PORTLAND, Maine — Famous paintings and movies made in the years after the Titanic sank got the tragedy wrong, said author and St. Joseph’s College professor Karen Lemke. A man who survived the legendary wreck told her the scene was pitch black, and echoed with the blood-curdling screams of the dying, she said.
The Titanic, the largest ship afloat at the time and believed by many to be unsinkable, hit an iceberg on April 15, 1912, and capsized. Almost universally, depictions of the sinking show survivors in lifeboats watching as the fatally wounded, nearly 900-foot-long, 11-story ship glowed under the moonlight, just moments before being claimed by the frigid North Atlantic waters.
But Lemke, whose research into the incident includes a comprehensive interview with one childhood survivor nearly 20 years ago, said the depictions would have to be in blackness to be accurate. She said Marshall Drew, who was 8 years old when he was a second-class passenger on the infamous voyage, told her the sky was devoid of celestial light, and the ocean was like a smooth sheet of black glass.
Lights aboard the Titanic didn’t illuminate the area as is contemporarily fantasized, Lemke relayed, and those on lifeboats drifting away from the ship were quickly blinded by the darkness. And deafened by the last calls for help coming from drowning passengers on all sides.
“He said, ‘I will never forget the sounds in the water — the screaming, the crying … the noise [of] our fellow humanity,’” Lemke said Tuesday during a noontime presentation at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, exactly 100 years after the Titanic set sail from Southampton, England.
Lemke conducted her original interview with Drew for a story published at the time by the Bangor Daily News. Now, on the week of the centennial of the sinking, she’s telling the story again.
“We’re going to be getting a lot of exposure to the Titanic story this week — especially considering the new 3-D release of the  Leonardo DiCaprio movie — but this is a much more personal and intimate account,” said Maine Historical Society Assistant Director Steve Bromage on Tuesday.
It’s an account that for 43 years was kept entirely secret, Lemke said. Drew was told by his aunt, who raised him after his mother died when he was 2 weeks old, to keep his connection to the famous shipwreck hidden.
“He said, ‘We absolutely were not allowed to tell anybody about the tragedy,’” relayed Lemke. “He was not to tell his neighbors or anyone else that he was on the Titanic.”
In 1955, during his 30-plus years as an art teacher, Drew was approached by a student who found his name on a list of survivors published at the time. He admitted that, yes, he was the same Marshall Drew as the one on the list, and that marked the first time he talked about the incident openly, Lemke said.
Drew’s uncle was among those who died at sea. Lemke said that even at a young age, Drew was struck by the sight of panicked third-class passengers being held back by steel gates and crew members carrying pistols while wealthier passengers were being lowered away in half-full lifeboats.
“He said, ‘I was saved for a reason,’” Lemke said. “He said, ‘I was saved for who I was — when I was in the lifeboat, a woman covered me up in a chinchilla coat, if that tells you anything. The other children who went down, they died for who they were.’”
Lemke said Drew, who is now dead, spent his life trying to work closely with less fortunate students, always aware that had his uncle paid for a cheaper ticket, he might have ridden the Titanic to the bottom of the ocean.