Who was on board and who survived?
That's what was being asked — for days — after the White Star Line's famous steamship Titanic hit an iceberg and sank 100 years ago Sunday in the North Atlantic Ocean. News of the ocean liner's peril was carved into a late, extra edition of the Tribune on April 15, 1912, and much of the account is devoted to the prominent people aboard.
That list included some of the wealthiest people in the United States, including John Jacob Astor and his wife, Madeleine; and the co-owner of Macy's, Isidor Straus, and his wife, Ida. Other famous people aboard included Charles M. Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Railway and a Rock Island, Ill., native; Francis Millet, an artist who was the decorations director for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893; and William T. Stead, English journalist and reformer who wrote "If Christ Came to Chicago."
The Tribune's first full day of coverage, on Tuesday, April 16, brought word that the ship Carpathia was "on her way to New York with 866 passengers from the steamer Titanic aboard. They are mostly women and children." It was accompanied by a partial list of survivors, fewer than 100 names.
The Tribune front page on April 17 was almost completely devoted to the list of first- and second-class cabin survivors and those unaccounted for. The desire for a definitive list is palpable throughout the report. The Tribune reported just three such passengers as Chicagoans: Ida Hippach and her 15-year-old daughter, Jean, and Ervin Lewy, a jeweler. The Hippaches survived; Lewy did not.
(Fate at other times was unkind to the Hippaches. In 1903, two young sons, Robert and Archie, died in the horrific Iroquois Theater fire. Two years after the Titanic disaster, the third son died in an automobile accident. And in 1915, Jean was the passenger in a car crash that killed an 8-year-old boy.)
The agony of not knowing was heartbreakingly illustrated by the plight of Oscar Johnson, of St. Charles. A brief on page 2 of April 17's newspaper reported how his wife, two children and his two sisters were not among those saved. But the following day, under the headline, "Merchant faints from joy," the Tribune reported that the 32-year-old businessman "fell over in a dead faint which lasted half an hour" when he received word that all five were rescued.
Even for those Chicagoans without relatives or acquaintances on board the doomed steamer, the disaster struck a chord that resonates across the century. Tribune reader Richard Sobel shared with Flashback a letter that his grandfather, Karl Sobel, wrote to his brother in Budapest. Dated April 16, 1912, it reads, in part, "But it happens that tonight Blanche and I can't get over that big steamship disaster, with such enormous loss of life and treasure, that we did not feel like going out of the house at all, or we decided to make good use of the evening, and let you know that we are, thank God, getting along nicely."
Editor's note: Thanks to Fred Wittenberg, of Evanston, for suggesting this Flashback.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times