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Millvina Dean dies at 97; last Titanic survivor
Millvina Dean, the last survivor of the legendary ocean liner Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in April 1912 after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic, died Sunday. She was 97.
She died at a nursing home near Southampton, England, the port where she and her family boarded the ship, according to Charles Haas, the president of the Titanic International Society. Her death came on the 98th anniversary of the launching of the Titanic, on May 31, 1911.
"She was a remarkable, sparkling lady," Haas told The Times on Sunday. "She knew her place in history and was always willing to share her story with others, especially children. She was the last living link to the story."
Dean was about 8 weeks old when she and her family set sail, third class, on the luxury ocean liner on April 10, 1912. Five days later, she was among about 700 passengers and crew who were rescued off the coast of Newfoundland. She and her mother, Georgetta, 32, and her brother Bertram, 23 months old, were put into lifeboats. Her father, Bertram, 27, stayed on board the ship and was among more than 1,500 passengers and crew members who went down with the Titanic.
She had no memory of the disaster, but at age 8 her mother told her what had happened. "It was so awful for her that she never wanted to speak about it," Dean said of her mother in a 2002 interview with the Irish News. Georgetta Dean suffered severe headaches every day for years after the ship's sinking.
Before the family left England, Bertram and Georgetta Dean sold the pub they owned in London. They planned to sail to New York City and continue on to Kansas City, Mo., where they were going to open a tobacco shop.
They did not expect to travel on the Titanic but had booked on another ship that was also owned by White Star Line. A national coal strike led to a cancellation, and they were offered a place on the Titanic as an alternative.
On their fourth night at sea, April 14, the family was awakened by a jolt when the ship sideswiped the iceberg that cut into the ship.
Bertram Dean went to see what was wrong and returned to tell his wife to dress the children warmly and take them to the lifeboat deck.
"I think it was my father who saved us," Dean said in 2002. "So many other people thought the Titanic would never sink, and they didn't bother. My father didn't take a chance."
He reassured his wife, "I'll be along later," Dean later learned. Bertram Dean died when the Titanic sank about 2:20 a.m. on April 15.
In the confusion of the evacuation, Dean and her mother were separated from her brother, who was put in a different lifeboat. They were reunited on the Carpathia, the Cunard ocean liner that was the first to respond to the Titanic's distress signals and took on all the lifeboat passengers.
Dean, her mother and brother sailed to New York City on the rescue ship and spent several weeks in a hospital. Georgetta Dean then took her children home to England, sailing on the Adriatic. Passengers who knew what the family had been through lined up to hold baby Millvina, the youngest survivor of the Titanic. To keep the line moving, a ship's officer ordered that no one could hold the baby for more than 10 minutes.
Asked what difference the incident made in her life, Dean was never sentimental. "It changed my life because I would have been American now instead of English," she told the Associated Press in 2002 without further comment.
Georgetta Dean took her children to live with her parents in their home near Southampton. Millvina and her brother were educated with help from a Titanic Relief Fund established in England for the surviving family members of victims of the wreck.
Dean attended secretarial school. During World War II, she moved to London and worked as a mapmaker for the British Army. She later returned to Southampton and was a secretary at an engineering firm. For many years, she lived in a house in nearby New Forest. She never married.
Born on Feb. 12, 1912, Dean might easily have gone through life without telling anyone that she was a passenger on the Titanic. She ignored the books, movies, clubs, websites and submarine tours of the shipwreck after it was found in 1985, 12,500 feet under the surface of the North Atlantic.
Her anonymity ended in 1987 when she attended a memorial service in Southampton on the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Titanic historian and author Don Lynch then invited her to speak at a Titanic Historical Society convention in Boston the following year.
"Suddenly everyone knew my name," Dean later recalled. She became a frequent guest at Titanic-related events, was interviewed on radio and television, and was inundated with letters from inquirers. "The trouble is, they write me pages," she said of the letter writers in a 1998 interview with NBC News.
In 1998, Dean finally completed the sea voyage from Southampton to New York City that she had set out to make 86 years earlier. She traveled on the Queen Elizabeth II, compliments of Michael Rudd, a Titanic enthusiast and travel agent in Missouri. He and Dean gave a presentation together during the voyage.
"She hadn't been on a ship since 1912," Rudd said in a 2007 interview with The Times. "People crowded around her, they just wanted to touch her."
As part of that same trip, Dean went to Missouri to see the house where her parents planned to begin their new life, an experience she described as eerie.
She refused to watch "Titanic," the Academy Award-winning 1997 movie, even though she was invited to a screening with England's Prince Charles. "I'd wonder what my father was doing, what he did," she said, referring to the terrible last scenes of the film.
Dean kept up her Titanic engagements into her 90s, often with her "permanent escort," Bruno Nordmanis, about 10 years younger, to accompany her. They traveled together on the Queen Elizabeth II.
In 2008, two years after breaking a hip, Dean arranged for a London auction house to sell some of her Titanic mementos to help pay her nursing home fees. The sale raised $53,906.
Dean's mother died in 1975, at 95. Her brother died in 1992 on the 80th anniversary of the ship's sinking. He was 81. Dean is survived by two nephews and two nieces.
Rourke is a former Times staff writer.
Times staff writer Jon Thurber contributed to this report.