Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune , Published April 15 2012
Titanic centennial: Duluth woman who survived wreck remains an enigma
Her biography runs thin in newspaper archives and in Titanic research after initial reports about her surviving the sinking.
According to that research, Willard was 21 when she sailed to Europe to see family. Her parents were David and Cora Willard, but there is no other information about the family in the News Tribune archives. The Hibbing Tribune reported that she had a brother in Hibbing named David.
Willard’s Titanic story was reported three times as she slowly made her way back to Duluth by train.
She was first interviewed by the Chicago Tribune. She said there was general panic as the boats began to lower, when “two men took hold of me and almost pushed me into a boat.”
Being a very proper first-class passenger, she took offense and struggled to be set free.
An officer apparently yelled that they shouldn’t waste time trying to get someone in a lifeboat who refused, and she was let go.
Willard said she ran back into the cabin area searching for friends but couldn’t find them. Then a 15-year-old English girl ran to her and begged her to take her out of harm’s way, Willard said.
She also said that while the two were lowered in Lifeboat 8 a little after 1 a.m., a “foreigner” held a baby out and begged Willard to take it with her. “Of course, I took the child,” she said.
When the News Tribune reached her in St. Paul on April 21 as she visited with her sister, Willard made no mention of the baby but talked about listlessly responding in her cabin to the alarm rising about her after the Titanic struck the iceberg.
She said she then remembered a prophesy told to her by a fortune-teller when she was 12. She had been warned that she was to die near the age of 21.
“It has come true, I said to myself. I ran to my mirror and peered a long time at my image in the glass,” she said.
She once again relayed the story of the English girl clinging to her.
Willard likened the rush to the lifeboats in the only way she apparently knew.
“It was like waiting to get a chance at the cloak room of a crowded opera house,” she said, insisting she had no fear for her life.
The next week, the curious Willard arrived in Duluth. She said she felt the wreck had happened “ages ago” and was showing signs of what today we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I feel sort of an apathy,” she said. “I have a kind of a ‘don’t care what happens’ feeling.”
She didn’t mention the baby or the girl this time, but she did say that when she refused to get into the first lifeboat and returned to her cabin, she had her fortune-teller moment and, determined to not die, “hurriedly dressed, taking a number of trinkets, jewelry, money, my overcoat and furs.”
Willard has confounded Titanic researchers looking for more information on her. She is a noted survivor because the accounts of her lifeboat refusal and then acceptance were mentioned in Walter Lord’s lauded Titanic book from 1955, “A Night to Remember.”
Willard never married and died at age 73 on April 25, 1964, in California.
She left readers with some final thoughts on her rescue in the final News Tribune article. Then any trace of her life seemingly vanishes.
“The night was bitterly cold,” she said. “The sky was clear and all around us the stars shone in their brightness. During the night, while waiting for the Carpathia, I thought of almost every incident from my childhood. Each detail seemed to come vividly before me.”