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Published April 14, 2012, 05:28 PM

Hettinger, N.D., man's Titanic tale lives on

HETTINGER, N.D. - The story of a Hettinger man who survived the sinking of an “unsinkable ship” lives on in those who have heard it, even 100 years after the tragedy. Though he never blamed anyone for the loss of more than 1,500 lives, Olaus “Ole” Abelseth would take the memories of that night to his grave.

By: April Baumgarten, The Dickinson (N.D.) Press

HETTINGER, N.D. - The story of a Hettinger man who survived the sinking of an “unsinkable ship” lives on in those who have heard it, even 100 years after the tragedy. Though he never blamed anyone for the loss of more than 1,500 lives, Olaus “Ole” Abelseth would take the memories of that night to his grave.

“That’s something I’ll never forget,” Titanic survivor Abelseth told The Forum in 1978. “I saw people join hands and they yelled ‘Save us! Save us!’ I can never forget that. I never will as long as I live.”

Abelseth, 25 when the Titanic launched, was one of 712 surviving passengers of 2,208 aboard the British White Star Line ship, the sinking of which was one of the most fatal catastrophes of the 20th Century.

There will be multiple events in remembrance of the sinking today and Sunday, including the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra’s “Remembering the Titanic: Voices and Legends” at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the Carnazal Brazilian Grill in Sioux Falls, S.D.

People will play characters that were on the ship, including Capt. Edward J. Smith, said Helen Locey said, Ole’s daughter who lives in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Locey plans to attend the event with her husband and son, David Locey, who will portray his grandfather.

“It’s amazing that they remember this after 100 years,” Helen said. “All these people that were saved, they all have stories of various kinds that have lived through the ages.”

A dream of a dreamless man

Abelseth, born June 10, 1886, in Alesund, Norway, came to Hatton in 1902. With his brother, Hans Abelseth, he started a farm in Perkins County, S.D., under the Homestead Act of 1862.

Times were tough in his home country, and many Norwegians set out to find

the “American Dream,” said Hettinger resident Janice Abelseth, Ole’s daughter-in-law.

“They were really actually starving over there in Norway at the time,” she said.

He returned to Norway in 1911 to bring his parents back with him, but a strange dream involving water made him decide against it, Helen said.

“He never dreamt much in his life, but he said, ‘That dream kept coming back to me, and the only thing I could think of was God telling me not to bring my parents back,’” she said.

Ole traveled to Southampton, England, with Norway natives and friends, Karen Abelseth, 16, Anna Saljilsvik, 21, cousin Adolf Humblen, 42, brother-in-law Sigurd Moen, 25, and Peter Søholt, 19, where they boarded the Titanic, one of the most luxurious vessels of its time, as third-class passengers. The date was April 10, 1912.

“They had music and stuff like that, but they weren’t with the high-class people,” Janice said.

Karen was not related to Ole, but her father asked him to watch out for her onboard.

The Titanic made a stop the same day at Cherbourg, France. It then sailed to pick up passengers the next day at Queenstown, Ireland, known today as Cobh. The Titanic began its maiden voyage to New York City, a destination it was not meant to reach.

A fight for survival

The Titanic continued to push through the Atlantic Ocean on April 14, 1912. Although it received numerous warnings about ice in its path, the crew increased its speed to 22 knots, or about 25 mph, said Mary Kellogg-Joslyn, co-owner of Titanic Museum Attraction in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

The sea was calm with clear skies and no moon, making it difficult to see icebergs.

Around 11:40 p.m., Ole woke up to a sudden jolt, Locey said. He made his way up to the deck to see what the commotion was, only to find ice across the deck.

“He said something was wrong,” Helen said. “(When he saw the ice), he asked one of the workers there what’s this, and they said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing. Go back to your cabin and stay there.’ He didn’t feel that it was safe.”

The crew did not tell Ole or other passengers that the ship had hit an iceberg. They also failed to tell them that the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, had given it less than two hours before it would be underwater, according to Titanic Museum Attraction.

Ole rushed down to his cabin to find his travel mates. They quickly made their way to the deck where passengers were being loaded into lifeboats.

Ole managed to get Saljilsvik and Karen into one of the last boats launched, Janice said.

“He did take care of those two young girls,” she said. “He made sure they got on lifeboats because he was responsible for them.”

Ole and his co-travelers stood on the deck, hanging onto the ropes of a davit as the ship dipped deeper into the water, Helen said. Screams filled the air as people slid into the ocean while others held hands and prayed.

“From everyone that you read about or hear, the thing that they remember … with sadness is the cry for help and there is nothing you can do,” she said. “That is a sad feeling.”

He waited until they were five feet from the water and then decided to let go, falling into freezing waters, Kellogg-Joslyn said.

“The others could not swim, so they decided to hold hands,” Helen said. “When they jumped into the water, my father got caught in the ropes and he thought he was a goner as he said.”

He would never see his cousin, brother-in-law or Søholt alive again.

Ole eventually freed himself from the ropes, but his fight for survival wasn’t over. Two people tried to grab his lifejacket from him, pulling him underwater several times, his daughter said. He swam toward a shadow, a lifeboat.

The occupants told Ole not to come aboard for fear of sinking it, but he was allowed on, Janice said. He and the passengers stood on the upside-down boat until the Carpathia arrived at the scene and picked them up.

Life after Titanic

After reaching New York City on April 18, 1912, Ole was asked to testify before the U.S. Senate, where he said the crew didn’t stop him from making his way to the deck, helping the Committee of Commerce decide that there was no discrimination against third-class passengers.

It was later found by the committee, headed by Michigan Sen. William Smith that the Titanic was going too fast, a proper lookout was not kept and the crew was not organized in loading passengers into lifeboats, according to its report. The British Board of Trustees would later add there should have been enough lifeboats for all passengers.

Despite everything that happened that night, Ole did not hold any resentment toward the Titanic and its crew.

“He realized it was a mistake,” Helen said. “He never said anything that was terrible about the White Star Line.”

Ole was asked to tell his story at schools and churches wherever he lived, Janice said.

“He would cry because of so many people screaming and yelling and nobody could help them,” Janice said. “That is a sad feeling.”

Ole settled in Perkins County. He married Anna Grinde of Grinde, Norway, in 1915 and ranched until he retired in 1946 before moving to Reeder. He relocated to Tacoma, Wash., then to Hettinger, where he died Dec. 4, 1980.