The 17-year-old heir to a Pennsylvania railroad fortune left behind a dramatic first-hand account of surviving the Titanic. John B. “Jack” Thayer III’s account will be published for the first time this month to mark the centenary of the ship’s sinking.
On the morning of the 15th April 1912, of the 2,224 on board, only 710 survived. Although most of the survivors were women, Thayer survived along with his mother.
Thayer miraculously survived after he plunged into the icy water. The teen clung to an upturned boat and watched the tragedy unfold in front of him.
In 1940 he wrote an account of that night. He wrote it as a tribute to his father who had died on the ship. He printed just 500 copies for family and friends.
His story “A Survivor's Tale” is being printed this month by New York publisher, Thornwillow Press.
The Daily Telegraph published some extracts of the account recently.
Thayer described the shouts of the passengers as they jumped or were thrown into the sea as “one long continuous wailing chant.”
He wrote “It sounded like locusts on a midsummer night in the woods. This terrible cry lasted for twenty or thirty minutes, gradually dying away, as one after another could no longer withstand the cold and exposure."
His account is made more poignant by the fact that his father John Thayer was one of the 1,514 who died.
"We could see groups of the almost 1,500 people still aboard, clinging in clusters or bunches like swarming bees; only to fall in masses, pairs or singly, as the great after-part of the ship, 250 feet of it, rose into the sky, till it reached a 65 or 70-degree angle," he wrote.
Although Thayer wrote his account in 1940 as an adult it seems the event was still vivid for him.
Seven decades later one of the Thayer’s 500 printed books was discovered by Lorin Stein, the editor of the literary magazine Paris Review, himself a distant relative of Thayers. The copy belonged to Stein’s great-great grandfather.
Thayer’s story will now be re-published in specialist handmade letterpress printed books. It will be launched at the St. Regis Hotel. This is a fitting location as it is a prestigious New York institution which was built by John Jacob Aster, who died on the Titanic.
Luke Pontifell, founder of Thornwillow, told the Telegraph, “This is not just one of the most powerful first-hand descriptions of the sinking, but Jack Thayer also reflects back, after nearly three decades, on what was for him the end of the world that was, a turning-point when the modern world began.”
Thayer was incredibly lucky to survive - only 40 of those passengers who were thrown or jumped into the sea survivor.
John Thayer, his wife Marian and John “Jack” their 17-year-old son had boarded the Titanic at Southampton on 10th April. They had two staterooms and a servant quarters with a cost of £110 17s 8d
Recalling the voyage he wrote "The weather was fair and clear, the ship palatial, the food delicious."
He wrote of walking the decks on 14th April after dinner and how peaceful the night was. He said “It was a brilliant, starry night. There was no moon and I have never seen the stars shine brighter; they appeared to stand right out of the sky, sparkling like cut diamonds.
"I have spent much time on the ocean, yet I have never seen the sea smoother than it was that night; it was like a mill-pond, and just as innocent looking, as the great ship quietly rippled through it."
As he said goodnight to his parents at 11.45pm he said he felt the ship jolt “as though she had been gently pushed”. Then the engines suddenly stopped.
He and his father went to explore. They remained calm believing the ship to be “unsinkable”. Then they met on of the ship’s designers who they had spent several evenings with. He told them he believed the ship would not survive an hour.
They fetched Marian and all returned on deck wearing their life preservers made of thick cork. The ship’s band played and the ship’s officers remained at their posts.
The Titanic fired distress rockets and illuminated the sky. They were ignored by at least on passing vessel, the SS California. The passengers on the Titanic saw the lights of the ship at 12.30am.
At 12. 45am the stewards called for the women on board to go to the port side as lifeboats were lowered. The Thayers were separated from one another as people began to scramble.
By 2.15am the ship was tilting out of the water.
He wrote “We were a mass of hopeless, dazed humanity, attempting, as the Almighty and Nature made us, to keep our final breath until the last possible moment."
As the vessel reared up, rumblings and explosions started to sound Thayer decided to jump.
He wrote “I was pushed out and then sucked down. The cold was terrific. The shock of the water took the breath out of my lungs.
"Down and down, I went, spinning in all directions. Swimming as hard as I could in the direction which I thought to be away from the ship, I finally came up with my lungs bursting, but not having taken any water."
After some struggle he came up next to an upturned lifeboat. The men already clinging to it pulled him up.
Young Thayer was shocked that many lifeboats had plenty of space but none returned to rescue those calling for help in the water for fear their boats would be swamped.
"The most heartrending part of the whole tragedy was the failure, right after the Titanic sank, of those boats which were only partially loaded, to pick up the poor souls in the water. There they were, only four or five hundred yards away, listening to the cries, and still they did not come back. If they had turned back several hundred more would have been saved."
Thayer was on the last lifeboat to be rescued by the Carpathia, a Cunard liner, at about 7.30am. He found his mother on board but not his father.
He describes the next three days trip to New York full of sorrow.
“The trip back to New York was one big heartache and misery. It seemed as if there were none but widows left, each one mourning the loss of her husband. It was a most pitiful sight."
Having survived the Titanic Thayer married another heiress to a railway fortune and carried on in business. In 1944 his son, a US air force pilot, was killed over the Pacific. His mother also died.
Tragically Thayer committed suicide at the age of 50, the age his own father was when he died on board the Titanic.