"But most of the barriers were not down, and the steerage passengers who sensed danger and aimed for the boats were strictly on their own resources." - from "A Night To Remember," by Walter Lord
When the strange little man dressed all in black approached Delia McDermott several days before she was to board the RMS Titanic, she thought he was a beggar and tried to give him a few coins.
But he didn't want her money. He had a message for her.
"He tapped her on the shoulder," said James Curley, a first-generation Irish American who lost a distant relative on the Titanic. "He told her he was going on a long journey. There would be a disaster, but she would be saved."
Delia was one of the "Addergoole 14," a group of Irish emigrants from county Mayo in Ireland who paid between $300 to $400 for third class tickets on the ill-fated ocean liner's maiden voyage in April 1912.
Delia was one of the lucky ones. Only three of the Addergoole 14 survived the sinking of the Titanic that was once dubbed "practically unsinkable" by a shipbuilding magazine.
Curley, a Ship Bottom resident, recounted their story to a packed house at the Long Beach Island branch of the Ocean County Library in Surf City earlier this week.
Class differences in 1912
The story of the Titanic's steerage passengers is a study in class differences at the beginning of the 20th century.
First and second class passengers paid thousands in 1912 dollars for the five day trip across the North Atlantic from Southampton, England to New York City.
Yet the majestic Titanic was "amazing" for third class passengers, who had left poverty-stricken Ireland. The liner had electric lights, running water, toilets and varied meals, Curley said.
But it had its disadvantages, as well. The steerage decks were noisy, because they were closer to the ship's engines. Because they were farther below, steerage passengers were unfamiliar with the Titanic's layout, Curley said.
Third class passengers were not allowed into the first or second class sections. There were no lifeboats on the steerage decks.
So when the Titanic sideswiped an iceberg in the frigid North Atlantic shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912, it wasn't long before Capt. Edward J. Smith gave the order to the crew to begin lowering the lifeboats.
Stewards hurried about, buckling first and second class passengers into life jackets and directing them towards the lifeboats.
But decks below the rich and famous, the third class passengers waited. They were forbidden to enter the first and second class decks. The gates to both decks were locked.
"People in steerage realize what was going on, but they are still being kept back," Curley said.
Author Walter Lord, in his 1955 classic "A Night To Remember," recounts a scene where third class passenger James Farrell encountered several women in steerage entreating a steward to open the gates.
"Good God, man, open the gates and let the girls through!" Buckley thundered at the steward.
There weren't enough lifeboats for the more than 2,200 passengers and crew on board. But the boats lowered to the icy water were often launched with many seats available, Curley said.
"They weren't nearly filled," he said. "One boat that left with 28 people had room for 65."
The number of those saved tell a stark story of class differences, Curley said.
In first class, 97 women and 86 percent of children survived. In steerage, 49 women survived and 31 of 80 children survived. Whole families in steerage were wiped out.
Curley quoted Ithaca College statistician John Henderson about the survival difference.
"The number made it clear that a rule of first class first outweighed any other guiding principle of women and children first," Henderson said.
The three Addergoole survivors - Annie Kate Kelly, Delia McDermott and Annie McGowan - shied away from discussing the disaster during their lives, Curley said.
And every year, at 2:20 a.m. - the time the Titanic foundered - the bell at St. Patrick's Church in Lahardane tolls for each of the Addergoole 14.
It rings slowly for those who never came home - Catherine McHugh Bourke, 32; John Bourke, 32; Mary Bourke, 40; Catherine McGowan, 42; Annie McGowan, 15; Mary Mangan, 32; Nora Fleming, 24; James Flynn, 28; Mary Canavan, 22; Patrick Canavan, 21; Annie Kate Kelly, 20; Delia Mahon, 20; Bridget Donahue, 20.
Then it peals quickly for the three who made it.
"Rural Ireland resounds with tales of emigration, steeped in the tradition of letting go," the Addergoole Titanic Society's website states. "Addergoole will never let go of the memories of 11 neighbours and friends who disappeared with that 'Ship of Dreams.' "
Lord begins his foreward to "A Night To Remember" with a reference to a book written back in 1898 called "Futility."
Author Morgan Robertson wrote about a majestic ocean liner considered to be unsinkable, that went to the bottom of the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg on a cold April night. The name of the ship was Titan.