As the great Titanic sank to its watery grave, Helen Delaney was thrown overboard.
Someone caught the 4-year-old, according to archive reports, and she survived the night, a fate her parents unfortunately didn’t enjoy. The youngster ended up in Council Bluffs by way of an “orphan train” and lived here in anonymity until her death.
Delaney’s story begins on April 14, 1912.
Shortly before midnight the “unsinkable” Titanic struck an iceberg while traveling at near maximum speed in the frigid North Atlantic Ocean.
The frozen mass opened five of sixteen watertight compartments on the starboard (right) side – the ship was designed to stay afloat with four or less flooded compartments – which began the Titanic’s descent.
Of the approximately 2,207 passengers that boarded the giant ship, 705 survived. Less than 50 who ended up in the ocean lived; the rest of the survivors were on the limited number of lifeboats available.
The child boarded the ship in England, though at what port or on what date is a mystery, as is her ancestry. She was possibly English, Spanish or Italian. The names of Helen’s birth parents are unknown, lost to the cold Atlantic Ocean waters. Helen didn’t know her exact birth date.
With the other survivors, young Helen arrived in New York on April 18 and was placed in an orphanage.
James P. Delaney, a Council Bluffs locomotive engineer for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Rail Company (now BNSF), and his wife adopted Helen when she arrived in the city via orphan train.
Helen attended Mount Loretto Catholic High School on North Broadway and Oak Street, where Super Saver is now. Afterward she remained in Council Bluffs, never married or had children. She lived in anonymity in an apartment at Regal Towers on South Sixth Street.
For much of her adult life Helen worked as a sales clerk at the Kresge’s variety, or “five and dime,” store, which sat next to Beno’s department store on West Broadway.
Only a few people in town knew she’d survived the shipwreck.
“She rarely talked about her Titanic legacy,” said Dick Warner of the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County. “Most people who knew her weren’t even aware of it.”
Emmett and Arlene Mathiasen were among the few that Helen told. Emmett was her doctor and Helen became close with both Dr. and Mrs. Mathiasen. Even though she revealed her history, Helen rarely spoke about the Titanic or her time as an orphan.
“She just didn’t say much about it,” Arlene said.
Jerry, son of Emmett and Arlene, remembers his parents often drove the diminutive woman to church – either at St. Francis or St. Peter’s Catholic parishes – and helped her with a variety of errands.
“I remember she was very small, very petite,” Jerry Mathiasen said of Delaney. “She was shy, but very nice. Such a nice person.”
Helen Delaney died on Jan. 26, 1982, at the age of 74. She’s interred at St. Joseph Cemetery off McPherson Ave, in a plot near her physician, who died at the age of 77 in December of 1999.
“It’s just a nice coincidence,” Jerry said.
Delaney was the only known passenger on the Titanic to live in Council Bluffs. Newspaper accounts of Helen’s death called her one of the last survivors of the shipwreck. Survivor Frank Goldsmith died days later, on Jan. 30.
About 14 survivors died after 1990, including the final one – Millvina Dean – on May 31 of 2009 at the age of 97. Dean was less than 3 months old while aboard the Titanic.
– The Historical Society of Pottawattamie County and World-Herald News Service contributed to this report, which also featured Nonpareil archive material.