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'The ship looked like an enormous toy full of lights'

TO A four-year-old boy, unable to grasp the historical scale of what was happening, the dying ship looked like "an enormous toy full of lights". Michel Navratil says he cannot remember being afraid. "For a long time I followed my father [on the ship] with my eyes until the lifeboat drifted away ..."

The 90-year-old Frenchman, one of only seven living survivors of the Titanic, spoke to his local newspaper last week, in what may well prove to be the final public account of the disaster.

Navratil remembers that on the night of the wreck he ate fried eggs with his father and brother in the ship's dining room, which was festooned with lights "as if for a party". Later, the two boys were sleeping in their second-class cabin when their father woke them: "He quickly dressed us in warm clothes and took us up to the deck," Navratil told Midi-Libre in his home town of Montpellier. While his two-year-old brother Edmond was put into a lifeboat, Michel's father took him in his arms, saying: "Maman will come and get you. Tell her that I have always loved her, and that I still love her."

The story of how Navratil came to be aboard the doomed ship is extraordinary in itself. His father, separated from his mother, borrowed a friend's passport, snatched his two sons and fled France for the New World. Navratil says his father "had no intention of ever taking us back, and since he knew he was at fault, he chose to change his name to Hoffman". As it turned out it was the father who never saw his sons again.

Some years ago, Navratil was taken back to the site of the disaster. He said that he had felt a "strange sort of sadness", as the image returned to him of his father standing on the deck "upright, proud and resigned to death".

Navratil, who became a Professor of Psychology, dismisses the legend that the band struck up a hymn as the boat sank, saying: "I never heard the hymn Nearer my God to Thee being sung, nor did I see passengers panicking or kneeling down to pray."

Their lifeboat was spotted by the liner Carpathia and they were taken on board to safety, apparently an event more upsetting than the actual flight from the sinking ship. "What shocked me most in the whole rescue was being hoisted up the length of the hull like a sack of potatoes."

Fascination with the disaster has lived on in the next generation of Navratils. Michel's daughter Elisabeth is an opera director who has created a play on the Titanic theme which opens in Paris later this month. Meanwhile her father plans to see the new film, which came out in France last week, and says he is pleased it has been made.

The other living survivors are all women. They include Barbara West of Plymouth and Millvina Dean of Southampton, who were both babies at the time and have no recollections of the disaster. At 85, Mrs Dean last year visited the house in Kansas City that her family were going to live in before the iceberg claimed her father's life. She says she won't be going to see Titanic. "I would hate that because I think all the time that perhaps my father was one of the people who was caught in all the panic." She plans to attend a reception before a screening of the film at a cinema in Southampton, but won't stay for the film itself.

There are also three American survivors and another from France.

Lucy Reid