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Local’s leap of faith averted Titanic death

Boston seaman was one of few in steerage to survive

William H. Turnquist, 86, the son of William Henry Turnquist, in photo left, who survived the sinking of the Titanic, at his home in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Jan Sturmann for The Boston Globe

William H. Turnquist, 86, the son of William Henry Turnquist, in photo left, who survived the sinking of the Titanic, at his home in Walnut Creek, Calif.

NEWTON - One hundred years ago this morning, William H. Turnquist’s watch stopped, right at the moment the young Dorchester resident hit the frigid water after leaping from the RMS Titanic, according to family lore.

The time was 2:17 a.m., three minutes before the massive liner, on its maiden voyage, plunged 2 miles to the bottom of the North Atlantic. The unthinkable had happened to the “unsinkable.’’

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About 1,500 passengers and crew members lost their lives that night. A century later, the harrowing story of those deaths - played out in a confusion-riddled tableau of heroism, cowardice, and miscalculation - still enthralls and horrifies.

The 1945 photo shows Titanic survivor William Henry Turnquistwith his son,WilliamHarvey Turnquist, now 86.

Handout

The 1945 photo shows Titanic survivor William Henry Turnquist with his son,William Harvey Turnquist, now 86.

Turnquist was a survivor of the rarest kind - a third-class passenger, one of hundreds trapped on Titanic’s lower decks, who somehow lived to remember that night.

“It’s a family legend that we’ve been talking about for years,’’ said Novelle DuPen-Meyerhoff of Newton, Turnquist’s granddaughter. “Our family has been focused on that watch, and the fact that he was one of those people who didn’t die.’’

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The accounts of what happened aboard the Titanic as it sank have been clouded by time, romance, embellishment, denial. Some of the lifeboats were lowered half-full; some contained men who took space that could have held women and children. The ship’s band, trying to calm the panicked, is said to have played to the last.

In DuPen-Meyerhoff’s family, the story has been passed down through three generations, beginning with a soft-spoken Swedish immigrant who served the US Navy in World Wars I and II, spent his entire career at sea, and used his physical and mental tenacity to survive the most famous maritime disaster in history.

On this centennial, she said, “what I feel is pride.’’

The 25-year-old Turnquist booked passage on the Titanic with five fellow crew members from the SS New York, an American liner stranded in England because of a coal strike.

Rather than wait for the strike to end, Turnquist and his mates apparently had been summoned back to the United States.

They returned in steerage, six seamen traveling together on ticket 370160, bound from Southampton to their home port of New York.

The chance to travel aboard the greatest ship afloat, without the demands of work, must have seemed a luxury for the men.

All that changed, of course, when the Titanic struck an iceberg 400 miles south of Newfoundland. As the first-class passengers boarded lifeboats on the top deck, Turnquist and most other third-class passengers had little choice but to remain on the ship or jump, he told Boston reporters shortly after the disaster.

“There was no means of escape, as there was no ladder from the lower deck’’ to the decks above, Turnquist said.

Instead, “as the passengers from these upper decks were being taken into the boats, we just stood there, watching the surging water as it swept over the vessel,’’ Turnquist told a Boston Globe reporter who visited his home at 152 Spencer St., near Franklin Park.

As a result, Turnquist recounted for reporters, he jumped overboard only three minutes before the Titanic disappeared, remained afloat for at least several numbing minutes, and finally clambered into a lifeboat.

“Those in the steerage who did not succeed in getting into the lifeboats, or failed to jump with the hope of being picked up, were engulfed, being trapped and drowned like rats. It was terrible, terrible,’’ Turnquist said.

The sinking caused a worldwide sensation, one that combined shock over the deaths of wealthy passengers such as John Jacob Astor IV and Macy’s owner Isidor Straus with outrage about the lifeboat shortage and class-segregated quarters that kept many third-class travelers trapped on their deck.

“There were many painful scenes as wives, mothers, and children rushed about on the deck when it became known that the ship was going to sink. . . . As the bow steadily sank, the passengers made a wild scramble for the stern,’’ Turnquist said.

“During the rush for dry places, people were undoubtedly trampled on, and I have not the slightest doubt but that many of the victims suffered broken arms and legs before meeting their fate.’’

Approximately 705 passengers were rescued from the ship, which was equipped with only enough lifeboats for half the passengers and crew.

After an initial flurry of interviews in Boston, Turnquist did not talk much about the disaster, according to his son, William H. Turnquist, 86, of Walnut Creek, Calif.

“In those days, the whole social mores of men, you might say, was different than it is now. It was the ‘women and children first’ idea,’’ Turnquist said in a phone interview last week.

“The stigma that sort of went with it at that time - ‘Why did I get off when the women and children in third class didn’t get off?’ - caused him to say, ‘I won’t talk about it.’ ’’

To his granddaughter, that reticence speaks to the quiet strength of a man whose Navy service from 1904 to 1908 helped him survive in the water and ward off hypothermia.

“He had this incredibly strenuous and rigorous training,’’ DuPen-Meyerhoff said.

After he returned to Dorchester and visited a sister in Braintree, Turnquist quickly returned to life at sea, his son said. He sailed the world as a merchant mariner and rose to the rank of captain before his death in 1946.

“All he wanted to do was sail,’’ DuPen-Meyerhoff said. “He was a captain, through and through.’’

The granddaughter does not know how long Turnquist lived in Dorchester. Eventually, he moved to Long Beach, Calif., a home port for voyages that often kept him at sea for 50 weeks a year.

Those trips included the “pineapple run’’ from Hawaii to New York via the Panama Canal, his son said. On others, he would sail to Bombay.

“I got a pat on the head and a bounce on the knee,’’ Turnquist recalled of his father’s brief homecomings. “My mother was his first attention.’’

During those years, Turnquist said, his father’s link to the Titanic disaster was relegated to snippets of family conversation.

“We’d be playing as kids, and I’d say, ‘My dad was on the Titanic,’ ’’ Turnquist said. “They’d say, ‘That’s fine. Where are we going to play baseball?’ ’’

DuPen-Meyerhoff, a retired special education teacher, encountered a different reaction as she told the tale over the years.

“People just rolled their eyes,’’ DuPen-Meyerhoff said. “I don’t think they believed me.’’

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.
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