KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As a little boy, Tom Goldsmith followed his grandfather into his north-central Ohio den and begged him to tell him about the Titanic. His grandfather, Frank Goldsmith, was a 9-year-old traveling in third class when he was plucked from bed and placed on one of the last lifeboats lowered into the frigid Atlantic Ocean as the ship sank.
Across the ocean, Tim Lightoller was picking up tidbits from his grandfather about the night he narrowly escaped death. As the bow of the lavish ocean liner went down south of Newfoundland, second mate Charles Herbert Lightoller was sucked with it and became caught against a grate. A blast of hot air from the boilers blew him clear, allowing him to take refuge on an overturned lifeboat.
One-hundred years after the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, the two grandsons are among about 40 descendants — including the great-granddaughter of Colorado socialite survivor Margaret Brown — gathering to remember the maritime disaster at a pair of U.S. museums more than 2,500 miles from where the ship sank. The museums are co-owned by John Joslyn, who helped lead the first private expedition to visit the ship's resting place on the ocean floor. Music-filled ceremonies planned at the museums Saturday are being billed as the largest gatherings of survivors' descendants.
The story of the Titanic has gained traction in in the southwest Missouri town of Branson and Tennessee's Smoky Mountains town of Pigeon Forge. Museums there claim to house some of the largest permanent collections anywhere of Titanic artifacts and memorabilia. The museum in Branson has had more than 5 million visitors since opening in 2006; the Pigeon Forge museum has drawn about 2 million since it opened in 2010.
The anniversary events will conclude with a symbolic re-enactment of the launching of Titanic's distress flares and the lighting of a memorial flame to honor those aboard the doomed ship, which struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912, and sank at 2:20 a.m. on April 15. More than 1,500 of the 2,208 crew members and passengers died.
"He was very, very lucky," Tim Lightoller said of his grandfather, adding that the ship's chief officer had ordered his grandfather into a lifeboat before water began to wash over the ship's bow. "He said, 'I'm not doing that. I'm going down with the ship. My job is to look after the passengers and the crew and everything else like that. I'll take my chances like the rest.' And that's what he did. I hope if I was ever faced with the same situation, I'd do the same."
Afterward, however, his grandfather's luck dwindled. Lightoller said that as the most senior officer to survive, the Titanic was a black mark his grandfather couldn't escape despite being "exonerated from any fault" and decorated for his service with the British Royal Navy in World War I, after the sinking.
"It killed his career completely," recalled Lightoller, of Glasgow, Scotland, who was 10 when his grandfather died.
"There were four seaman officers of the Titanic who survived and not one of them would ever get any further than being sort of first officer or chief officer. They would never be made captain. In fact, they were eased out of the lines," Lightoller said.
Tom Goldsmith, 48, of Ashland, Ohio, said that although his grandfather collected newspaper clippings about the Titanic, his recollections mostly came out in bits and pieces. Once, after saying "goodbye," his grandfather pulled him aside and urged him to say "toodaloo" — or anything else — when parting.
"He said, 'When you say goodbye, that's forever," recalled Goldsmith, who was 18 when his grandfather died. "And then he would tell me the story of how they got to the gate and they were only letting women and children through. His father kissed and hugged his mother and patted him on the shoulder and said, 'So long, Frankie. I'll see you later.' He said he said goodbye to his father at that point and never saw his father again, so he didn't want me to say goodbye. I never said goodbye to him again until his funeral."
Helen Benziger, who lives in a small town in the Big Horn mountains in Wyoming, didn't know she was the great-granddaughter of one of the disaster's most famous survivors until she was teenager watching Debbie Reynolds in the 1964 movie "The Unsinkable Molly Brown." The musical was a fictionalized account of Margaret Tobin Brown's life.
Though Benziger asked a few questions, it was 20 more years before she became fascinated with the story. She learned through her research that besides helping raise money for less fortunate Titanic survivors, her great-grandmother also was involved in the women's movement and ran for the U.S. Senate.
"I thought, 'This is pretty amazing,'" said Benziger, 61. "It got even more amazing as it went on. The real Margaret Brown was even more fascinating and even more amazing than Molly Brown the myth."