The rediscovered BBC clip from 1979 is a historic treasure.
The sinking of the Titanic on April 14, 1912, is one of the most talked-about tragedies in modern history, and not only because of the James Cameron film. When a ship that's been marketed as "unsinkable" literally sinks on its maiden voyage, it's automatically a riveting story, even without any other details.
But the details matter. Each life lost and each life saved on that fateful night was a unique human whose story impacted everyone connected to them.
We don't need a Jack and Rose romance to be transfixed by stories from the Titanic. One thing Cameron's film did well was show what it must have been like as the ship hit the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. and sank in slow, dramatic fashion for the next two and a half hours, but hearing an account from someone who lived it brings that event to life in on a whole other level. When we're watching a movie, even about a true historical event, our brains can easily pretend it's not real. Hearing it described by someone who lived it doesn't allow for that sort of mental game.
There are no living survivors of the Titanic left to share their stories anymore, but we do have recordings of them. One of those recordings came from a 1979 interview with Frank Prentice, the ship's assistant purser.
The film footage from the BBC archive shows Prentice describing the moment the ship hit the iceberg—how it felt like slamming on the brakes in a car—and the part he played in helping people get onto the lifeboats. (There was space for 800 people on the lifeboats, but only 500 made it into them in the chaos and confusion. Even if they'd filled every space, that would have barely saved a third of the 2,240 passengers and crew on the ship.)
Prentice's delivery sounds so calm, belying the traumatic experience he's describing from 67 years prior. But at the end of the segment, the interviewer asked if it bothered him to talk about it. "I should probably dream about it tonight," he replied. "Have another nightmare. You'd think I'm too old for that but you'd be amazed."
\u201c#OnThisDay 1912: The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, with the loss of more than 1,500 lives.\n\nIn 1979, Frank Prentice described how he managed to escape death on the liner, where he was working as an assistant purser.\u201d— BBC Archive (@BBC Archive) 1650022440
Anyone who knows the full story of the Titanic likely wouldn't be surprised that reliving that horror would have an impact no matter how much time had passed. Only 705 people total survived the sinking, either being lucky enough to snag a space on a lifeboat or rescued from the water in time. More than 1,500 perished. Those who survived were fortunate, but they had to experience and witness so much fear and loss.
Even close to seven decades after the fact, we get a glimpse of that pain in Frank Prentice's interview.