or bunches, like swarming bees, only to fall in masses, pairs or singly as the great after part of the ship, 250 feet of it, rose into the sky, till it reached a 65- or 70-degree angle. Here it seemed to pause, and just hung, for what felt like minutes. Gradually she turned her deck away from us as though to hide from our sight the awful spectacle.”
Once the Titanic disappeared, there was a moment of silence.
“Then an individual call for help, from here, from there, gradually swelling into a composite volume of one long continuous wailing chant, from the 1,500 in the water all around us,” Thayer related. “It sounded like locusts on a mid-summer night, in the woods in Pennsylvania.”
Before daybreak, Thayer and the other men packed like sardines on the lifeboat’s bottom spotted the liner Carpathia coming to the rescue. They were rescued by a lifeboat. His mother was in the craft, having rowed most of the night.
“It was just about this time that the edge of the sun came above the horizon. Then, to feel its glowing warmth, which we had never expected to see again, was something never to be forgotten,” he wrote. “Even through my numbness, I began to realize I was saved — that I would live.”