Orvin Truman Havey


"...The water was coming down the gangways..."

Orvin Truman (aka O.T.) Havey grew up in Windsor, Wisconsin and learned to swim in Token Creek. He never dreamed that some day his swimming skills would save his life.

After graduating from DeForest High School, O.T. set out to become an electrical engineer. He got a job as an apprentice wireman at the Western Electric Company located in Chicago.

On Saturday, July 24, 1915, O.T. arrived early and boarded the Eastland. "Being a young fellow, I liked to dance, so I went downstairs to the lowest level to the dance hall," he said. "I danced with one girl, and then the whistles blew; it was time to pull out. I started to go upstairs, and God, the boat started to list."

"All of a sudden, the piano let loose and slid across the room. It ran into somebody and they yelled. They all were yelling. It was like the room was tipping over on its side."

"The water was coming down the gangways. You couldn't even get near the stairways."

"Hell, I dove out into the water and started swimming."

"By that time, everything was falling into the river, people, lunch baskets, chairs, everything imaginable!"

Meanwhile, his future wife, Mary Bernice Parmenter, also a Western Electric Company employee - although they'd not yet met - watched the tragedy from the shore. "It was the worst mess you ever saw," Mary said.

O.T. continued: "I swam away and grabbed onto the side of a tugboat. One of the fellows grabbed my hand. I grabbed a 4-year-old child; that saved her life. We got pulled into the tug. We tipped the little girl over and got the water out of her lungs."

O.T. stated that the 800 persons trapped in the state rooms and dance hall "were trapped in there like rats" as the Eastland rolled onto its side and settled in the muck.

O.T. said later he wandered into a saloon to call his landlord to see if he and his four sons were alright (one drowned). The operator told him no one was home.

"Then the Irish bartender saw me," said O.T. I was still dripping wet. The bartender said, "Say, lad, you was in the water." I remember that, because no one ever called me 'lad' before.

"He filled up a whole glass of whiskey. He said, 'Take this and swallow it all.' I never had whiskey before. I swallowed and coughed but I got it down. Then he went over and got me another glass and he said I'd better drink that. I really got drunk."

The next day, O.T. went with others who had been in the water to get typhoid shots. The doctor told he that he couldn't have done anything any better than to have that whiskey."

After that, he went with his landlord to the Second Regiment Armory to identify his dead son.

"There were 800 bodies lying in there," O.T. said. "It was a hell of a mess."

O.T. met Mary at Western Electric after the tragedy. Then he moved to Detroit before joining the Army in World War I. They were married after the war.

O.T. ran the O.T. Havey Electric Company in Madison, Wisconsin for years. They had two daughters, Marianne and Barbara.

[courtesy Wisconsin State Journal, circa 1975]

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