BLOOMINGTON - "I will never forget the shrieks of those people in the water," remembered Albert Caldwell, a Bloomington resident who survived the sinking of the Titanic. "We supposed at the time that there were 40 or 50, never dreaming that over 1,500 would lose their lives that night."
Albert, his wife Sylvia, and their 10-month-old son Alden were passengers on the Titanic, which sank in the North Atlantic in the early hours of April 15, 1912. The Caldwells were in the fortunate minority of about 700 passengers and crewmen who lived to tell the tale. In the 1920s, the family moved to Bloomington, becoming the area's only known survivors of the most infamous maritime disaster of all time.
Albert and Sylvia met at Park College in Missouri. They married in 1909, months after graduation, and served as Presbyterian missionaries in Thailand (then called Siam).
With the birth of their first child Alden, they decided to return to America. On the long journey home, they passed through Naples, Italy, where they learned that the Titanic would soon be steaming across the Atlantic on its inaugural voyage. Incidentally, while in Naples, the Caldwells saw the Cunard Line's Carpathia preparing to leave for New York. It was the Carpathia that picked up Titanic's survivors the morning after the sinking.
Upon reaching London, the Caldwells found the Titanic booked full, but they were told to wait at the White Star Line's office in the event of cancellations. Their patience paid off, and they were able to board the liner in Southampton as second-class passengers.
Five nights into the voyage, the Titanic clipped an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland. "My wife was awakened by the crash," Albert Caldwell recalled in a 1929 interview with The Pantagraph. She awakened him, and he went to investigate, receiving assurances that all was well. He returned to his cabin and fell back asleep, only to be awakened 15 minutes later by a crewman ordering passengers on deck. They wrapped Alden in a cabin rug.
Fortunately, the Caldwells found themselves on the starboard side with its sparse crowds relative to the chaotic port side.
"My wife and baby were placed in the thirteenth boat," Albert told The Pantagraph, "which was not an unlucky number for us. As the boat was descending, an officer asked me if the lady was my wife. When I told him she was he ordered me to get into the boat also. There was plenty of room and the boat was not filled to its capacity of 60 until it had descended several decks and had been boarded by sailors."
The No. 13 lifeboat actually held 64 people that night. It contained many women from second and third class, as well as 9 men and 6 crewmembers.
In the years after the tragedy, male survivors like Albert Caldwell faced accusatory whispers, especially because the dead included women and children. What is clear is that many passengers, men and women alike, chose the apparent safety of the Titanic for the unknown danger of a lifeboat lowered a precarious 70 feet to the icy North Atlantic. Many believed that another ship-alerted to the situation by "wireless"-was at full steam and would arrive any hour, certainly well before the Titanic would slip under the waves.
Once the Titanic was gone, hundreds were left bobbing in the water only to die of hypothermia. The cries were "the weirdest, most appalling, heart rending noise that ever mortal might hear," remembered Sylvia Caldwell in an account written weeks after the sinking, "Some man said the cries were people singing; but who could be deceived?"
Dawn brought the Carpathia and safe passage to New York. After returning stateside, Albert Caldwell served as high school principal in Aledo, Illinois and elsewhere. The Caldwells then came to Bloomington sometime in the early 1920s, with Albert shifting careers from education to insurance. Albert and Sylvia, though, divorced in 1930.
Albert settled in Richmond, Virginia, where he remarried and worked as a State Farm agent until retirement in 1957. He died in 1977.
Sylvia Caldwell remained in Bloomington. In the fall of 1925, she began working for State Farm Insurance, becoming the company's 11th employee. She was first a policy writer, eventually "acquiring complete first-hand knowledge of every phase of the company's affairs," noted a 1940 profile in the State Farm newsletter "ALFI."
By 1927 Sylvia was chief secretary to G.J. Mecherle, the company's founder. The two were married in January 1944 (Mecherle's first wife had died several years earlier). Sylvia Caldwell Mecherle passed away in January 1965.