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4/14/2012 11:42:00 AM
Titanic's sinking a heartache for an immigrant family
CNS photo/courtesy Father Browne S.J. Collection
The Titanic departs for New York on its ill-fated trip.
CNS photo/courtesy Father Browne S.J. Collection
The Titanic departs for New York on its ill-fated trip.
Decker family photo
Celiney Alexander Decker and first husband Anthony Yesbak pose for a wedding photo less than two months before they boarded the Titanic. She would survive; he would not.
Decker family photo
Celiney Alexander Decker and first husband Anthony Yesbak pose for a wedding photo less than two months before they boarded the Titanic. She would survive; he would not.
Ed Langlois
Of the Catholic Sentinel

When beach walkers discovered her uncle's drowned body on the shores of Nova Scotia, a rosary was still wrapped around his hand.

Celiney Alexander Decker survived the sinking of the Titanic a century ago, but lost 11 relatives, including her 35-year-old uncle, Mansour Hanna, and her new husband. She was 15, a Maronite Catholic bride from Lebanon bound for a new home in Pennsylvania. She'd been married less than two months. Until her death in 1966, Celiney was haunted by the memory of Titanic victims calling out from the freezing waters of the North Atlantic.

Her story and others from the family tragedy still sadden Celiney's grand-nephew, Father Jonathan Decker, pastor of St. Sharbel Maronite Parish in Portland.

"For us the story was not the makings of a movie," Father Decker says. "It was a heartache."

While tales of the Titanic focus on the rich and famous, most of those who died were lower- or middle-class immigrants.

On the night of April 14, 1912, young Celiney felt discomfited. She retired to her bunk in the Titanic's steerage section to pray the rosary.

She and her extended family from Lebanon — then part of Syria — had boarded the ship four days earlier in Cherbourg, France. The mighty and celebrated vessel churned across the English Channel and made a stop in Ireland before heading into the open Atlantic.

On her cot in the crowded cabin for third-class passengers, Celiney felt the sickening jolt. Officers and pursers soon roamed the ship assuring everyone that they were safe, and that the Titanic was unsinkable.

Most passengers went to sleep. But Celiney, still uneasy, was awake when frigid seawater began flowing beneath the beds. She raised an alarm and the sleepers sought to flee to the deck. But the ship's officers had locked exits, apparently willing to sacrifice steerage passengers to maintain order topside.

The resourceful Celiney led the people to an alternate passageway and onto the deck. There, with her husband Anthony and other relatives, they desperately sought a place on the lifeboats, of which there were too few.  

The 16 wooden lifeboats and two of four inflatable rafts were already full. But Celiney found a seat, since women and children were allowed on first. Officers kept men of the families at bay, sometimes firing shots in the process. But they did let a dapper Englishman walk through the scuffle and board the raft. It was J. Bruce Ismay, the ship's builder and owner of the White Star Line. Ismay would be pilloried in the press for abandoning ship.   

Anthony, Celiney's young husband, would remain on board and never be seen again.  

Meanwhile, Celiney's cousin Thamin Thomas, who had a five-month old baby, was hailed to climb into another boat. To make the descent, she handed her boy to brother-in-law Charles, planning to take the child back once settled. When Charles made a move to bring her the boy, the ship's officers stopped him at gunpoint. As the lifeboat was lowered, Thamin and Charles began to cry for help for the baby. A 25-year-old California woman, Edwina MacKenzie, agreed to take the child from Charles and took him onto the other inflatable.

Thamin would float helpless into the night, uncertain of her son's fate, her boat rowed by a man who had jumped in dressed as a woman. It turned out to be provident that the strong man was aboard, because he was able to pull away fast as the Titanic went under, causing a maelstrom that sucked less powerfully propelled craft into the depths.

Charles would go down with the ship.  

Though Thamin would be reunited with her son, the boy would never recover from exposure to the cold night air. He was sickly and died of pneumonia at age 20. Years later, young Jonathan would ask relatives why Aunt Thamin always seemed so sad. "She's had a hard life," family members would simply say.

Another of Father Decker's great aunts, Amina Moubark Decker, was had boarded the Titanic with her husband and two children, 7-year-old George and 4-year-old Bill. In the future, George would tell stories of how poorly third-class passengers were treated. He also remembered his mother yelling from a lifeboat to his father, who leaned motionless on the ship's rail, his eyes full of tears.

It was bitter cold aboard the boats. Steerage passengers, because they had no warning, did not have time to get warm clothes and ice encrusted them.

A ship nearby saw flares go up from the Titanic, but assumed it was a celebration. It was six hours before the Carpathian arrived and picked up 800 people from the water, including the Lebanese immigrants. Many others floated frozen in the waters as the sun rose April 15. Of the 1,500 who died, 102 were under 18.

The rescue ship sailed for New York and took the survivors to St. Vincent Hospital in Manhattan. The same hospital would welcome victims of the 9-11 attacks.  

About three years after the disaster, Celiney would wed Elias Decker, a Norfolk, Va. man who, ironically, sold blocks of ice. They would have 11 children.  

Father Decker's grandmother, Rachita, was supposed to be aboard the ship. But she had recently had a child and the village priest in Lebanon forbade her to go, opening her suitcase and throwing clothes around the room. The child was too young, the clergyman said.

“It's hard for me to talk about this, even though I am removed several generations, but I still remember my two aunts telling the stories and tears flowing down their cheeks even before they told us what happened,” Father Decker says. “My three great aunts never got over this disaster.”

For a complete list of Titanic passengers, go to http://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic_passenger_list/





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