Edith Grace Hanagan was born in Oshawa, Ont., on May 16, 1907 and was the daughter of Edward James and Edith Emily (Collishaw) Hanagan. Later she moved with her parents to Toronto because her father was the bandmaster of the Salvation Army.
On May 28, 1914, Grace's father was taking her and her mother along with other Salvation Army members (like the Evans family, Staff Captain Meyers, Mr. and Mrs. Maidment, the Leader of the Salvation Army Commissioner David Rees and his family, and others) on the Empress of Ireland that would take them from Quebec City to Liverpool, England for the third International Congress, following which there would be a holiday for their family. Meanwhile, her father conducted the orchestra on the ship in the afternoon. And as they did at 4:27 in the afternoon, they started to set sail. When they started Grace and her father’s boss Commissioner David Rees’s son Harold went on a tour of the ship. To her it was beautiful like a lovely hotel and she was quite thrilled with it. After that she and her parents went to dinner in the ship's second class dining room at 7:00 and then they prepared to turn in for the night. Grace refused to sleep in a berth that was next to a porthole as she believed this would be "where the water will come in", the memory of the sinking of the RMS Titanic that sank two years earlier, still fresh in everyone’s mind.
Grace's premonition was correct because on that very night she and her parents were woken up by a noise that sounded like a firecracker (to her.) They didn’t know what it was until Edward said that it was the pilot coming for the mail then they didn’t bother about it. But then somebody came into their cabin and told them to get out because the Empress of Ireland is sinking. So Grace and her parents ran out as they were, and they finally got out on the deck. On deck they ran into Ensign Ernest Pugmire, Edward asked for Pugmire's overcoat so he could wrap it around Grace, so he gave it to them. The ship list so far on it's side that Grace and her parents couldn't use lifeboats, so they went up on the high part of the railing and sat there along with the Evans family until the ship went down and the three of them were thrown into the water. Grace went under the water twice until she finally got a hold of a piece of wreckage. She then lost sight of her parents in the panicking crowd in the water. A few minutes later Grace saw a couple of lifeboats and she called for help. One crowded boat came over and the people in the lifeboat pulled Grace in. In the lifeboat, Grace lost consciousness, and woke up in a bed on the Storstad (the ship that collided with the Empress and it woke her and her parents up), asking for her mother.
Grace was then taken to a Hospital in Rimouski. And then the next day the hospital arranged for a train to take her and some other survivors back to Toronto, with Mrs. Atwell (another survivor) watching over her. Before she went to the hospital, an officer promised to find her mother, and Grace clung to that promise even after seeing her father's dead body in Toronto Mortuary. She still thought her mother would still come but she never did. In a year Grace assumed that her mother was really dead.
Following the death of her parents, Grace lived with her grandparents, uncle, and aunt; her uncle became her legal guardian. She eventually went on to live in Niagara Falls, working for the Salvation Army. Every year on the anniversary of the sinking she went to Toronto to place a wreath at a cemetery monument honoring the Empress victims, but mostly her parents. She even had a photo of her taken with nine other Salvation Army members that survived the sinking, (Thomas and Margaret Greenaway, David MacAmmond, Ernest Green, Rufus Spooner, Alfred Keith, Mary Atwell, and Frank and Henrietta Brooks) in 1934 And missed only two years. When she grew older she married Maurice Martyn, became Grace Martyn, had one son name Gordon how became a doctor, and settled in St. Catharine’s, Ontario. In 1992, she was reported to be in the Toronto area, and attending Highland Road Baptist Church. But even after all of those years, she still felt close to her parents in the water before they were killed. And she still had nightmares over the tragedy, because ever since she survived the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, a tap of water running in the bathtub would frighten her into terrible shivers and once again experience the panic of going down in the water. She didn’t talk about the disaster unless somebody brought up the subject. Except for one time at school, when she did a composition about the Empress.
At 78 years old and feeling pretty well despite a number of heart attacks in recent years, Grace believed there were other survivors from the Empress that were still alive. One of them was Ron Fergusin, the wireless operator on the Empress of Ireland. She got in touch with him on Christmas in 1985 when he was living in or near Chelmsford, England, at 91 years old.
Grace also kept in contact with some other survivors and Salvation Army members until they died. She remained very involved with the Empress of Ireland throughout her life. And she was never portrayed as a celebrity after the tragedy. "Nor would I want to be," she says.
Grace Hanagan Martyn died in St. Catharines, Ontario, just one day before her 88th birthday and two weeks before the 1995 memorial service.