Armenian Titanic survivor Neshan Krekorian (seated left) with his wife, Persape (seated right), daughter Angie (center), son George (left), and daughter Alice (right).
BY DAISY SINDELAR
Neshan Krekorian was barely in his twenties when his father urged him to emigrate from western Armenia and start a new life far away across the Atlantic Ocean.
“His father told him to leave the country and seek a new life in Canada and hopefully bring his brothers over,” says Krekorian’s grandson, Van Solomonian.
Immigrants from across the British Isles, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East paid the equivalent of $1,000 for a steerage-class ticket entitling them to modest sleeping quarters and meals in the third-class dining hall for the duration of what was meant to be a weeklong voyage.
But things took a turn for the worse five nights into the journey. Close to midnight on April 14, the ship hit a massive iceberg in the North Atlantic and slowly began to sink. According to Solomonian, his grandfather and some of his fellow third-class passengers had just settled in for a game of cards when they heard “a shudder” and “a dull thud.”
A foundry worker in the local General Motors plant, he earned enough money to honor his father’s wish to bring his younger brothers to Canada, and helped found the town’s Armenian Church, the first of its kind in the country.
Besides the four drowned in the above list the following also were drowned:- Sarkis Lahundian, Thomas Toumaian, with his little son, Simon Bedrosian, Khachig, Oksen Zakarian, Apcar Muradian, Bedros Yazbegian, 12 in all.
Among the second class passengers Mrs Anna Hamalian was saved. (
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In the desperate panic during the wee hours of April 15, 1912, Krekorian, 25, did not know what instructions frantic Titanic crewmen were shouting. He did not comprehend the words spoken by doomed men as they placed wives and children into the descending lifeboats.
He could not make out the gasping, futile cries for help from those flailing in the icy sea.
Perhaps it was just as well. For more than 65 years, Krekorian lived with memories no one would want yet everyone wanted to hear.
He was one of only about 700 survivors of the sinking of the Titanic. Some 1,500 people died. Krekorian also belonged to an even smaller fraternity – that of male survivors from third class.
A Christian, he had fled the political strife and religious persecution of his homeland on the advice of his father, who instructed him to go to North America and start a new life.
Krekorian, and five other Armenian men from the same general area, found their way to France and booked third-class passage at Cherbourg for a voyage to New York aboard the much-heralded Titanic.
Krekorian had no idea of the hype that preceded the luxurious liner's maiden voyage. As a non-English-speaking steerage passenger, he was also unaware of the lavish amenities afforded to those on the upper decks.
That Krekorian survived was a miracle in more ways than one. He was one of only about 75 men, 76 women and 27 children from third-class to survive the sinking. The death toll of third-class passengers numbered more than 500.
“It was secluded down there,” says grandson Van Solomonian, of Toronto. “He talked about breaking a locked door. There was a chain on the door.”
During the voyage there was no mingling between steerage passengers and those in first or second class.
As years passed, Krekorian's tales of the experience became less specific and more visceral.
“He talked about how cold it was. The chunks of ice (in the water). And the noise. He heard screaming and yelling,” Solomonian said.
An Expositor reporter learned of his arrival and hurried to an Armenian boarding house at 11 Main St. for an exclusive interview.
The reporter entered a large room set with tables. Four Armenian men sat at each table entertaining themselves with some type of “game peculiar to the country whence they came.”
The interview was a convoluted affair, conducted with the help of two interpreters, Mr. Mosoian and Mr. Ouzounean. The latter, Ouzounean, did not speak English either and interpreted Krekorian's words into French.
As soon as Krekorian began to relate his experience for the newspaperman, the other Armenians – about 20 or so -- crowded round to hear the harrowing tale.
Expositor: “Was there much confusion soon after the collision with the iceberg?”
Krekorian: “Yes, Everybody was running every way, downstairs, upstairs. It was about 11 o'clock and I was quite asleep. One of my companions woke me up and told me something happened. He then went up on deck to see what. They tell him to go right down and get his things on and get ready to get into lifeboats.
“I remember twice they look to see all who were in the boat and none see me. Then they come again, third time, and find me. I was too listless to care now, and just sit and look around. We stay in the boat perhaps three hours, perhaps more and then comes the big steamer. We then go to New York.
Expositor: “How many people were there in the little lifeboat?”
Expositor: “You say one sailor. Was there a big rich man among the passengers who was also in command of the boat?”
Krekorian: “I couldn't say. I didn't see.”
Krekorian: “Yes. We were there four days. When I leave I get a suit of clothes. All shipwrecked people were given suit of clothes and I was given this overcoat too. And the company give me $10 and my fare to Brantford. I was also given an envelope. They said it was subscription. I look inside. It was $25 in paper.”
The Expositor reporter latched on to a notion that Krekorian had disguised himself as a woman to get off the Titanic.
“It is not,” Krekorian said. “What time had we to be thinking of women's clothes at such a time as that? I did not know how to think.”
Despite Krekorian's vehement denial, the Expositor propagated the claim and a headline in the next day's paper cried: Armenian Who Dressed in Women's Clothes to Get Off the Titanic Arrived Here Last Night – Interviewed by Expositor Man.
However, a transcript of Peuchen's testimony, available online, says nothing about an Armenian. Peuchen told the inquiry that a “stowaway” aboard lifeboat No. 6 looked to be an Italian man with a broken arm or wrist. He was unable to row.
According to data compiled at www.encylopedia-titanica.org, lifeboat No. 10 held a varied group of women and children from first, second and third class, plus several crew members. Having crew members aboard was a necessity, as able-bodied men were needed to pull the oars.
Also aboard lifeboat No. 10 was two-month old Millvina Dean, her
two-year-old brother and their mother. Millvina, who died in 2009 at the age of 97, was the last living Titanic survivor.
In his interview with the Expositor, Krekorian was generous with praise for his treatment in hospital in New York after the rescue. He said he was showered with kindnesses and “any amount of Armenian magazines and books were at his disposal.”
He married Persa Vartanian on July 12, 1924 and the couple raised three children, George, Alice and Angeline.
Time and life went on, but Krekorian, like most Titanic survivors, was never allowed much distance from the disaster that marked him for life.
“All the company we had wanted to hear the story,” she said. “Everybody was so interested in it. I remember saying: 'There they go again'” whenever her father began to tell the story to listeners hungry for his words. Only when Alice was older did she appreciate the historical significance of her father's stories. She later wished she had paid more attention.
Grandson Van Solomonian has similar regrets. He was in his mid-20s when his grandfather died in 1978.
Apart from the disaster itself, Krekorian spoke at times about the conditions on the Titanic before the tragedy. One of the quotes often attributed to him was that the third-class passengers were “cooped up like chickens,” Solomonian said.
Still, Krekorian had solid food and a clean bed. His experience as a third-class passenger needs to be viewed in the context of the time. Many of the steerage passengers were peasants, fleeing situations of deprivation and despair, Solomonian said.
And, compared to the horrific experiences of emigrants who crossed the ocean in steerage decades earlier on sailing ships often rife with disease, the experience of travelling third-class on a ship like the Titanic was nothing to sniff at.
By that time, Krekorian, although not fluent in English, could understand the language and grudgingly agreed to go. Being an actual Titanic survivor, he was treated as a celebrity, his grandson said.
For everyone else in the theatre that night, the movie was a thrilling and tragic tale on the big screen. But for Krekorian, it was real – and it was terrible.
n a past interview, Alice Solomonian recalled her father's reaction while watching the film.
Everything seemed fine until the scene depicting the impact with the iceberg, she said. At that point her father sat up sharply in his seat, “so straight, so stiff” that he seemed transfixed, she said. “He didn't move. He just watched.”
Krekorian did not sleep that night, his daughter said.
“Through all his life he was known as a survivor. It always came up,” his grandson said.
“Implicitly he realized it was quite an experience he had but he found it all very unpleasant” to always have to remember, Solomonian said.
Neshan Krekorian died on May 21, 1978, in St. Catharines at the age of 92