Sharon George considers her great-grandmother the "most fascinating person in my family" even though she never met her. "Hearing about her, and reading about her, and listening to my relatives talk about her, I feel some kind of connection to her," said George, 46, of Jefferson Township, Pa. Her great-grandmother, Shanini George Wahabe, a Lebanese immigrant, was one of only 714 survivors or the Titanic. More than 1,200 passengers and crew died in the disaster 100 years ago off the coast of Newfoundland. "She was the matriarch of the family and was loved by everyone," said George. "I know you have a tendency to put your deceased on a pedestal, but she represents what is the very best of the George family.” George spent years researching her great-grandmother's background, discovering the story of a woman who typified an immigrant's dream of a better life in America. “Her personality was incredibly strong, but she was also very soft and mild and non-confrontational," said George. “She was very sentimental and affectionate. She had this profound sense of caring for others that was amazing, yet she was probably stronger than any one of us." George said her great-grandmother was "profoundly saddened by the fact that all these other people lost their loved ones” on the Titanic. Her journey from Lebanon to America began after her marriage to George Joseph Wahabe and five children, said George. She decided, against her husband’s wishes, to come to America in 1906 to earn enough money to buy land for her family and build a house in Lebanon. "She got on a ship by herself, going to a country where she did not speak the language and where immigrants were not treated well, and once there, got a job, made some money going from door to door washing people’s clothes,” said George. But after two years in America, Shanini got word that her husband had died. That was in 1908, and by 1910, Shanini managed to get four of her five children – Joseph, Thomas, Rose and Mary – into America, settling in Youngstown, Ohio. The fifth child, George's grandfather, Albert, remained in Lebanon to maintain the family home. He was around 11 or 12 at the time. In 1910, she sent sons Joseph and Thomas back to Lebanon in hopes of improving Thomas’ health, but by early 1911, he was getting worse. So she left her daughters in the care of an orphanage to go back to Lebanon to be with him. “It took Shanini a month to get to Lebanon, and by the time she got there, Thomas had died just days before,” Sharon said. “She never really emotionally recovered from his death. Then she needed to work in Lebanon to earn enough money for her passage back to the U.S. as well as get things in order.” By the time she did, about a year later, it was the spring of 1912, and she booked passage on the Titanic's maiden voyage. “Her ticket was approximately four pounds and four shillings, around $30 dollars in those days and about $350 in today’s money,” said George. Shanini was traveling aboard the Titanic with a group of about 165 Lebanese immigrants in the third-class cabins, said George. Then midnight of April 14, 1912, approached. According to historical records, the Titanic hit an iceberg around 11:40 p.m. It sank less than three hours later. “Shanini did not even know what was going on," said George. “She did not speak English very well. There was sheer chaos." Despite that, said George, it was the first-class male passengers who went down into steerage and escorted Shanini and others there to the upper decks, and then into lifeboats. According to a 1937 Sharon, Pa., Herald article, Shanini described her rescuers as “very finely dressed in their beautiful suits.” “The first class passengers had this sense of honor and chivalry,” said George. “Even though they were very class conscious, they not only stood aside, but they actively participated in saving the life of my great-grandmother.” After her rescue, said George, her great-grandmother was reunited with her two daughters. She said she didn’t dwell on her Titanic experience, but did file a $150 claim for her lost luggage. She resumed her laundry washing and eventually earned enough money to bring sons Joseph and Albert to America. Still, within a year of the sinking, 38-year-old Shanini’s beautiful black hair turned completely white, her great-granddaughter said. She would also have nightmares to the end of her life and wake up saying she could hear the ship sinking and the screams of those left behind. “Without her, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you,” said George. “Without her there would be nothing. It’s an honor for all of us that we have a biological piece of her; that part of her blood is in our blood.”
Details for this story were provided by "Views and Voices" magazine of Sharon, Pa., from a 2008 interview with Sharon George.