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Titanic Tales: A single Spanish victim

Updated: Jul 25, 2021

Titanic had ten Spaniards onboard, only one was to perish, a member of one of the wealthiest families in the country

(Oct 24 1887 Madrid, Spain - Apr 12 1912 Atlantic Ocean)

(Sep 3 1889 Madrid, Spain - Apr 3 1972 Madrid, Spain)

(Oct 12 1872 Cuenca, Spain - May 28 1969 Spain)

Víctor Peñasco Y Castellana married María Josefa Perez de Soto Y Vallejo in December 1910 and they followed the custom of wealthy couples to take a long honeymoon travelling across Europe. María Josefa was accompanied by her maid Fermina Oliva Y Ocaña. They made a spontaneous decision one night in Paris to buy tickets to travel aboard the Titanic. Fermina had an uneasy feeling though and Victor's mother had begged the couple to travel where they wanted, but not to take a boat. Víctor was a nephew to King Alfonso XIII’s prime minister, José Canalejas and he had a considerable fortune. It is calculated the 18 month long honeymoon cost somewhere in the region of €700,000 by 2012 prices. Few families could match his wealth, María's was one of them. The combined fortune of the couple was estimated to be in the region of an astonishing €1 billion.

The couple decided to leave Víctor's butler in Paris so he could send a series of postcards to Victor's mother so she would not be concerned over their voyage.

On the fateful night

The couple and the maid settled into their cabins after boarding at Cherbourg and on the Sunday evening after their evening meal they chatted with their friends José Pedro Carrau and Francisco from Argentina and Uruguay before they returned to their cabin to rest. Fermina was working on a corset before retiring. She observed that as she stretched out on her bed with her tasks complete she felt an unusual vibration. Her concerns were increased when a few minutes later the ship stopped and the engines shutdown. She resolved to knock on her master's cabin. María was already asleep and Víctor unbuttoning his jacket. There were four night shift room stewards on duty and very few people in the passageway. The staff ensure them that there is nothing to worry about but Fermina and the now awake María were anxious so Víctor decided to go up on deck to investigate.

When he arrived on the boat deck he saw that sailors were rushing to remove the tarpaulins from the lifeboats. When he discovered the ship had hit an iceberg he grew alarmed and rushed back to C-Deck, bursting into the cabin to tell the women "It is sinking! It is sinking!" At that same moment the Room Stewards entered the corridor and begin to rouse the passengers with circumspect calm.

Fermina recounted she took her picture of Saint Joseph and placed it under her life jacket. They ascended the grand staircase in the increasing throng of passengers, passing through the first class lobby and arriving directly in front of life boat 8. They were right next to the ship band who were playing upbeat music having just moved from the first class dining room to the boat deck.

María then realised she had left her jewellery in the cabin and Víctor returned to retrieve them. The two women sheltered together alongside lifeboat 8 as a slight list started to become noticeable. Víctor returned just a little before 12:25 Officer Lightoller gave the order to begin loading women and children onto the lifeboats. María realised that the order would mean her and Víctor were to be separated. He attempted to calm her but she hugged him sobbing. María clutched ever tighter to Víctor as he says goodbye to his wife. "Pepita, may you be very happy" he soothed and stepped back into the crowd.

On the lifeboat

Fermina suddenly realised she is alone. She frantically called for Víctor and as she does so Captain Smith calls out for any more women to board the lifeboat. With no response forthcoming, the descent began. Fermina returned and seeing the boat already descending started screaming frantically. The men on the deck threw her a metre down, "like a sack of straw" she remembered.

Later, on the dockside in New York the Countess of Rothes recounted how María started to sob uncontrollably in the lifeboat, crying out her husbands name. The Countess who had taken the tiller of the boat, passed control to her cousin and took the heartbroken María in her arms. The Countess tried as best as possible to distract her from the sounds of those dying in the sea.

Buying a body

As if things were not horrendous enough for the grieving María at that time, it became apparent that without a body, her husband could not be declared officially dead for another twenty years. This would not allow her to claim her husband's inheritance or remarry until she was 43. The Peñasco family made the extraordinary decision to purchase a corpse. Fermina "identified" one of the bodies that had been recovered and Halifax in Canada issued a death certificate.

Rebuilding her life

María Josefa remarried in 1919 to Baron Río Tovía and had three children. She lived until 1972 and died at the age of 83. Fermina lived to be 98.



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