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A Titanic survivor’s north country legacy

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This article originally appeared in the Times on May 24, 1998. It is being reprinted, with some updates, to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

“You’re going to make lots of babies and you’re going to watch them grow.” So said a dying Jack Dawson to Rose Bukater in the movie “Titanic.”

For a real teenager who survived the sinking of the Titanic — and who years later lived in Lowville and Gouverneur — those words came true. Laura Mary Cribb, a third-class passenger like the blockbuster film’s Jack Dawson, was among the 711 who survived the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. If the movie had focused on her rather than the fictitious Rose and Jack, it would have shown the teen giving “one awful shriek” and losing consciousness as she watched from a lifeboat as the “unsinkable” luxury liner slipped beneath the surface of the frigid Atlantic Ocean. Going down with the ship was her father, John Hatfield Cribb.

“How horrible it must have been for a 16-year-old girl, having lost her father on that ship!” That thought struck Lowville native Shirley Buzzell Carroll, now of Lompoc, Calif., as she watched the movie.

Laura, later Mrs. Howard Buzzell, was her mother, and Mr. Cribb was the grandfather she never knew.

Mrs. Carroll is among 75 people across the nation, including at least 29 in the north country, who, as descendants of Titanic survivor Laura Cribb, are in a sense Titanic survivors themselves. Mrs. Carroll’s brothers remain near to where they spent their childhood, Howard Buzzell in Great Bend and Ernest Buzzell in Gouverneur.

A sister, Virginia Williams, made her home in Wilmington, Del., and another, Bette Kendall, in Atlanta.

Grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren of Laura Buzzell lived in Croghan, Carthage, Natural Bridge, Pamelia, Saranac Lake, Gouverneur and Bloomingdale.

Ironically, of Laura Buzzell’s children, only Mrs. Carroll, the youngest, saw the movie. Her siblings don’t want to, some because of the fiction that Hollywood mixed with fact, others because they didn’t wish to relive their mother’s suffering.

The story of Laura Cribb, as gathered from a variety of sources, is an odyssey of struggle.

Her family Bible, which became the property of grandson Eric Buzzell, Croghan, includes a record of her birth, July 24, 1895, in Newark, N.J. According to an interview Mrs. Buzzell gave in 1973 in Carlsbad, N.M., her mother, Bessie Jane, moved to England with the children: Laura, her sister, Ellen, a brother Ernest and two other brothers. The reason for the move is unknown to Laura Buzzell’s relatives who were interviewed by the Times; perhaps she was from England originally and was moving back home, they say. Her husband, John Cribb, stayed stateside, loyally serving as “majordomo” (chief steward or butler) to New York railroad heir George Jay Gould.

Mr. Cribb occasionally visited his transplanted family, and on his final overseas trip, daughter Laura decided she wanted to go home with him, she said in the Carlsbad Current-Argus interview.

The word that passed down through succeeding generations is that the trip on the maiden, and only, voyage of the Titanic was a birthday gift. The rest of her family, including a brother suffering from appendicitis, stayed in England.

Months later, at her mother’s suggestion, Laura wrote a journal about her night of horror. We quote partially from her account, as it appeared April 16, 1932, in the Watertown Daily Times:

“I clearly remember that I suddenly awoke and with a slight shiver, sat bolt upright in my bunk. ... Suddenly the ship gave a violent jerk and then the engines stopped. A moment later my companion (a woman with children) awoke and fervently wringing her hands, cried out, “Oh my God! What has happened?” and asked me to go find out what had happened.

“I dressed quickly and hurried out into the main passage which was rapidly filling with passengers, all asking the same question, ‘What has happened?’ I had only been in the passage a moment when I heard my father calling to me. I answered as loudly as I could and he soon located me. ...”

(The article did not say why she was not in the same cabin with her father.)

“After a bit of chatting, my father turned to me and said, ‘We will probably have to go out in the life boats for a half-hour or so as we have had an accident and they want to lessen the weight of the ship and in order for them to investigate they want some of us out of the way.’ But I am sure now that my father sensed and knew that something very serious had happened and that once away from the ship we would never return. Just as my father finished speaking the captain and some officers came on deck shouting, “Women and children must get life belts on at once, then on deck.’

“I pushed my way back to my cabin. My companion was still there. I climbed up and took down the life belts. I took one for myself after giving my three companions theirs, telling them to come out into the main passage where someone would assist them in putting them on. I rushed back to my father who took the life belt from me and told me to hurry along to the deck. We were the first on deck so we ran swiftly across to the iron stairway leading to the second class deck which we ascended and easily got over the little gate at the top. Then we went through the salon and to the first class staterooms and deck where the life boats were ready to be lowered.

“As soon as we appeared the officers came up to us and told father to put the life belt on me. This he did, then telling me to get as near the life boats as I could. I then left him. Neither of us spoke. I expected to meet him again soon.

“I was not able to get into the first two boats, but was put in the third.”

What apparently occurred at about that moment was not quoted from her journal, but her interviewer in Carlsbad reported, “Laura remembers seeing a man shot while she was waiting for her boat to be filled.”

The journal continues, “When we had been lowered about half way down one of the pulleys got stuck and we all thought we would be overturned into the angry sea, but it started working again just in time to prevent such a calamity.

“We had a very difficult time getting away from the Titanic, as the suction was so very strong, but the sailors with the help of four women passengers managed to get away from the sinking ship. There was very little panic, as the truth of what had happened was not known to many of the passengers until we were away from the ship. Then we could see for ourselves what had happened, although we did not realize just what it meant to us.

“We had only been out about a half-hour when suddenly the lights of the ship went out. Immediately there was a terrific explosion mingled with the shrieks and moans from the helpless and doomed passengers who were left on the wreck of the great ship. The explosion caused the ship to split in half, the stern straight in the air, and then it sank rapidly.

“Since leaving my father I had not uttered a word, but as soon as the ship sank, they tell me I gave one awful shriek and fell unconscious. When I became conscious again ... I asked how long I had been unconscious and someone told me six hours. I was pretty well frozen and my limbs ached for having the life belt on all this while.

“After a while the quartermaster in charge of our boat lifted me up a little and pointed to the Carpathia to which we were rowing. ... In about an hour and a half we reached her. I was so stiff with the intense cold that I could not climb the rope ladder, so I had to have the belt and rope adjusted under my arms and around my waist. As soon as I reached the top, two blankets were thrown about me and I was carried to the salon which served for an emergency hospital that morning. Later I was helped to a cabin where I was given medical attention.

“Next morning I ... found everyone searching the bulletin board for news of their loved ones. It was not until then and later that I fully realized what it would mean to me. For my father had gone down with the ship. However, all the way to New York I kept thinking that my father would meet me in New York, that he would have been picked up by some other boat, not allowing myself to believe that it was true that he had perished.”

After arriving in New York and answering a few questions, she was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital. There, she was found by her mother’s brother and taken to his home in Newark, according to the Carlsbad account.

She was ill for two months, then in June, apparently undaunted by her trauma, took a ship to England.

She would cross the ocean several more times. On one of those voyages, according to her Carlsbad interview, she met her future husband on the way to America.

Howard Marsh Buzzell, from Windsor, Vt., had gone to England as a civilian mechanic, helping to build up the British war machines for World War I. If he met Miss Cribb en route to the United States, then there was another voyage back, because he and his bride were in Parkstone in Dorset, England, to take their vows Nov. 12, 1916.

Laura Buzzell was 21 when she gave birth Aug. 28, 1917, to her first child, Dorothy, in London. The baby died 10 months later.

The Buzzells moved back to the States, eventually settling in Schenectady. Their oldest son, Howard, estimated it was about 1930, when he was 8, when they moved to Shady Avenue in Lowville.

Because it was the Depression, Howard Buzzell surmised his parents went to Lewis County looking for work. His father was taken on by a car dealer, possibly Charles H. Arthur Motor Sales on State Street in Lowville, as a mechanic. The cash-strapped couple, then with four children, was forced to send Howard to live with his paternal grandparents.

Shirley, the youngest of the children, was born in 1934 in Lowville. Approximately six years later, Mr. Buzzell was hired as an electrician at Rushmore Paper Co. in Gouverneur and moved his family to Park Street there.

An asthmatic, Mrs. Buzzell found the north country climate too uncomfortable, her children said, so in about 1945 they uprooted, planting new stakes in Phoenix, Ariz. Two years later, they made their final move, with Mr. Buzzell going to work in a potash mine at Carlsbad.

Mrs. Buzzell died April 4, 1974, surviving her husband by 13 years.

Her children said she occasionally spoke of her Titanic experience.

“That’s probably why I’m not interested in getting on a ship,” said daughter Betty Kendall in Atlanta.

“She’d get too upset,” Shirley Carroll said. “I was a teenager when she talked most about it. Like any teenager, I didn’t listen. Now I can think of questions I’d like to ask her. I’ll have to wait until I see her again.”

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A list of survivors shows Laura Cribb as the youngest of 19 people aboard lifeboat 12 and one of only two third-class Titanic passengers, the other being an 18-year-old male. Three passengers were men, including two deck hands. A 17-year-old girl, who rode second class aboard Titanic, also survived on boat 12. No first-class passengers were on boat 12.

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The journal of Laura Cribb Buzzell fell out of family hands. It was given by one of her daughters to Mrs. Buzzell’s neighbor, Maurie Pollock, a resident of Carlsbad. In June 2007, the eight-page handwritten document sold for $16,800 at a Christie’s auction of Titanic memorabilia.

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