Titanic connection leads North Carolina family to Issaquah

June 12, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Ruth Becker

The tang of saltwater drifted on the cold, midnight air. So, too, did frantic calls for help from hundreds of people.

Titanic — a superlative achievement in engineering, grand and unsinkable — struck a history-altering iceberg minutes earlier.

Ruth Becker, roused to the deck after the collision, headed below for blankets to protect against the chill. By the time the 12-year-old girl returned moments later, blankets in hand, she needed to act fast to board a lifeboat as the ocean liner sank into the North Atlantic.

Becker’s cousin, Jill Carrizales, remembers hearing the account as a child. The tale sparked a lifelong interest in the tragedy. Now, Carrizales and her daughter Jennifer Ramsey plan to travel from Gastonia, N.C., to Issaquah to attend a June 16 event dedicated to the Titanic disaster.

In order to commemorate 100 years since the tragedy, the Kiwanis Club of Issaquah plans to host pre-eminent Titanic historian Don Lynch at a June 16 discussion.

The trip to Issaquah represents a milestone in Carrizales’ yearslong quest to meet Lynch. The historian interviewed Becker, then Ruth Becker Blanchard, before she died in 1990 at age 90.

Carrizales praised Lynch for coaxing Ruth Becker to open up about the disaster.

“He’s the one who got Ruth to start talking about the Titanic,” Carrizales said. “I just thought it would be neat if somehow, someday I could meet him.”

Carrizales mentioned the idea to Ramsey.

“She said, ‘I really wish I could meet Don Lynch and talk to him and ask him about Ruth and how she was in her later years,’” Ramsey said. “She said her dream was to meet him. I thought, ‘Gosh, how can I ever help her make the dream come true?’”

So, on a lunch break from work, Ramsey scoured the Web for Titanic-related events. The search led to information about the Issaquah discussion — and a phone number for Michele Forkner, a Kiwanis member and the Issaquah code compliance officer.

“Before the conversation ended, this lady says, ‘Jennifer, I have something to tell you. I’ve got a link to the Titanic, too,’” Carrizales recalled. “And Jennifer says, ‘You do?’ She says, ‘Yeah, I’m Don Lynch’s first cousin.’”

Forkner is a key part in the effort to bring the Titanic historian to Issaquah.

“I’m so excited about going out there and finally getting to see my dream come true to meet Don,” Carrizales said.

The long journey home

The connection to the Titanic tragedy starts in India in the early 1900s. Ruth Becker’s father, Allen Becker, served as Lutheran missionary on the subcontinent.

Ruth Becker’s younger siblings, Marion and Richard, and mother, Nellie Becker, booked passage on the Titanic en route to Allen Becker’s hometown in Michigan.

The journey started after Richard Becker fell ill. The family previously lost a child to illness in India, so Allen Becker sent Nellie and the children back to the United States for treatment.

In April 1912, the family reached Southampton, England, to sail aboard Titanic to New York City.

The family’s second-class ticket cost 39 pounds or, adjusted for a century of inflation and the current exchange rate, about $5,600 in 2012 dollars.

In the moments after the iceberg impact, as Titanic sat motionless, a steward told Nellie Becker, “‘We’ve had a little accident. They’re going to fix it, and then we’ll be on our way,’” Ruth Becker recounted later in life.

The family headed outside into the frigid night.

If you go

Kiwanis Club of Issaquah hosts Titanic historian Don Lynch

  • June 16
  • Village Theatre — First Stage Theatre
  • 120 Front St. N.
  • Tickets cost $55 for “first class,” $40 for “second class” and $25 for “steerage.”
  • Call 392-3598 or 392-4016, or go to www.issaquah.kiwanis.org.

“My Aunt Nellie realized how cold it was up there,” Carrizales said. “The two little children were just shaking — she was holding them.”

So, Nellie Becker asked Ruth to go to the family’s cabin and fetch blankets, but as Ruth returned to the deck, “she looked around and she couldn’t find Aunt Nellie and the children,” Carrizales said.

In the commotion on deck, Ruth Becker spotted the family inside a lifeboat. Nellie Becker screamed for Ruth to board the next lifeboat.

“Ruth came within a matter of minutes of losing her life,” Carrizales said.

The doomed liner slipped into the North Atlantic at about 2:20 a.m. April 15. The family reunited aboard the rescue ship Carpathia. Only about 700 people survived the disaster. The tragedy claimed 1,514 lives.

The memories remained too painful for Ruth Becker for decades, even as the disaster receded into the abyss of memory.

“Ruth never talked about it much,” Carrizales said.

On the Web

Read The Issaquah Press’ account of Titanic historian Don Lynch’s experiences as a consultant on James Cameron’s films “Titanic” and “Ghosts of the Abyss” at http://bit.ly/I1gP0P.

The aftermath of tragedy

Memories from the tragedy burdened Nellie Becker for years. Carrizales remembers a trip as a young girl to visit Nellie Becker and the introduction to the Titanic connection.

“We got there and Aunt Nellie was crying and carrying on. Evidently, she was having flashbacks,” Carrizales said. “I got kind of scared. I kind of hid behind my mom. I said, ‘Mom, what’s wrong with her? Why is she acting this way? She’s scaring me.’ Mom told me about the Titanic.”

Other family memories reflected better times from before the tragedy.

Once, Ruth Becker invited Carrizales’ family to dinner at her home in Benton Harbor, Mich., the place the Beckers had settled after the sinking.

“We walked in the house and I smelled something so good,” Carrizales recalled. “I thought, ‘Mmm, what’s that?’ She had made curry chicken and rice. Oh my goodness, I’d never tasted anything so good in all my life.”

Ruth Becker learned to prepare the spice-packed dish as a boarding school student in India.

The link to Lynch offered the family another chance to explore the Titanic legacy.

In the early 1980s, Lynch invited Ruth Becker to a Titanic event and although she declined to attend, Lynch and Becker remained in contact. Soon, a friendship formed and the historian persuaded the survivor to discuss the fateful April night.

Eventually, Ruth Becker agreed to attend a Titanic Historical Society event.

“She couldn’t believe how well she was received,” Carrizales said. “So, then she started talking about the Titanic.”

In 2010, Carrizales, Ramsey and other family members traveled to the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. In addition to artifacts — deck chairs, dinnerware, life vests, et al — and a replica iceberg, the attraction includes a list of survivors.

“In second class, right on top, were Aunt Nellie, Ruth, Richard and Marion,” Carrizales said. “I was so excited.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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