Locals continue to remember man who lost life on Titanic

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(From left): Cemetery Coordinator Robert Pokorney II and volunteer John Kalkirtz stands by the grave of Albert Wirz, a victim of the Titanic tragedy. Wirz was on his way to start a new life in Beloit with his step aunt.

BELOIT — April 15 marks the 104th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic.

A 27-year-old Swiss man lost his life that night along with more than 1,500 passengers and crew in the North Atlantic Ocean. Young Albert Wirz had been traveling aboard the huge ocean liner to America to join his step-aunt, Maria Brown Urban at 1208 Fifth St., Beloit. Today Wirz is honored with a tombstone and special decoration at his grave in the city’s Oakwood Cemetery.

“His aunt’s and his dreams did not come true,” said Robert Pokorney II, Beloit Cemetery Coordinator. “But he still became a part of our community.”

Pokorney, Cemetery Clerk Sandy Day, and volunteer John Kalkirtz recently met to discuss Wirz and how he is still remembered long after his tragic death.

“You had all those people who perished, all with relatives and connections,” Kalkirtz said. “A well-tended cemetery helps bring them closure.”

Three victims were laid to rest in Wisconsin and only one is in Beloit.

“There is a lot of history in our local cemeteries,” Pokorney said. “And there are still relatives living in the area.”

Dan Wuthrich of Rockton, Ill., is related to Wirz.

Back on that fateful night in 1912, only 724 people survived the icy waters when the British passenger ship went down following its collision with an iceberg some three hours earlier. The ship carried 2,224 passengers and crew on this, her maiden voyage from Southampton, UK to New York City. The Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) also carried 100,000 pieces of mail.

“Love letters, cards, and parcels sank too. In a different way, many people lost closure with other loved ones,” Kalkirtz said.

The last living survivor of the Titanic’s maiden voyage died in 2009. British citizen Millvina Dean at 2 months old had been the youngest passenger on board.

Wirz would not be so lucky. He was traveling third class to Wisconsin with his friend, Anton Kink, who brought along his family to resettle in Milwaukee. Kink was able to escape in a lifeboat when his children cried out for him. The Titanic carried only enough lifeboats for roughly more than half its passengers. Some were among the wealthiest people in the world such as John Jacob Astor, while others like Wirz were emigrating from Europe to seek a new life in North America.

According to an article by Erica Pennington in the Beloit Daily News of April 14, 2012, Wirz’s body was recovered from the ocean nine days after the disaster. Officials of the White Star Line, operators of the Titanic and other major ocean liners, helped Wirz’s Beloit relatives identify him based on his clothing, watch, pen and other effects.

“Albert’s body arrived by train in Beloit during a blinding rain storm on May 11, 1912,” Wuthrich said.

Wirz’s funeral was held the following day, and he was laid to rest in an unmarked grave since his family could not afford a headstone.

“This is certainly a sad ending to one person’s dream,” Wuthrich said.

Wirz’s gravesite was identified by only a plot number until 1996 when the founder of the Swiss Titanic Society donated a commemorative stone.

Wirz is buried in the section called “singles” near the “potters field” area. Clerk Day helps cemetery visitors find Wirz’s and others’ locations with maps kept in the cemetery office and offered on-line.

“When people phone, I can help them walk directly to the spot,” Day said.

Tourists still visit Wirz’s grave as well as those of some of Beloit’s historical figures such as the Blodgett family and explorer Roy Chapman Andrews.

“It’s my hope that visitors will learn not just about the Titanic, but about the whole community,” Kalkirtz said.

He is one of the main volunteers who helps locate stones that have been damaged over time or sunk below ground, then cleans and restores them.

Seasonal helper Laura Dodson built a life preserver decoration to honor Wirz and make it easy for visitors to find his grave. Pokorney said that someday it will be replaced by a real life preserver.

Visitors may phone the cemetery office at 608-364-2876 10 a.m. - 2 p.m., Monday through Friday for location help and cemetery advice.

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