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She Saw Three Ships (And Lived)

December 26, 2017

Twenty years ago this month, millions of filmgoers packed movie theaters to watch Titanic, the heartbreaking, realistically-rendered telling of the sinking of the famous ocean liner of the same name in 1912. Here’s the little-known — and very harrowing — tale of a Titanic survivor.
Titanic

Tuberculosis

Socialite and activist Molly Brown became known as “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” for her most famous fear: being onboard the Titanic when it crashed into an iceberg. But she only survived one horrific maritime disaster. Violet Jessop was truly unsinkable, both at sea and on land. Shortly after being born in 1887 to Irish parents in Argentina, she developed tuberculosis and wasn’t expected to live more than six months. Instead, she fought off TB and lived to adulthood, living in England and working as a stewardess.

Unemployment

Violet JessopHowever, it wasn’t easy for 21-year-old Jessop to find work. In the 1900s, the major ship companies customarily hired older women to be stewardesses (a precursor of today’s flight attendants), believing them to appear more “trustworthy” to passengers. So, Jessop dressed to make herself look older. In 1908, she got a job with the White Star Line, first with the Majestic, and then the Olympic.

Her first accident

On a routine trip in 1911, the Olympic ran into a British warship called the HMS Hawke. The impact severely damaged the Olympic’s hull (and below the water line), but it hobbled back to port in England without sustaining any casualties.

Her second accident

About seven months later, Jessop was assigned to another of White Star’s ships, the Titanic, on its maiden voyage. But while the boat quickly sank, Jessop still had to work, charged with standing on a deck and acting out proper safety and evacuation procedures to non-English-speaking passengers unable to understand the verbal orders. Jessop was among the last crew members to flee the Titanic, and after a few hours adrift in a lifeboat (while holding a baby that had been handed to her), she was among those rescued by the RMS Carpathia.

Her third accident

When World War I broke out, the White Star Line converted its ship the Britannic into a hospital transport vessel. Jessop worked as a stewardess in conjunction with the Red Cross onboard the Britannic. In November 1916, the ship was less than an hour into a voyage on the Aegean Sea when an explosion of some kind — it could have been a mine, or a torpedo — led the ship to rapidly sink. Thirty people died, but Jessop survived. She almost got killed again during this particular ordeal. Her lifeboat got stuck under the stern, and she and other passengers were nearly torn apart by the boat’s propellers. She jumped out of her lifeboat and sustained serious injuries…but she survived. And resumed her work for the White Star Line in 1920.

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