At 2:20 a.m. in the North Atlantic Ocean 106 years ago today, 1,517 people met their fate in freezing cold water as the “unsinkable” Titanic fell to the ocean floor.
Among the victims was third-class passenger Docart Sitik (AKA Daher Abi Shedid), a 19-year-old Syrian boy who reportedly jumped from the ship and swam to an ice mass, where he froze to death.
Sitik had been on his way to visit his mother and uncle, Badway Ferris, who resided at 963 Chestnut St. in Kulpmont. Instead, his body arrived at the home in an oak casket on May 7, 1912, and he was laid to rest in St. Mary’s Cemetery on May 8, 1912.
Sitik’s name lives on in the book “The Dream and Then the Nightmare: The Syrians Who Boarded the Titanic,” by Leila Salloum Elias, and through genealogy research on www.geni.com. But perhaps the last time his story was told locally was in a July 23, 1986, article in The News-Item written by Harry Deitz.
Deitz, 89, of Overlook, who is long retired but continues as a freelance photographer and writer for The News-Item, spoke with the late John Clauser, a Kulpmont resident who was 13 years old when the Titanic sank. Clauser identified Sitik’s burial spot in St. Mary’s to Deitz and told him it had been marked by a 4-by-4-inch wooden cross painted white with a burned inscription that said, “Killed in the sinking of the Titanic, April 15, 1912.” The cross deteriorated, and today the grave is unmarked.
The late Nick Bressi, a former Marion Heights historian, had done research trying to locate the gravesite, but Deitz reported he was unable to do so as no record was available because the cemetery hadn’t been dedicated until a few months after the Titantic sunk, July 28, 1912. Bressi expressed his desire in 1986 for a marker to be placed on the young man’s grave due to its historic significance.
A distant relative ofSitik’s living in North Lebanon learned from a neighbor, who had been 8 at the time of the sinking, the story of how Sitik ended up on the Titanic and shared it online for the centennial anniversary of the sinking six years ago.
Fled his homeland
According to the story, Sitik was in love with a girl named Marroun Sejaan and had been sitting with her in a basement, pointing a rifle at her and jokingly asking her if she was in love with another young man. She swore it wasn’t true, so he asked, “Do I shoot you?”
Both believed the gun to be unloaded, so she told him, yes. Sitik pulled the trigger, shooting her in the neck and killing her immediately.
People nearby flocked to the scene and waited for police. As the news spread, Marroun’s cousin began seeking vengeance against the young man. Sitik’s uncle contacted his mother in Kulpmont and was able to get him out of the area to Cherbourg, France, where he boarded the Titanic on April 10, 1912, with ticket number 2698.
A golden relic
With the Carpathia responding to the Titanic’s distress calls, the White Star Line, which had built the Titanic, chartered the cable ship MacKay-Bennett as one of four to sail out to collect deceased passengers. The ship sailed on April 17, 1912, and recovered Sitik’s body.
A description report of the 306 bodies the crew retrieved from the water was given, with Sitik listed as the ninth victim. In it, the report estimated his age at 22, with a scar under the right side of his chin. Sitik had been wearing a gray mixture suit and had a handkerchief with a blue border. Among his possessions was a mustache brush, pocket mirror and pencil, and a purse with French, Turkish and Austrian money. The name on his health certificate listed “Nahil Schedid.”
On May 6, 1912, the Mount Carmel Item reported Sitik’s body wasshipping from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and, the following day, the newspaper reported the body had arrived at the Lehigh Valley station. His body arrived at his uncle’s house later that afternoon, and it was described as being “in excellent condition.”
On Aug. 14, 1912, the Mount Carmel Item reported Chief of Police Abe Morgan was given a gold piece from Sitik’s mother that was worn by him when he drowned.
The article reads, “The boy had a small sum of money in his purse when he drowned, which was found in his clothing when he was recovered and was given to his mother in Kulpmont. Chief Morgan befriended the woman when she was in trouble several years ago. She is very grateful and gave the chief a gold piece that was in the most disastrous marine accident that ever occurred in the history of the world. It is probably the only relic from the disaster in Central Pennsylvania.”
A Shamokin hero
The ocean was calm as 700 passengers sailed on the merchant marine ship Carpathia on April 15, just three days after setting sail from New York City to Fiume, Austria-Hungary (now Rijeka, Croatia). Shortly after midnight, however, a distress call rang out from the Titanic, 50 miles away.
The crew, which included 19-year-old Joseph Zupicich, rushed to the deck where Capt. Arthur Henry Rostron informed them the Titanic had struck an iceberg and was sinking. While two other ships were in closer proximity, Rostron announced they were going to brave the icy waters and mountain-sized glaciers to rescue passengers.
Zupicich was a youthful Austrian-born steward on the ship in 1912, but the better part of his life was spent as a neighborhood grocer at 946 W. Pine St., Shamokin, where he would share his story with those intrigued by the disaster until his death on April 12, 1987, three days shy of the 75th anniversary of the sinking.
He shared his memories on March 27, 1968, with Deitz,and again on April 14, 1982, with News-Item reporter David Dekok. The articles were 14 years apart but showed the impact the event had on his life with the remarkable detail he provided.
Zupicich had told Dekok, “The captain — God bless him — called everyone on deck. He told us, ‘We are in danger. I’m risking your life.’ He told us right out, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to make it or not. The Titanic is in trouble and is sinking, and we have to go help them. If God gives us luck, if God helps us, maybe he can save us too.’”
As the ship sailed through the deadly field of icebergs, the crew could see the flares sent up by the Titanic, and when the flares stopped, Zupicich recalled Rostron announcing it was the end of the Titanic.
They gathered blankets, food, medicine and life jackets as they headed to aid the victims and prepared for their orders to gather the survivors, but leave the dead. With the time it took to respond and the freezing temperatures of the water, Zupicich said he knew many would be dead.
The first lifeboat was spotted around the break of dawn, surrounded by floating ice and debris from the Titanic. In 1968, he told Deitz, “The wailing was terrible. There were screaming people in the water all around us. Lifeboats which banged against the sides of our ship were loaded over capacity, some with as many as 60 persons and others with people clinging to the sides battling to save their lives.”
The memory of the first woman he pulled from the ocean stuck with him throughout his life. He recalled, “I pulled out one lady. You know what she had on? Only a little piece of cloth. Nothing. I’ll never forget the poor girl. She grabbed me and kissed me and she cried.”
He went into further detail when speaking withDekok in 1982, stating, “We picked up one boat and there was one Italian fellow in there. He jumped off the Titanic … with a life saver. And the first boat, he grabbed. Everyone was afraid he’d upset the boat because he was hanging on it. They were hitting his hands.
“They couldn’t get him out. He tied himself to the people by their legs. That’s what saved his life. His hands were all chopped up. He was so happy. On our ship, he was singing every day.”
Just when they thought they had pulled up all the survivors, shouts rang out from another overloaded lifeboat. The Carpathia had become overcrowded with 705 passengers from 20 lifeboats by the time a relief ship arrived.
Zupicich had also told Deitz, “Years haven’t erased the tragic picture from my memory of screaming children and frantic men and women of all ages pleading for help from the boats and the icy waters below, their hands reaching upwards clutching desperately for the ropes that we threw over the sides of our ship. And the memory of that oil-slicked water cluttered with human bodies among floating debris and the picture of death in the early morning still haunts me.”
Stayed in New York
In the book “Shadow of the Titanic: The Extraordinary Stories of Those Who Survived,” author Andrew Wilson wrote how Zupicich had given his “towels, shirts, trousers and even underwear” to survivors who barely had clothing to keep out the cold.
As the Carpathia pulled into the harbor in New York City, thousands hoping for good news of loved ones and those curious about the disaster filled the docks. The crying of those who didn’t know if their loved ones would exit the ship stayed with Zupicich.
Zupicich ended up staying in New York, where he was given a job by Madeleine Astor, wife of millionaire business John Jacob Astor IV, a victim of the Titanicsinking. Madeleine Astor told the Carpathia crew if they ever required help, go to her. She gave Zupicich a job washing dishes at the Astor Hotel in New York for $7 a week.
A Shamokin friend contacted him and told him to go there and work in the coal mines, which he did until an accidental explosion in 1921 blew off his left arm. After that, he and his wife opened a grocery shop on Pine Street and ran it for 54 years.
Scott Fabrizio, of Shamokin, was only 4 years old when Zupicich, his great-grandfather, passed away, and today wishes he would have had the opportunity to “pick his brain.”
As a young student learning about the Titanic in school, Fabrizio said he used to get excited to raise his hand and tell his classmates about the role his relative played in the rescue, but at that time, his teachers had already known the story.
Fabrizio’s mother told him stories about Zupicich and the Carpathia growing up, but said he was more known to have talked about mining and hunting while he was alive. He is remembered by Fabrizio as an avid hunter who wasn’t hindered by only having one arm.
The crew aboard the Carpathia were given medals for their response, but Fabrizio said no one in the family knows where Zupicich’s medal is. Among the memorabilia they still have is a Titanic-shaped whiskey decanter, news articles and a large framed cartoon published in the Sunday Patriot-News on Dec. 2, 1979. Patrick M. Reynolds had created a short graphic novel-type “Pennsylvania Profile” commemorating Zupicich’s story. Fabrizio’s family keeps a framed copy signed by Reynolds.
In the St. Edward’s Cemetery on a headstone for Joseph and Lucille Zupicich, the area’s connection to one of the most famous tragic moments in history is forever remembered with the engraved words, “Rescuer of survivors of Titanic.”
(Special thanks to Harry Deitz and David Dekok, whose articles helped keep history alive.)