100th anniversary of disaster: Coweta man's father survived sinking of Titanic
By ALEX MCRAE
Most years, America’s income tax deadline doesn’t have to compete for the headlines. This April 15 will be a little different as the world marks the 100th anniversary of one the darkest chapters in maritime history.
On April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic, acclaimed as the world’s greatest luxury liner, called “unsinkable” by those who built and sailed her, went to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean on her maiden voyage from England to New York.
One of those survivors was Elias Yarred, then a 12-year-old Lebanese boy coming to America to start a new life as Louis Garrett.
His son, Kenneth Garrett, has called Coweta County home for 11 years.
Growing up as the son of a Titanic survivor gave Kenneth Garrett a unique perspective on one of the world’s most widely-discussed disasters. He says his father never spoke of the incident without becoming emotional.
”He said when he watched the ship sink and heard all those people screaming, it was the saddest thing he had ever seen,” Garrett says. “Whenever he got to that part of the story he broke down and got very emotional.”
The trip to America started on a hopeful note as young Elias Yarred, his father, Nicola, and older sister, Jamilla, left the village of Hakoor, Lebanon, where Nicola worked as a miller and ran a small grocery business. At the time, Lebanon was part of theTurkish-ruled Ottoman Empire and conditions were brutal.
“My father said the Turks came in and raped the women, stole everything, destroyed property and made life horrible,” Kenneth Garrett says. “My family had to leave to survive.”
Nicola Yarred had sent his wife, two daughters and oldest son, Isaac, to America several years earlier. They settled in Jacksonville, Florida, and waited patiently for the rest of the family to join them. In 1912, Nicola had saved enough money for himself and his two other children, Elias and Jamilla, to travel to Marseille, France, and book passage aboard the next ship for America.
At the time, all emigrants bound for America underwent physical exams prior to sailing. Nicola Garrett had an eye infection and was forced to stay in France until he was healthy.
Nicola gave Jamilla the modern equivalent of $500 and sent her and Elias to Cherbourg, France, to join several of their fellow villagers from Hakoor who were headed to America. The first available ship was the Titanic.
The Lebanese emigrants sailed in the Titanic’s steerage section, the lower portion of the ship reserved for passengers with the cheapest tickets. Steerage passengers had their own bunks and facilities, but steerage cabins were physically separated from the more expensive upper decks by steel gates on the stairways.
Conditions were considered primitive by well-heeled travelers, but compared to Lebanon, the Titanic’s steerage quarters were a veritable paradise.
“My father said they had plenty of food and entertainment for the children and everyone was happy,” Kenneth Garrett says. “He said it was like a floating palace.”
After leaving Cherbourg, the Titanic stopped in Queenstown, Ireland, then headed across the Atlantic for New York. Just before midnight on April 14, 1912, the massive ship struck an iceberg.
The collision buckled the ship’s hull plates in several locations and opened five of her 16 watertight compartments to the sea.
Many passengers slept through the collision, including Elias Yarred. But 14-year-old Jamilla was awakened by the jolt.
“My father said she woke him up and she was very upset and told him she had felt a jar, a bump,” Kenneth Garrett says. “He told her she was probably dreaming and not to worry about it and to go back to sleep.”
Minutes later a ship’s official came through steerage class telling the passengers to get ready to leave their quarters immediately. “They didn’t have time to get anything,” Kenneth Garrett says. “They were told to leave with just the clothes on their backs.”
In the confusion, Jamilla forgot to get the $500 her father had given her and tried to return to the cabin. Crew members refused to let her go back.
The passageways were soon jammed with panicked passengers. The situation grew worse when water began to rise in the steerage compartment. The only path to safety was up several ship’s ladders, or stairways, to higher decks. But access to upper decks was barred by steel gates.
The men in the steerage class tore apart pieces of furniture and used them to break down the gates and rush toward the upper decks and, hopefully, safety.
When Elias Garrett and his sister reached the main decks, the situation seemed no better. In some ways, it seemed worse.
“My father said there were just masses of people crowding around and screaming and it was like pure pandemonium,” Kenneth Garrett says. “He said no one knew what to do.”
Eventually, the Titanic’s captain ordered passengers into the lifeboats. But because of the general confusion, the first boats left the ship only half filled.
As the minutes passed, the ship began to list more heavily and panic rose as passengers crowded toward the remaining life boats. When it became clear there were not enough boats for all the passengers, orders were given that all remaining seats be reserved for “women and children first.”
But there were still not enough boats. Elias Yarred stood on the deck and watched others fill the last lifeboat. He knew he and his sister would not survive.
But when all seemed lost, a “middle-aged gentleman” who had just helped his pregnant wife into the lifeboat noticed a young boy who spoke no English standing on the deck and screaming in Arabic. It was Elias.
The man kissed his pregnant wife, stepped back on deck, grabbed the 12-year-old boy and put him in the lifeboat. Elias frantically pointed out his sister and she, too, was literally pushed into the lifeboat. Days later, the man who saved the two children was identified as New York millionaire John Jacob Astor, who — along with more than 1,500 others — went down with the ship.
Elias and Jamilla Yarred were aboard the last lifeboat to leave the Titanic. But their ordeal was far from over.
Elias was wearing only a nightshirt, his sister little more. In the freezing weather, they slapped themselves to keep the circulation going as passengers rowed away from the ship to avoid being pulled beneath the waves by the suction when the ship went down.
At 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank. Elias Yarred watched in horror.
“He said it was terrible,” Kenneth Garrett says. “He heard people screaming when they jumped off the ship and then heard them calling for help when they were in the water. He saw the others still on the ship waiting for it to sink. He said he heard the Titanic’s orchestra playing “Nearer My God, to Thee” just before the ship went down. People in the lifeboat were crying. He said they heard people screaming for about 45 minutes and then it was very eerie and somber and quiet. They knew all the people in the water were dead.”
Those in the lifeboats floated in the darkness for more than two hours, freezing, praying and wondering if they would see another sunrise.
The Titanic had started sending SOS messages around midnight. The first ship to respond was the SS Carpathia, which reached the Titanic around 4:30 a.m and began rescue operations. By 8:30, all survivors had been pulled aboard, given dry clothes, food and hot tea.
Passengers were segregated by sex. Since Elias and Jamilla spoke no English, they had a hard time informing rescuers they were brother and sister and needed to stay together. They were eventually reunited, but though Jamilla was safe, she was not well.
“She was so traumatized, it was two or three months before she spoke again,” Kenneth Garrett says.
Elias and Jamilla’s older brother, Isaac, was in New York waiting to meet his siblings when the Titanic sank. Information about survivors trickled in slowly. Partly because of language problems, it was four days before Elias and Jamilla were named as survivors. Isaac spent the entire time searching the New York hospitals where survivors had been taken. He found them at St. Vincent’s Hospital and took them to Jacksonville to join their mother and sisters.
Back in France, recuperating from his eye infection, the children’s father, Nicola, was frantic with worry. Even when he heard his children had survived he refused to believe it. Elias had lost small parts of several fingers in a childhood accident. It was only after a handprint confirming the injuries was sent to Nicola in France that he believed his children were still alive.
Once the eye infection cleared up, Nicola Yarred joined his family in Jacksonville and opened a grocery business.
Young Elias Yarred’s name was Americanized to Louis Garrett. He joined the family business and, as an adult, ran the operation until he retired. Louis Garrett passed away in 1981.
Jamilla Yarred Americanized her name to Amelia Garrett and married a Jacksonville wholesale grocer named Isaac.
In the years following the disaster, Louis Garrett spoke several times about his Titanic experience, including a 1953 interview with the Florida Times-Union newspaper during a screening of Titanic film “A Night to Remember” at the Florida Theater in Jacksonville.
“He didn’t like to talk about it because it was such a sad experience for him,” Kenneth Garrett says. “He did it, but never really liked it. He didn’t say much if he didn’t have to.”
Kenneth and Ann Garrett were married in 1952. Kenneth worked in the family grocery business for years and in 1973 moved to Georgia and enjoyed a long career with Kroger. The Garretts moved to Sharpsburg 11 years ago to be closer to family.
The Garretts have attended Titanic exhibits across the country. Some feature photos that include Kenneth’s father. The Garretts have seen all the Titanic movies and documentaries and Kenneth says the 1997 film “Titanic” starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DeCaprio was historically accurate and a good depiction of the events his father witnessed.
The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic has drawn more attention than usual to the event. Kenneth and Ann Garrett admit they will be following the related events with interest.
“It’s special to have this kind of connection,” Kenneth Garrett says. “But more than anything else, it’s personal. My father used to say that when Mr. Astor put him on that boat he felt he was just in the right place at the right time. I sure am glad.”