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From dull to terrifying in a heartbeat

"The Lusitania has been held up and there is a report the captain has lost his nerve," wrote Dorothy Conner, "but I think we will get off all right."

Rushing through the crowded dock just two hours before the ship was scheduled to sail from New York, the delay was fortunate for Dorothy.

A few years earlier, she and her widowed mother had followed her brother to Jackson County. They were members of a colony of wealthy Easterners and gentleman farmers who had made Southern Oregon their home.

Dorothy's carefree life was one social event after another, but by 1915, the 24-year-old had decided it was time she did something important. She would train as a Red Cross nurse, travel to Europe with brother-in-law Dr. Howard Fisher, and help establish a hospital in Paris, France.

William Turner, the Lusitania's captain, was worried. World War I was raging and, less than two weeks before he sailed, the Imperial German Embassy had warned that all ships crossing the Atlantic were "liable to destruction" and that all passengers traveling in the war zone would "do so at their own risk."

For six days after the Lusitania left New York on May 1, 1915, the sea had been calm and the weather beautiful. Passengers and crew were looking forward to docking in Liverpool the next day.

That morning, Dorothy was bored.

"It's been such a dull, dreary, stupid trip," she said. "I can't help hoping that we'll get some kind of thrill going up the channel."

On the bridge, just after 2 p.m., Captain Turner was scanning the "beautifully clear" horizon with his binoculars.

Below, Dorothy and Dr. Fisher had just finished their lunch with some friends and were walking up the main deck stairs to enjoy the sun.

The second officer saw it first, a white streak in the water.

"There is a torpedo coming, sir!" he shouted.

Bang! A rather dull sound like a muffled blast, then a sudden jerk. Within seconds, the ship was listing to starboard.

"What is that?" asked Dorothy.

"That is what we came after — a torpedo," said Fisher. "We must go up!"

Bounding up the three flights of stairs, they reached the main deck. While Dorothy waited at the rail, Fisher went below and found two life belts floating in a flooded passageway.

The ship seemed to steady and a crewman shouted, "The ship's not sinking! There's no danger!"

That's when the Lusitania rolled and Dorothy and Fisher were thrown into the sea.

"We were sucked down, down, down," said Dorothy.

Tangled underwater in ropes and debris, Dorothy gave up and prepared to die.

Sometime later, barely conscious, she felt a tug on her arm and a kindly voice say, "How can I make room for you little lady?"

That evening, she and Fisher were reunited at an Irish hotel where survivors were taken for treatment.

"Poor girl," said Fisher. "She had a narrow escape."

Dorothy and Dr. Fisher continued on to Europe, where they worked with the Red Cross and helped establish the Reckitt-Johnstone Hospital in Paris.

That German torpedo had taken 1,198 lives and edged the United States closer to war.

But history is more than numbers, dates and consequences. Our world may be dull one minute and terrifying the next, but history is how we live our lives.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.

Although early headlines said everyone on the Lusitania survived a German torpedo attack, nearly 1,200 people would lose their lives.