DerryNews.com, Derry, New Hampshire

April 8, 2012

Matriarch's survival story inspires Pa. family

By Sherris Moreira-Byers
CNHI News Service

HERMITAGE, Pa. — There are days when Sharon George gets tired, and like anyone who works full-time and runs a household, gets a little overwhelmed.

But all the Jefferson Township, Pa., woman has to do is look to her past and find strength in her family legacy. After all, her great-grandmother survived the sinking of the Titanic.

"She is, to me, the most fascinating person in my family, which is an interesting comment because I never actually met her," said the 49-year-old, referring to Shanini George Wahabe, who passed away in 1947. "Hearing about her and reading about her and listening to my relatives talk about her, I feel some kind of connection to her … She was the matriarch of the family and was loved by everyone. I know you have a tendency to put your deceased on a pedestal, but she represents what is the very best of the George family."

After listening to family stories about Shanini surviving the Titanic tragedy, Sharon and her cousin Shayen George of Hubbard, Ohio, began doing research into the history of this great-grandmother that neither had ever actually met. And what Sharon began to discover was the story of a woman who not only typified the American dream, but was a spiritual role model as well.

"Her personality was incredibly strong, but she was also very soft and mild and non-confrontational," Sharon said. "She was very sentimental and affectionate. She had this profound sense of caring for others that was amazing, yet she was probably stronger than any one of us."

"She was also profoundly saddened by the fact that all these other people lost their loved ones," Sharon added, referring to her great-grandmother’s passage on the R.M.S. Titanic.

Shanini's journey from Lebanon to America began after her marriage to George Joseph Wahabe. After having five children, she decided, against her husband’s wishes, to come to America in 1906 to earn enough money to buy some land for her family and build a house in Lebanon.

"She got on a ship by herself, going to a country where she did not speak the language and where immigrants were not treated well, and once there, got a job, made some money going from door to door washing people’s clothes," Sharon said.

But after two years of working in America, Shanini got word that her husband had died. That was in 1908, and by 1910, Shanini managed to get four of her five children – Joseph, Thomas, Rose and Mary – into America, settling in Youngstown, Ohio. The fifth child -- Sharon’s grandfather, Albert -- remained in Lebanon to maintain the family home. He was around 11 or 12 at the time.

In 1910, she sent sons Joseph and Thomas back to Lebanon in hopes of improving Thomas' health, but by early 1911, he was getting worse. So she left her daughters in the care of an orphanage to go back to Lebanon to be with him.

"It took Shanini a month to get to Lebanon, and by the time she got there, Thomas had died just days before," Sharon said. "She never really emotionally recovered from his death. Then she needed to work in Lebanon to earn enough money for her passage back to the U.S. as well as get things in order."

By the time she did, about a year later, it was the spring of 1912, and she booked passage on the R.M.S. Titanic.

"Her ticket was approximately four pounds and four shillings, around $30 dollars in those days and about $350 in today’s money," said Sharon. "To compare, Molly Brown had the cheapest first class ticket at around (the equivalent of) $1,500. The average first class person spent (the equivalent of) $3,000 on a ticket."

Shanini was traveling back with three adult male cousins and a 14-year-old niece of one of the men. They joined a group of about 165 Lebanese immigrants rooming near each other and apparently enjoyed themselves immensely, Sharon said. Then the evening of April 14, 1912, approached. According to historical records, the Titanic hit the infamous iceberg around 11:40 p.m. It sank less than three hours later.

"Shanini did not even know what was going on," Sharon said. "She did not speak English very well at that point."

Sharon explained that her great-grandmother didn’t even know what happened until "late in the game. By the time they got to third class, there was sheer chaos." Despite that, it was the first-class male passengers who went down into steerage and pushed and pulled Shanini and other steerage passengers to the upper decks.

According to a 1937 Herald article, Shanini described her rescuers as "very finely dressed in their beautiful suits."

"The first class passengers had this sense of honor and chivalry," Sharon said. "Even though they were very class conscious, they not only stood aside, but they actively participated in saving the life of my great-grandmother."

Though Sharon doesn’t have concrete evidence since the ship's chaos that night undermined any kind of tracking system of survivors, especially those from steerage, circumstantial evidence points to Shanini’s sharing collapsible Lifeboat C with J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, which operated the Titanic.

"She gives us some clues," said Sharon, referring to Shanini’s documented recollection of that night. According to historical research,Llifeboat C was being loaded with passengers when full-scale chaos broke out on the deck and an officer had to fire a gun to keep men from rushing the lifeboat. Shanini recalled that event and also recalled that a man jumped from the deck onto the lifeboat after it had been loaded and the officers were walking away.

"They shielded him with their night clothes so that the sailors wouldn’t see him," Sharon said. "If they had, they would have shot him."

Because their lifeboat was one of the last to leave the ship, they were only half a mile away when Titanic sank beneath the icy water around 2:20 a.m. This meant they were one of the closest lifeboats to the Titanic and could hear the screaming of those left behind.

After her rescue, Shanini was reunited with her two daughters at a train station in Youngstown.

Shanini didn’t dwell on her Titanic experience, except for filing a $150 claim for her lost luggage. She resumed her laundry washing and eventually earned enough money to bring Joseph, then Albert, to the United States, said Sharon.

Still, within a year of the ship's sinking, 38-year-old Shanini’s beautiful black hair turned completely white. She would also have nightmares to the end of her life and wake up saying she could hear the ship sinking and the screams of those left behind.

She went on to work for the family's ice cream cone company, which still exists today. Sharon is now the director of quality control at Joy Cone Co. in Hermitage, Pa.

“Without her, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you,” she said. “If she had not made it on the Titanic, my aunts would have been adopted out, and my grandfather probably would never have made it to America. Without her there would be nothing. It’s an honor for all of us that we have a biological piece of her; that part of her blood is in our blood.”