By Bob Uphues
A week ago, the Landmark ran a piece about a Riverside connection to the Eastland Disaster of 1915, which resulted in the deaths of more than 800 people.
On the heels of that story, Bill Sherman, who is Riverside's deputy fire chief and the department's historian, passed along word that a Riverside resident who was also a volunteer fireman had survived another shipping disaster from 1915 – the infamous sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland by a German submarine during World War I.
The Lusitania sunk in May, just two months before the Eastland Disaster. It provoked international outrage and helped sway public opinion in the U.S. against Germany – the country would enter the war on the side of the Allied Powers in 1917.
Nearly 1,200 people, 128 of them Americans, went down with the ship while about 760 survived. One of those survivors was 38-year-old Edwin Martin "Tip" Collis, a Commonwealth Edison employee and Riverside resident since the 1870s.
Collis was making a business trip to England aboard the boat and, according to a Riverside News article published shortly after the ship's sinking, had left town "filled with enthusiasm and expectations of a royal experience."
Although the Riverside Fire Department's rolls name Collis as a member from 1932-36 (when he would have been in his late 50s), he was apparently a longtime volunteer. He shows up in a Riverside News article as responding to a fire in 1912.
According to another Riverside News article about Collis' experience aboard the Lusitania, headlined "Tells a thrilling story," the Riverside man was leaning over a starboard side railing having a smoke when he personally witnessed the torpedo speeding toward the boat.
"It was some hundreds of feet away, but it came on very swiftly, leaving a white wake of seething bubbles," Collis is quoted as saying by a Chicago Daily News correspondent from London, who cabled the story to America. "I thought it must be some big fish – a shark or a porpoise, perhaps. Then it hit the Lusitania's side with a crash and a great column of steam, water and wreckage went flying up."
Collis' first instinct was to go back to his second-class cabin and grab his wallet. His second was to grab a life vest.
Back on deck, Collis witnessed a life boat plunge into the sea and smash to pieces, leaving its passengers struggling in the sea. He and a couple of other passengers grabbed wooden deck chairs and flung them over the side to the people in the water.
Collis was able to board a lifeboat, which was still lashed to the sinking ship by a heavy rope.
"There were only a few seconds to spare. In frantic haste the people began to search their pockets for knives. Then I remembered my own pearl-handled pocket knife," Collis is quoted as saying. "I had it out in an instant and hacked away at the rope that was dragging us under.
"It was a tough job. The rope was thick and I began to fear that I should not manage to sever it in time. But I did, though it put a saw edge on my knife."
About an hour later, the lifeboat reached a fishing boat and the survivors, including Collis were transferred to a tug boat which landed them safely at the harbor in Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland.
Collis also recounted helping bring ashore the dead, laying them at various morgues and even identifying a couple of the Lusitania's crewmen.
He told the correspondent that he'd already booked passage home on an American ship, saying, "I have had enough of English vessels in war time."