Waterford man survives Titanic sinking

Pat O'Keefe was a third-class passenger on the famous Titanic.

A Waterford man who survived the sinking of the Titanic on Monday, April 15, 1912, has become the subject of a book written by an American relative.

Pat O'Keefe, the only Waterford man on board, was a third class steerage passenger on the “unsinkable ship” and managed to survive by swimming to “Collapsible B,” the famous overturned lifeboat that “became the last refuge from death in the icy North Atlantic.”

The 21 year old Waterford man was one of only 69 third class male passengers to survive out of over 500 men, in what is still considered the most infamous maritime disaster of all time.

John Nolan, a New Yorker radio announcer and great grand nephew of the Waterford man, set out to investigate his great uncle's experience as all his grandfather ever mentioned was an “Uncle Paddy” who was on board and somehow survived.

A contributor to the book Lily Roche, who is a niece of Patrick O'Keefe residing in Norwood, Waterford City, assisted by retrieving old photographs and documents about the family.
She was delighted to see the publication of the book as well as finding out more information about her uncle's life and catching up with long lost relatives.

Few Clues
Following the resurgence of interest in the maritime tragedy, which recommenced following the blockbuster film ‘Titanic' by James Cameron, and with a few clues where to begin John Nolan started researching his family history in order to relive the experiences of Pat O'Keefe.

Although he had little knowledge of his family tree, John - through a series of internet searches, historical societies, books on the tragedy, Titanic researchers and enthusiasts, as well as a lot of luck - managed to track down descendants of Patrick O'Keefe born in the USA and in Waterford.

Through information from members of the family as well as official documents and accounts of the sinking of the Titanic, John Nolan managed to piece together the story of his Great Uncle Pat.
John Nolan documented his journey in tracing and reuniting the family, as well as the life in general, in a book entitled “In search of Great Uncle Pat - Titanic Survivor.”

Patrick (Pat) O'Keefe was born on July 11, 1890 in Little Michael Street in Waterford City, the first of eight children born to John and Catherine O'Keefe. A labourer, John O'Keefe worked his way up to becoming a newspaper office manager and as a young man Patrick would help him deliver the newspapers to dealers.

Young Patrick had a typical Irish upbringing with seven brothers and sisters and was educated at the Sisters of Charity School for Boys and Girls and went to secondary school in De La Salle.

At the age of 19, Patrick decided to move to America and before he left his father commissioned a photograph of the whole family. Sadly, not long after it was taken his mother died of liver disease at the age of 37.

The photograph taken by Poole Photographic Studios and is part of a collection of 65,000 original glass negatives sold to the National Library of Ireland by the family of A.H. Poole.

Against All Odds
The head shot of the photograph was used by “The Cork Examiner' at the time the Titanic went down, to identify the Waterford man, who had managed to survive against all the odds. Shortly after the photograph was taken, Pat - along with his two uncles, Arthur and Patsy O'Keefe - sailed to America on the SS Celtic, departing Queenstown (Cobh) on August 28 and arriving in New York on September 4, 1910.

During his first few years in the USA he stayed with relatives, while he worked as a labourer.
In 1912, Patrick decided to return to Ireland to spend a holiday with his family and meet his father's new wife, Johanna Brown, at their home in 2 Spring Garden Alley in Waterford City.

During his visit, his brother James managed to persuade him to stay a week longer so he could spend Easter with the family.

So Pat changed his ticket for the Baltic to one for the maiden voyage of the Titanic, and was allocated ticket number 368402.

After a pleasant holiday, he made his way to meet the ship at Queenstown (Cobh) and was quite upset at the thought of leaving home but on the night of April 10 he booked into a hotel to await the arrival of the great ship.

During the night, Pat had a premonition about the liner sinking and, in a letter written to his father after the disaster, reassuring him that he was safe and well, he gave an account of nearly selling his passage.

Patrick, in the letter dated April 23 1912, wrote “I dreamt myself she was going down before I left Queenstown and I thought to sell my passage note for 7 pounds, but then I thought if I went back to Waterford again the boys would be laughing at me.”

However, despite his reservations Pat got on board. As a steerage passenger, Pat was located in a cabin on one of the lower decks, close to where the iceberg struck just before midnight Sunday, April 14.

Many of the single men would have been bunked together and based on accounts by two other survivors who were on “Collapsible B,” it appears a number of men, including Pat O'Keeffe, were awake at the time the iceberg struck as midnight approached. Some were smoking and chatting, while others were playing cards and as they were likely based in the bow section, they would have been aware of the impact and the enormity of the situation sooner than other passengers.

A number of them went up on deck to investigate, but were told by a steward that it was nothing serious and to return to their cabin.

The men were quick to react and go up on deck when water started coming through their cabin. It is not clear but it was likely that Pat did not have a life jacket on as many of the men were unable to get back to their cabins due to the high level of the water but, according to his niece Lily Roche, he was a strong swimmer.

She recounted tales of Pat bringing his younger brother Arthur swimming in the River Suir even on Christmas Day, while his son Ed remembered his love of swimming on family holidays, which would have taken place long after the Titanic sunk.

Meeting up with two other third class passengers, English men Victor Sunderland and Edward Dorking, the three jumped from the steerage deck as the waves washed over the ship and the stern began to rise.

As Pat swam away from the ship he located the overturned lifeboat “Collapsible B” where he was joined by the two English men as well as other passengers and crew members.

“Night to remember”
Those who have watched the 1958 film ‘A Night to Remember' based on the book by Walter Lord would remember the scene where the men on “Collapsible B” spent the night balancing left to right to prevent them landing in the water.

Other people on the boat included Second Officer Charles Lightoller, first class passengers John “Jack” Thayer, Jr. and American Army Colonel Archibald Gracie, as well as a number of crew including Chief Baker Charles Joughlin, scullion John Collins and Second Wireless Officer Harold Bride.
Officer Lightoller organised the men in standing positions to keep the upturned boat afloat and signalled to the other lifeboats at first light for assistance.

The men were then taken off “Collapsible B” by lifeboats 4 and 12 but it was another two hours before the Carpathia rescued them.

There was as many as 30 men on the boat but, due to the cold conditions and having spent too much time in the water, a number died before rescue.

The men on the raft had to make a decision to paddle away from the scene before they were all sunk by additional swimmers. Rather than having the relief of surviving, the men had to balance on an upturned boat listening to the cries of those in the water and praying for their rescue as well as their own.

Not much was written about the twenty one year old Waterford man as, following the disaster, he was never called to testify, never did media interviews and never retold his tale to family and friends.
However, a Fr. Michael Kenny, a New York priest who visited the survivors at St. Vincent's Hospital, labelled Pat O'Keefe “a hero.”

In an article in a New York Catholic weekly newspaper, Fr Kenny described how on jumping off the ship, the young Waterford man swam to the collapsible raft and how he pulled others from the freezing water, which was the only avenue of escape from the cold of the water, with a temperature of more than minus 20 degrees.

The only mention of the young man's experience in his home city of Waterford was the publication of his letter to his father stating he was safe and a small extract of the article by Fr. Kenny in a local paper, but Pat himself never spoke on the matter.

On his release from St. Vincent's Hospital, Pat returned to the apartment which he shared with his cousin, John Phelan, and within a week of arriving in New York following the traumatic event, Pat O'Keefe had a job paying $12.

Although glad to be alive, Pat had lost everything he owned on board the Titanic as well as having suffered both physically and mentally.

Like the other survivors, he put a claim in against the White Star line for his losses and injuries of $250 for baggage and $10,000 for exposure and lost wages.

However, the compensation offered at the time to Pat O'Keefe was a third class passage back to Ireland, provided he did not instigate a suit against the company in English courts.

Final Settlement
The lawsuits by survivors continued until 1916, with a final settlement of $663,000 to 651 claimants.
However, this was divided on a pro-rata basis and it is unlikely that Pat O'Keefe, as a steerage passenger, would have seen much of this money.

One thing is certain Pat O'Keefe never accepted the offer of free passage, as he never returned to his family in Waterford but lived in New York for the remainder of his life.

The only time he left the city was when World War One broke out and, still a British subject, he opted for military duty in Canada rather than cross the ocean again.

After the war, Pat O'Keefe returned to New York's West Side and met Jack Nolan (the grandfather of John Noal, the author of “In Search of Great Uncle Pat; Titanic Survivor) and his sister Anna, who Pat married despite being fifteen years her senior.

Tragedy struck the O'Keefe family one more time, when Pat's brother John was killed in an ambush outside Waterford in 1922 during the Civil War.

For the remainder of his life, Pat was employed as a lift operator and worked up to a supervisory position, which he continued doing until his death in 1939 of a massive heart attack (the same year in which he received his American Citizenship).

The couple had two children Margaret, an executive with Revlon Cosmetics, who never married and died at the age of 64 from complications from surgery, and Edward, who served in the Navy in World War Two and then became an insurance man.

Edward married Patricia Huson in 1948 and they had four daughters, Patricia, Colleen, Margie and Jackie.

When researching his book John Nolan managed to track Pat's son, Edward, down and reunite him with his own father Bill Nolan, as they would have played together as children.
Although neither man had much information on Pat O'Keefe's experience on board the doomed liner, both men remembered Pat O'Keefe as a kind, generous, humerous man with a smile on his face and who provided and cared for his family.

He never spoke of his experience on the Titanic but, then again, this is not surprising due to the harrowing pictures the disaster left with the survivors. Pat O'Keeffe would have been clinging to “Collapsible B” when the Titanic finally sunk from sight.

As powerful an image as that is for us today watching on the big screen, could you imagine the shock and pure horror watching a huge vessel tip upwards and slowly sink below the surfaces as the unlucky passengers unable to gain refuge on a lifeboat clung to the vessel.

Cry for help
Then they fall into the icy ocean and there comes a moment of silence before the 1,500 passengers floating in the water become aware of their surroundings and the cold.
They cry out for help, for someone to rescue them before the numbness becomes too much and death seeps through their clothes and into their bones.

The survival instincts of the men on “Collapsible B” kick in and they know they must row away from the liner rather than towards those in the water or face the same inevitable doom.
As they row away, the men say the “Our Father”, a prayer common to most religions and classes that for the one night shared the same raft.

No one is able to survive long in the water and , following on from the screams, comes the silence.
Grim Realisation

For the men on the overturned boat also comes the realisation that the majority didn't drown but froze to death, unable to find a craft or floating object to rescue them from the bitterly ice cold ocean.
No wonder Pat O'Keefe spoke little of that night, despite being a hero and remaining on board the vessel while women and children were loaded on to the lifeboats and despite assisting other men out of the water onto “Collapsible B.”

Surely, he was heart broken by the fact that he was unable to assist his fellow passengers who were less fortunate then himself and this must have remained with him for the rest of his life.
Pat is buried with his wife, Anna, and daughter Margaret in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York. However, there is no mention of his place in the history books as a Titanic survivor ... not even on his headstone.

May he rest in peace!- courtesy of Carol Duffy, Waterford News and Star