Ruth Becker was no ordinary 12-year old girl. Independent, sensible, and mature beyond her years, she could be trusted with burdens few adults could bear. On no night was this more clear than that of April 15th, 1912, when in the face of danger she selflessly gave of herself to calm and comfort those around her. Read on to discover the story of this young heroine, my favorite Titanic survivor.
Ruth Elizabeth Becker was born on October 28th 1899. She had lived with her mother, Nellie, and younger siblings Marion and Richard in Guntur, India, where her father Reverend Allen Oliver Becker worked as a missionary. While Ruth didn't mind the high temperatures and exotic landscape, her mother hated the heat, the snakes and the lizards, suffering a nervous collapse more than once (the worst occasion being when she witnessed a native being cremated outside their house!) To add to Nellie's distress, her son Luther died of sickness in 1907, at the age of only two. So in early 1912 when the doctor announced young Richard had contracted a similar illness to the one that took Luther's life five years earlier, Nellie did not hesitate to relocate the family to Michigan, where medical conditions were much better. Ruth's father was also in poor health, but did not have permission to leave his post.
Nellie, 36, Ruth, 12, Marion, 4, and Richard, 1, departed from India on the steamer City of Benares which took them on a month-long voyage to London, England. This upper-class, civilized city appealed to Nellie, who had spent years living in the jungles of India, and she made it her priority to show the children all over. The London Zoo, a wax museum, and St. Paul's Cathedral were only a few of the stops the family visited before heading to Southampton, England for the highlight of their voyage - boarding the RMS Titanic.
The brand-new steamer, boasted to be 'virtually unsinkable,' was the largest and most luxurious of its time. Although only on its first voyage, the ship was all the rage among both rich and poor. The Beckers, in second class, certainly appreciated the opulence of their quarters - the Titanic boasted an elevator, dining saloon, library and men's smoking room for the middle class. Ruth, sick of ocean travel (she had been aboard the City of Benares for a month!) was nevertheless impressed by the pristine cleaness of the new ship, the snowy-white china plates untouched by grime or food stains, and the beds never before slept in. She recalls,
"To pass the time away, I would wheel my little brother up and down the deck. I would look in the dining room and it was the most beautiful sight I ever saw. You see, it was new, absolutely new. I just stood there and marveled, how beautiful everything was ... our cabin was on the port side toward the stern and very close to the waterline. I could look through the porthole and see the ocean. The water would be almost up to my eyes."
However, life on the Titanic was not all comfort and relaxation. Ruth's mother, Nellie, was extremely nervous about the ship's seaworthiness, as it had never made an ocean crossing before. To add to her distress, the passengers had witnessed a near-accident when the great ship had set off at Southampton. The suction caused by the monstrous Titanic as it sailed out of the harbor drew another ship, the New York, towards it. The two ships would have collided had several tugboats not intervened swiftly, preventing damage. However, the near-miss confirmed some passenger's doubts about the so-called 'unsinkable' ship. Ruth remembers her mother's anxiety:
"My mother had to see the purser, and she said, "You know why I am not one bit happy about going on this ship to New York City?" And he said, "Why?" And she said, "Because this is the first trip it's ever made ... and I'm, just a little nervous about it." And he said, "Ma'am, you know that the Titanic has watertight compartments and that if anything does happen these watertight compartments will keep the ship up until they get help."
On that fateful night of April 14th, 1912, Ruth and her mother were awakened just after midnight by the sudden, eerie silence following the ceasing of the engines. The hallway outside was in turmoil as passengers hurried from their cabins, struggling to keep families together in the throng. Ruth recalled,
"There was so much noise upstairs - they were running - running upstairs and in the halls - and yelling and all that. The first cabin steward we saw said, "No, there's nothing wrong at all - there's just been a little accident and they're going to fix it and we'll be going on in a few minutes."
Mislead by the steward's calming words, the two returned to bed, but their tension became fresh alarm as the engines failed to start again. Another inquiry of a steward revealed the true danger. Ruth and Nellie began to dress the younger children but did not bother to get changed themselves, merely throwing coats on over their nightgowns. In their hurry they also neglected to put on lifebelts.
"We had to climb five flights of stairs to a room full of women. They were all weeping - in states of dress and undress. Everyone was frightened - no one knew what would happen to them. But I was never scared. I was only excited. I never for one minute thought we would die.
Two officers came in and they said, 'Well, it's time to get into the lifeboats now.' So one officer took my brother and the other took my sister, carried them, and my mother and I climbed an iron ladder to the top deck to get into the lifeboats."
Shivering in the cold of the crowded boat deck, Nellie asked responsible Ruth to hurry back to the cabin for some blankets. Without hesitation the obedient, sensible girl responded to her mother's words. However, by the time she returned,
"the officers had put by little brother and sister in (boat number 11), they said, 'That's all for this boat.' And my mother just yelled, screamed, she said, 'Please let me in that boat! Those are my children!' and so they did, they let her in the boat. Well, I was left on the Titanic ..."
At this point in Ruth's story, she is facing a horror more terrible than any child should ever have to suffer through - the terror of being abandoned by family and surrounded by panicked strangers as an icy death creeps ever closer. In some versions of Ruth's story, she is allowed into lifeboat 11 with her mother but heroically sacrifices her seat when the officers cry the boat is too full. However the separation from her mother took place, there is no doubt that Ruth faced the prospect of death with a saintlike calmness and maturity, and that her own courage led her to a spot in lifeboat 13 - among the last lifeboats lowered from the flooding bow of the ship.
As Ruth glanced up at the bright decks of the Titanic, crowded with the pale, frightened faces of those who knew they could not be rescued, a huge, dark shadow obscured her vision. As the black shape descended closer, the alarmed passengers realized what it was. Lifeboat 15 was being lowered too quickly and was sure to crush Lifeboat 13 beneath it, dooming its passengers to an icy death! Panic-stricken cries of the occupants filled the cold night air, hoarse and twisted with fear. Unaware of the perilous position of the lifeboat beneath, oblivious seamen continued to lower boat 15. The great black hull loomed closer ... closer ... closer - by now Ruth, forced to stand up due to lack of room, could touch it, in a vain attempt to push it away. At the last moment, a crew member, pocketknife in hand, sliced the ropes attaching Lifeboat 13 to the deck. It sailed away safely over the calm black water, with boat 15 following in its wake.
"We rowed away from the Titanic as fast as we could, and there were five or six decks and they were just lined with people - standing there at the edge looking over. I suppose they were wishing and hoping someone would come and rescue them. When we were about a mile away the boat was just beautiful, it was a very dark, black night and the ocean was very calm. It was just like a mill pond, just like we were going out for a ride on the pond.
It (the Titanic) was going down very slowly, not fast at all and the night was dark, no moon, a very dark, black night and that boat was just beautiful, all the lights were on. But it was going down quietly and the lights were just going under the water. I remember that very plainly - I thought it was a beautiful night and a terrible sight because you could see that the boat was going under the water ....
There fell upon the ear the most terrible noise that human beings ever listened to - the cries of hundreds of people struggling in the icy cold water, crying for help with a cry we knew could not be answered. That was a terrible, terrible time, I can still hear them."
However, it was in this 'terrible, terrible time' that Ruth's true generosity, courage and devotion to others would shine through. In the dark of night, surrounded by miles upon miles of glassy black ocean with not a comforting hand around, Ruth forgot about feeling sorry for herself and instead helped care for others - a feat not easily accomplished by most children in distress. The bundle of blankets she had brought from the cabin on her mother's request were soon distributed among the freezing passengers by the selfless young girl, who did not keep one for herself. Soon, the blankets were being ripped in half and shared by all.
During the struggle of escaping the sinking ship, a crewmember seated near Ruth had somehow torn his finger badly. It now hung on only by a strip of flesh. Again showing her selfless devotion to others, Ruth was determined to help the poor man. Within her pocket she found the precious handkerchief that her beloved father had given to her before they left India. Without hesitation she wrapped it like a bandage around the bloody, mangled mess that was the stoker's finger.
Perhaps Ruth's greatest act of kindness was her commitment to a young Polish woman, Leah Aks, who sat sobbing beside her in the lifeboat. Rather than wallow in her own sorrow and discomfort, which must have been great due to cold and fear, Ruth spent her time trying to comfort this poor woman. At first, Ruth could not understand what 18-year old Leah was sobbing, but with a man's help realized that she was speaking German. Patiently
MORE TO COME SOON!