The following is a true story by one survivor’s granddaughter, Laura Decker Ward, of Royal Oak.
“She thought her memories were buried at the bottom of the ocean floor until Walter Lord came calling.”
As the 109th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic approaches, I cannot help but think of my paternal grandmother, *Celena Alexander Yasbeck Decker, and how she survived one of the most tragic disasters of all time. That singular event changed the trajectory of her life. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’d be here today if the Titanic had not side-swiped that infamous iceberg on its maiden transatlantic voyage. Celena, affectionately called “Celiney,” was a raven-haired, Lebanese 15-year-old bride on her honeymoon when she and several family members boarded the RMS Titanic around 7 p.m. on April 10, 1912 in Cherbourg, France. About 1,830 passengers had embarked earlier that same day in Southampton, England. There was one last stop on April 11 in Queenstown, Ireland before the Titanic headed out to sea for New York. In total, the Titanic carried about 2,229 passengers and crew.
Celiney was madly in love with her husband, Antoni Yazbak, a young man from her hometown of Hardin, Lebanon. The pair couldn’t wait to begin their new married life together in America. Antoni had already been living in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and had a thriving shoe repair business with his brothers in Plymouth. The business was doing so well that Antoni decided it was time to take a wife. He knew he had to return to his home country of Lebanon to find the perfect woman, and so he did. He met Celiney Alexander and the two began a whirlwind romance that soon turned to marriage.
My grandmother couldn’t believe it. She was finally going to America with her dashing and charming husband. She was excited about the adventure that awaited her. She already had family, her father, brother-in-law, and other relatives, living in Wilkes-Barre. At that time, many immigrants, including the Lebanese, were excited about the promise that America offered, mainly jobs, religious freedom, and the opportunity for success. The men in the family would immigrate first, gain employment and later send for their loved ones. Antoni, Celiney, and her older sister Aminia Muborak and other relatives began their journey together as third-class passengers, also known as “steerage” on the Titanic. Celiney’s sister Aminia had her two young sons with her, George (7) and William (4). Her Lebanese husband had set-up home for them in Wilkes-Barre and had sent for them to join him.
In 1955, Walter Lord wrote A Night to Remember, a very successful non-fiction accounting of what happened in the early hours of April 15, 1912. My grandmother thought her memories were buried at the bottom of the ocean floor until Walter Lord came calling. He interviewed her many times – in person, over the phone, and the two wrote lengthy letters to each other. My grandmother provided Walter with specific details that helped him finish his masterpiece. She shared her story. It went something like this:
The newlyweds were snuggled in their bed aboard the Titanic when they heard and felt the iceberg’s impact with the ship. My grandmother described it as an enormous noise accompanied by a bump that jolted them out of bed shortly before midnight. Celiney and Antoni decided to investigate. My grandmother, still in her night clothes, followed Antoni throughout the ship and peeked into the engine room. What they saw frightened them – water pouring into the ship, steam everywhere, men cursing, hammering away with tools – it was mayhem, and the outlook did not look good. They did not bother to go topside, instead they ran back to steerage to alert family members and others. On their way, water slowing began filling the passageways. They hurried.
“Quickly!” They told the others to gather themselves and make their way to the top of the ship. The water was rising higher by now and there wasn’t time to pack their belongings. My grandmother, still in her nightclothes, left everything of material value behind, including her dowry and jewelry. There was just enough time to rouse her young nephews before they all began climbing the long journey to the top of the ship. It was not a straightaway route and they encountered obstacles along the way. The young boys’ legs could only go but so fast. Celiney, Antoni, and Aminia took turns half carrying, half dragging the boys up the stairs, through long corridors, and back-tracking when they encountered closed-off passageways, but they finally made it.
When they stepped onto the top deck, they likely witnessed a chaos of sorts – people shouting, crying, even laughing and dancing, and the unmistakable sound of a musical quartet playing in the distance. No one thought the Titanic would actually sink; it was considered to be unsinkable. However, it didn’t take long for passengers to realize the ship was in trouble; it was listing sharply to port.
Young William darted by as his mother Aminia was swept away in a frantic crowd. My grandmother grabbed her four-year old nephew by the collar and pulled him to her. Lifeboats were being lowered by officers, most of them sparsely filled. Antoni maneuvered Celiney to one of the last lifeboats to be lowered known as “Collapsible C.” The couple clung together in an embrace before Antoni lifted her in his arms and placed her into the lifeboat. Next, he hauled up William and handed Celiney the four-year old. She beckoned Antoni to climb in with them and he attempted to but stopped short when the cold metal of an officer’s pistol touched his temple. “Women and children first,” the officer said. My grandmother argued in Arabic that the lifeboat was not even close to capacity, gesturing wildly with her arms. Antoni, who spoke English, attempted to reason with the ship’s officer, to no avail. When she realized they were separated, Celiney attempted to climb out of the lifeboat back to Antoni but was restrained by the others. At approximately 2 a.m. on April 15, 1912, Collapsible C was lowered and when it made contact with the water, its male passengers worked feverishly to row away from the Titanic for fear of being pulled down into the freezing waters with it.
Twenty minutes later, my grandmother cried and watched in horror as row by row of brilliant lights disappeared beneath the ocean, accompanied by loud explosions. Celiney was in shock and settled into place with William and they, along with others, huddled together for warmth. The temperature was 31 degrees, and the ocean water was eerily calm. The chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, Joseph Ismay, sat just a few feet from my grandmother in the same lifeboat. It has been said that he manned one of the oars. Joseph Ismay would later be blamed for the sinking of the Titantic, because it was thought he pressured Captain Edward Smith to move the ship too quickly to meet the arrival deadline in New York, thus not heeding the warnings of ice ahead.
My grandmother continued communicating with Walter Lord throughout the years. He credited her in A Night to Remember specifically “providing far more interesting narratives and re-creating the atmosphere in steerage.” Before Walter’s A Night to Remember, most publications glamorized the wealthy and very little was told about the third-class passengers and their stories. Walter was a contributor to James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster movie, “Titanic.” Our family cannot help but speculate if he shared Celiney and Antoni’s love story. We believe so. There are unmistakable similarities! Watching the film was analogous to superimposing vivid imagery over the stories my family grew up listening to.
After the Carpathia rescued my grandmother and the other survivors of the Titanic, she was happily reunited with her sister and her nephew, George. Celiney held out hope that Antoni would appear on the Carpathia. She inquired about him, searched everywhere, even telling officers that he was a strong swimmer. I cannot help but imagine my tearful grandmother, draped in a thick woolen blanket, dark hair whipping in the wind, peering over the railing of the Carpathia, searching the sea, hoping to spot him. She never saw Antoni again. Over 1,500 people perished on the Titanic and only 700 people, including my grandmother, lived to tell the tale. She was a widow at the age of 15.
The survivors were taken to New York City where the news of the disaster was circulating. My great-grandfather, Celiney and Amina’s father, rushed to greet them as they, along with many others, were admitted to a New York City hospital (St. Vincent’s) to be treated for hypothermia. After her release two weeks later, Grandmother went to the White Star Line offices in Manhattan’s lower Broadway seeking information and demanding answers about the sinking. When she arrived, she was besieged by the press. Reporters were hungry for details about her tragic loss, made even more significant because she was a young widow. A translator kept the press mesmerized while my grandmother told her story in Arabic. They wrote about her sorrow, the pallor of her skin, her youthful beauty, her black-borrowed mourning clothes, and her still henna-dyed nails, which was the custom at that time for brides in Lebanon.
About two years later, on January 20, 1914, Celiney married my Lebanese grandfather, Elias Michael Daghir (anglicized to Decker), in Wilkes-Barre. It has been speculated that this was an “arranged” marriage. The couple settled in Norfolk, Virginia, and the marriage turned to love. They had 12 children and my father, Robert Decker, was the youngest, born in 1935. His oldest brother, Frank, was 20 years older than he.
Heartbreak occurred again when two of Elias and Celiney’s young toddlers died during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1920 – a daughter, Catherine, and a boy, Anthony, named after Antoni. I always thought that was a testament of my grandfather Elias’ love for my grandmother – naming one of their sons after her first husband. I doubt that many husbands, then or now, would honor such an intimate choice for a name. It must have been devastating losing her second Antoni. Sadly, in 1931, Celiney and Elias lost another young son, John, from pneumonia. I think my grandmother’s biggest legacy is that of her resilience and strength to persevere despite losing what was so precious to her – her first true love and her innocent defenseless babies, at such a young age herself.
Celiney and Elias raised their nine remaining children in the Roman Catholic religion. They were devout Catholics, and my grandmother was known for attending mass on a daily basis. She had a reputation for her exquisite Lebanese cuisine – warak enab bi zeit (stuffed grape leaves), khubz (homemade pita bread), and kousa (stuffed squash) and many other delectable dishes, far too many to mention. Sundays were reserved for big family dinners and Father Thomas Sommers from Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church was often invited to join them.
Grandfather Elias was something of an entrepreneur starting several businesses, first in 1914 delivering chunks of ice (the irony) to customers for their iceboxes with a horse-drawn cart, but ultimately opening the first full-service filling station in Norfolk, Virginia in 1939 where it thrived for more than five decades. Two of my dad’s older brother’s, George and Charles, enlisted in the Navy and fought in WWII. Charlie was stationed on the USS Hoggatt Bay, an air-craft carrier, and George was on a Mine Sweeper, both in the Pacific Fleet. At one point, the Navy learned that the brothers were stationed near each other and arranged to have them meet. A crane was used to hoist George onto the USS Hoggatt Bay. Charlie gave George a much-needed haircut! Can you imagine the letter sent back home? It must have brought Celiney tears of joy.
In 1950, Mel was drafted into the Army and served in the Korean War and my dad’s oldest brother, Frank, rose through the ranks to become the Deputy Police Chief in Norfolk. According to my dad, this came in handy (several times) when, as a teenager, he was caught drag-racing his 1948 green Dodge. All three girls, Louise, Lillian, and Marguerite, married and had children. Louise had fraternal twin girls. I had fraternal twins – a boy and a girl! Perhaps this is a predisposition I inherited.
When my grandfather Elias died suddenly in 1949 making my grandmother a widow for the second time, my uncle Alfred, a star linebacker at Norfolk Catholic High School, gave up a football scholarship to the College of William and Mary to run the family business. Four years later, following high school graduation, my dad served in the Army overseas during the Cold War. He and Charles later went on to work for the U.S. Government until their retirements. Charles for the U.S. Treasury and my father for the Federal Aviation Administration.
Because of her will to survive, deep faith, and resiliency, my grandmother Celiney achieved much happiness and prosperity despite her traumatic past. My Lebanese immigrant grandparents lived the American dream. They raised their children to appreciate our freedoms and to serve when needed. My dad recalls when he was about six, he was playing with his green plastic Army men behind a wing-back chair in his family’s living room, when his cousin ran into the house, slamming the front door and announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My dad’s parents sat down with George and Charlie and Grandfather Elias said, “This is your country, it has been good to us, and you are going to fight for it.” In total, Celiney and Elias had nine surviving children, 24 grandchildren and countless great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. It’s true what they say, “Life really does go on.”
When I was not quite two years old, my grandmother Celiney was hospitalized in March 1966. She was gravely ill and in the days before her death, she told my father that Antoni had appeared at the foot of her bed. She said he was coming to take her home.
You are probably wondering why she saw Antoni and not Elias. I believe they had unfinished business. Perhaps he had been there all along, looking after her, ensuring she had a magnificent and full life.
*Celena Alexander Yasbeck Decker is her Anglicized name. She is often referred to in history as Silanah Iskandar Nasif Abi Daghir Yazbek.