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  • Five days after fellow survivors pulled him into a lifeboat and saved his life, Emilio Portalup recounted to a Telegraph reporter Titanic's nearly three-hour descent into the sea.
  • Five days after fellow survivors pulled him into a lifeboat and saved his life, Emilio Portalup recounted to a Telegraph reporter Titanic's nearly three-hour descent into the sea.
Monday, April 16, 2012

Five days after Titanic, Telegraph interviewed local survivor

No matter where huge news stories break, editors like to say, there’s always some kind of local angle. Sure, it could be a second- or third-hand account, but it’s a local angle nonetheless, “so go out and find it.”

Interestingly, our ancestral Telegraph editors and reporters barely had to lift a finger, never mind go out and chase down, this area’s strongest first-person tie to one of the 20th century’s worst, and most memorable, disasters.

Indeed, just five days after heroic fellow passengers yanked him from certain death in the icy North Atlantic, Milford teacher and sculptor Emilio Portalup willingly, but quite gingerly, sat down with Telegraph newsmen to relate what a reporter called “a graphic account of his rescue.”

For a week, the Titanic centennial has been heralded in headlines, numerous TV documentaries, historic accounts and dramatizations new and old and in libraries and book clubs from Europe to America and beyond. But the legendary tale’s most dramatic chapter – the frantic launching of lifeboats and desperate attempts to swim from the sinking mass – was written 100 years and one night ago.

Accounts like that of Portalup (spelled “Portaluppi” in some accounts) are like scripture to investigators, historians, authors and educators, their words the very foundation on which every future reference is built. That he graciously granted the Telegraph an interview even as he battled considerable pain and longed to get home to Milford makes him a hero who came home because of other heroes.

The Telegraph reporter cut right to the chase. “I finally made up my mind,” Portalup told him, “that the ship was going down. I jumped into the water, hoping to make one of the (life) boats that were being lowered from the upper deck.”

He made for one boat, then another, Portalup recounted, finally reaching one “that passed right in front of me. I called for help, and someone reached over, grabbed my clothing and pulled me into the boat.”

Oddly, the account includes no quotes about how relieved Portalup must have been. His next comment was “I believe I was in the water over an hour,” before he told of three other swimmers being pulled into the boat as it drifted from the doomed mother ship.

Portalup said his lifeboat contained 35 people when, at last, the Carpathia arrived and took them on board. He later said he was taken to a hospital “because my legs were so chilled … I can hardly walk today.”

The facts he related match very closely many historical accounts of what became “A Night to Remember” in print and on the big screen. Crew members were calm, almost too calm, Portalup said. “Officers told us everything was all right, that the vessel would remain afloat for many hours until help arrived. Everyone believed them.”

He returned to his stateroom and dressed. “It was some time before I realized the ship was surely sinking … I chanced to see the boats being lowered. That gave me my first fright,” he told the reporter.

He heard two explosions, then saw steam. The ship, he estimated, “shot ahead nearly a mile” when it struck the iceberg. Then, an observation that historians and scientists to this day believe contributed to lookout Frederick Fleet’s delay in issuing the iceberg warning: “The reflection of the stars upon the water made it difficult to make out (the iceberg) on the surface of the sea.”

Coincidentally, Portalup said he talked with New York theater producer Henry B. Harris during the confusion. Back in Nashua, members of one of Harris’ companies, The Country Boy, was scheduled to perform at Nashua’s old Colonial Theater that night, the Telegraph reported. Members “were made anxious by early reports of the wreck,” a story stated.

“Just before I left,” Portalup said of his encounter with Harris, “I told him ‘I think our best chance is to get in one of the boats,’ ” he told the reporter. “But he wouldn’t leave the ship.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or