Life After the Titanic

On the 100th anniversary of the historic disaster, a local writer recalls the first time she met a survivor of that tragic event, one who lived out her days here in Hermosa Beach.

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    Jay Berman

Edwina MacKenzie was very much aware of her role in history. She was, after all, 27 years old when she boarded the Titanic in Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, a half-century before I interviewed her for a Daily Breeze article at her home in Hermosa Beach. In contrast, many of the 700 survivors were children at the time of the disaster, too young to recall significant details.

But even after 50 years, her memories were clear, and it seemed apparent that they were indeed her own recollections … not something inadvertently acquired along the way from reading other accounts of history’s most chronicled maritime disaster. Some Titanic survivors became reclusive, but MacKenzie—born Edwina Cecilia Troutt on June 8, 1884—seemed to enjoy the role of a celebrity who had never sought that status. She had already spent five years living and working in the United States before returning to the family home in Bath, England in 1911. 

The following year, she was on her way to Massachusetts to visit her sister who was about to give birth, when four days into the journey, the Titanic struck an iceberg 400 miles southeast of Newfoundland and sank during the predawn hours of April 15, killing about 1,515 passengers and crew members. The exact number of people on board is not known, but the most widely used count is 2,208, with 701 to 713 survivors.

Winnie Troutt (she regularly used that nickname in her younger years and didn’t marry James MacKenzie until 1963) had gone to bed about 10:30 p.m. on April 14 but was awakened, as she recalled in a BBC broadcast years later, “… by the ceasing of the vibrations of the boat.”  Scarcely more than three hours later, the Titanic broke into two pieces and slid beneath the Atlantic. 

All the survivors were taken aboard the Carpathia, another British ship, and arrived in New York three days later. MacKenzie moved to California, was married and widowed three times and spent the last several decades of her life in Hermosa Beach. She died in 1984, six months after her 100th birthday. She had no children.

She regularly appeared at conventions and get-togethers marking the tragedy, until shortly before her death. She recounted that the night of the disaster was bitterly cold, that the seas were unusually calm and that many passengers—after the ship struck the iceberg—still refused to believe the damage was serious. One man told her the ship had “… just scraped an iceberg.”

When I met her, she was 77. We sat at a table in her living room, joined by a neighbor who was about the same age. She had lost nearly all of her English accent. She spoke without hesitation, most likely because she had recounted the same stories so many times over the years.

Later, when she was in her 90s, she wrote in a letter: “I shall remember it the rest of my days. I can never forget what I call the ‘scream of death,’ which happened the moment the Titanic gave up life and 1,500 people hit the icy water at the same moment.”

According to some accounts, she was among the survivors who recalled the ship’s band playing “Nearer My God to Thee” shortly before the Titanic disappeared. But she told another interviewer that survivors in her lifeboat repeatedly sang “Pull for the Shore,” another hymn, to drown out the screaming.

She also confirmed in many accounts that it was clear from the time the crisis began to unfold that the ship didn’t have enough lifeboats. Still, she defended the Titanic, pointing out that she made nearly a dozen trans-Atlantic crossings during her lifetime—including one a year before her death—but said, “There was never any ship better.”

In 1919, not long after moving to California, she married Danish immigrant Alfred Peterson. They operated a bakery in Beverly Hills until his death in 1944. She married James Corrigan in 1955, but he was already 76 at the time and died two years later. She married James MacKenzie in 1963 and lived in a house near Sixth Street and Prospect Avenue in Hermosa Beach for the remainder of her life. James MacKenzie died in 1967. 

In the late 1970s, she became the oldest Titanic survivor after others died and was the fourth to reach the age of 100. For the occasion, the city of Hermosa Beach hosted a party for her at Clark Stadium, near her home. When she died several months later, her funeral service filled Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where she had attended mass for more than 40 years.

Millvina Dean, an infant when the Titanic sank, was the final survivor. She died in a nursing home near Southampton, England, in May 2009, just a few miles from the passenger dock where she and more than 2,200 others had gone down a gangway and into history 97 years earlier.