LONDON - Millvina Dean, the last survivor of the sinking of RMS Titanic, died yesterday in her sleep, her friend Gunter Babler said. She was 97.

Babler said Dean's longtime companion, Bruno Nordmanis, called him in Switzerland to say that Dean died at her nursing home in southern England, on the 98th anniversary of the launch of the ship that was billed as "practically unsinkable."

Dean was just over 2 months old when the Titanic hit an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912. The ship sank in less than three hours.

Dean was one of 706 people - mostly women and children - who survived. Her father was among the 1,517 who died.

Babler, who is head of the Switzerland Titanic Society, said Dean was a "very good friend of very many years."

The pride of the White Star line, the Titanic had a mahogany-paneled smoking room, a swimming pool and a squash court. But it did not have enough lifeboats for all of its 2,200 passengers and crew.

Dean's family were steerage passengers setting out from the English port of Southampton for a new life in the United States. Her father had sold his pub and hoped to open a tobacconists' shop in Kansas City, Mo., where his wife had relatives.

Four days out of port and about 380 miles southeast of Newfoundland, the Titanic hit an iceberg. The impact buckled the Titanic's hull and sent sea water pouring into six of its supposedly watertight compartments.

Dean said her father's quick actions saved his family. He felt the ship scrape the iceberg and hustled the family out of its third-class quarters and toward the lifeboat that would take them to safety. "That's partly what saved us - because he was so quick. Some people thought the ship was unsinkable," Dean told the British Broadcasting Corp. in 1998.

Wrapped in a sack against the Atlantic chill, Dean was lowered into a lifeboat. Her 2-year-old brother Bertram and her mother Georgette also survived.

"She said goodbye to my father and he said he'd be along later," Dean said in 2002.

"I was put into lifeboat 13. It was a bitterly cold night and eventually we were picked up by the Carpathia."

The family was taken to New York, then returned to England with other survivors aboard the rescue ship Adriatic. Dean did not know she had been aboard the Titanic until she was 8 years old, when her mother, about to remarry, told her about her father's death. Her mother, always reticent about the tragedy, died in 1975 at age 95.

Born in London on Feb. 2, 1912, Elizabeth Gladys "Millvina" Dean spent most of her life in the English seaside town of Southampton, Titanic's home port. She never married, and worked as a secretary, retiring in 1972 from an engineering firm.

She moved into a nursing home after breaking her hip about three years ago. She had to sell several Titanic mementos to raise funds, prompting her friends to set up a fund to subsidize her nursing home fees. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the stars of the film "Titanic," pledged their support to the fund last month.

Late in life, she visited Belfast to see where the ship was built, attended Titanic conventions around the world - where she was mobbed by autograph seekers - and participated in radio and television documentaries about the sinking.

Dean had no memories of the tragedy itself and said she preferred it that way. "I wouldn't want to remember, really," she said in 1997. She opposed attempts to raise the wreck 13,000 feet from the sea bed.

"I don't want them to raise it, I think the other survivors would say exactly the same," she said in 1997. "That would be horrible." *