By Julia Slater
“An earthquake!” – that was the first thought of third class passenger Anton Kink of Zurich when the Titanic struck an iceberg on the fateful night of April 14, 1912.
It jolted him from his sleep just before midnight; when he left his cabin to find out what it really was, he saw men playing football with lumps of ice that had fallen onto the deck.
“They said that the Titanic had crashed into an iceberg, but that there was no danger so I should relax and return to my cabin.”
Several people assured him that the Titanic was unsinkable.
Kink, his wife and four-year-old daughter survived the disaster, but his account has only just come to light. It is contained in a 20-page letter he sent two weeks later from Milwaukee to the travel agency in Basel from which he had bought the tickets.
The letter was recently discovered by Swiss Titanic expert Günter Bäbler, and excerpts have been published in the Sonntagszeitung newspaper.
Kink’s purpose in writing – mentioned at the end of the letter – was to ask about compensation. He wanted the travel agent to “please let me know whether anything can be obtained from the White Star Line [shipping company], and how things stand with the luggage insurance, and also about the legacy of my brother and sister”.
The newspaper did not say whether he got satisfaction.
Kink’s granddaughter, Joan Randall, who now lives in California, told swissinfo.ch that she had been “totally astonished” to hear about the letter.
She knew her grandmother, but the Kinks had separated, and her grandfather returned to Austria, his country of origin, when her mother was 11. He remarried and with his new family emigrated to Brazil.
He remained in touch by letter with his daughter – Randall’s mother – until 1930, and then the correspondence stopped. But she does know that he died in 1959, back in Austria.
Randall is not sure what jobs her grandfather did, but he certainly seems to have moved around. He had gone to Zurich in his mid-twenties, where he worked as a warehouseman.
Her grandmother, Luise, was less restless. She was born near Stuttgart in Germany, and went to Switzerland not for economic reasons, as she told Randall, but because “she wanted no part of the Kaiser’s war”.
“When they were a family in Zurich and decided to move to the United States, it was a typical immigration story: my grandfather had an uncle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and that’s where they were headed,” Randall explained.
The Kinks were not travelling alone: also with them were Anton’s brother, Vinzenz, and sister, Maria.
The men and the women had separate quarters, but the five of them managed to get together to go on deck, only for the brother and sister to become separated. They were never seen again.
A friend who was travelling with them, Albert Wirz, a farmer from Uster, near Zurich, also died: his body was recovered from the sea.
“I would have been many thousand times grateful to you if you had been able to tell me that my brother and sister had been saved… It is sad to die in such a tragic way,” Kink wrote at the start of his letter.
Good fortune – and nightmares
The Kink parents and daughter were the only complete family to have survived from among the third class passengers. They got away in the penultimate lifeboat – but only because Anton jumped in just as it was drawing away.
“A sailor pressed his fist to my chest and said I should stay behind. I didn’t challenge him; instead I sneaked past when he was distracted,” Kink explained.
“They could have rescued a lot more people,” he wrote, pointing out that his boat was only half full. It had room for 40, but only 17 were on board.
From the life boat, he could hear “the cries of 2,000 people and the roar of air from the inside of the ship as it sank into the ocean with a dreadful noise like thunder – which gradually silenced the clamour.”
There could hardly have been a greater contrast with the scene afterwards.
“It was a beautiful night, no fog, the stars were shining, the sea was quiet – I thought we were on Lake Zurich.”
The Kinks were among those picked up by the Carpathia, the only ship to change course on receiving the Titanic’s distress signals. Conditions were not ideal.
“We were served in such a beastly manner that we were disgusted when we saw the food – and we counted the hours until our arrival in New York. On the last evening, the waiters began fighting and we had to flee to avoid being punched,” he wrote.
The Kinks were very lucky – but the adventure did not leave them unscathed. Randall told swissinfo.ch about the impact on her mother.
“She lost her memory. Her first memories were memories in school. She had no memories of Zurich, of the ship, of the disaster, of anything. However, she had terrible nightmares.”