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Tourists in Heart of Ocean Ponder Fate of the Titanic

ASSOCIATED PRESS

In the deepest black of the ocean, the tiny egg-shaped craft glides toward the wreck like a curious spaceship from another world.

Up the enormous hull it climbs, over the mangled decks. Hovering by the hole that was once the grand staircase, it pauses just long enough for passengers to glimpse a chandelier. Then it’s off again, flying by cabins and capstans, plunging past rivers of rust, skirting the jagged overhangs by the promenade deck where the rich and famous once strolled.

Squashed beside a pilot in the 7-foot cockpit of a 26-foot submarine, the two tourists gasp.

Titanic.

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Nose to nose with the great ship’s bow, they are deeper than almost anyone has dived. Barely two inches of nickel and steel separate them from eternity.

“Magnificent,” whistles one. “Like a ghost.”

The submersible shudders and swings to the right, banging into one of the tears of rust that drip from the wreck like stalactites. Sediment swirls around the portholes. For a moment it seems as if they’re lost.

The pilot frowns. The radio crackles. The tourists fall silent.

At 12,500 feet, no one doubts the power of the “unsinkable” Titanic to drag down a few more victims.

Or of nature to blow technology to shreds.

They wore fleeces and hats and heavy jumpsuits. They packed Styrofoam cups into exterior baskets and watched as the pressure (6,000 pounds per square inch) compressed them to the size of a thimble. They brought cameras. And they brought questions.

Do tourists really belong here? Does anyone?

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This summer a dozen sightseers paid $32,500 each to be ferried to the middle of the North Atlantic and dropped into the ocean in an 18-ton sphere. They spent 14 hours in a cold, cramped three-person submersible, after free-falling to one of the most inhospitable places on earth, with little to do during the descent except watch the plankton swirl and contemplate their reason for being there.

What did they hope to accomplish in their glowing cocoon, creeping through the remains of another era, past other people’s teacups and suitcases and bedsprings? Were they reverent pilgrims come to pay their last respects, or brash intruders desecrating sacred ground?

The answers lie on the ocean floor.

The World Reduced to an Undersea Bubble

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Resting in her lonely berth about 400 miles southeast of Newfoundland, Titanic is majestic and ghostly and eerily frail. The only natural light is the blue-green glow of the luminescent fish that dance around her bow. The only air is inside the white and orange sphere that keeps the visitors alive.

On April 14, 1912, the world’s most luxurious passenger liner steamed into an iceberg and split apart with a wrenching roar, scattering more than 1,500 bodies into the ocean. Their cries, wrote one survivor, echoed across the water “like locusts on a midsummer’s night.”

Eighty-six years later, the beep, beep, beep of sonar echoes across the same spot, like a heartbeat monitor reassuring visitors they are safe.

But they can’t escape the cries of those who went before. Or the tremors they feel as they squeeze through the submersible’s narrow opening and hear the hatch slammed shut.

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“The night before my dive, the sea was so dark and I was looking out of my cabin, wondering about all those people who had died, and how they had probably looked out of their cabins at the same sea,” said Heike Schnellbach, a 33-year-old from Wiesbaden, Germany, who won her dive in a contest. “That is when I really wondered what I was doing here.”

The first Titanic tourists included five Americans, five Germans, an Australian and a Briton. They boarded a 400-foot Russian science ship, the Akademic Keldysh, at St. John’s, Newfoundland, and spent 36 hours heading south. For the next seven days they lived at sea, floating over Titanic’s grave.

Titanic sank just south of the Grand Banks, where the cold Labrador Current collides with the warm Gulf Stream, churning up some of the roughest seas on earth. The weather is notoriously unpredictable here, changing from sunny to stormy in hours. The greatest danger, as the tourists were reminded, is not the safety of the submersibles--Mir 1 and Mir 2--but the fickleness of nature.

Reliving a Scene of Terror

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“Attention all passengers. We are arriving at the Titanic site.”

The message booms through the ship’s intercom and everyone hurries on deck. The morning is warm and sunny, so peaceful it’s hard to focus on sorrow. Those who try soon give up. In silence, they watch the crew drop four acoustic transponders that will form an electronic grid around the wreck, navigation guides for divers below.

“I keep trying to remind myself of the people clinging to the sides and the screaming and the horror,” says Anne White, a 63-year-old retired teacher from Taunton, England. “But I just can’t.”

On the ocean floor, reminders are everywhere.

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Titanic’s wreckage is strewn over at least a mile, the bow resting nearly 2,000 feet from the stern. In the middle is the so-called debris field, dotted by great chunks of black coal, some decorated with feathery pink plants, others with delicate white spider crabs. An occasional rattail fish swims by. Nothing else moves but the sub.

Scattered amid the coal are fragments of everyday life. Wine bottles and teapots, a hot-water bottle, a comb, a toilet bowl--images so stark, so ordinary, they will haunt some divers for days.

Mir 2 lands next to a shiny white plate that sits upright on the sand as though it was dropped there yesterday. In the center, the red flag and white star insignia of Titanic’s owner, the White Star Line. Two and a half miles above, on the white linen tables of the Keldysh, other tourists dine off replica plates.

A murky shape looms in the right-hand porthole. A suitcase, perhaps, or a chest.

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“Books,” cries one passenger. “It’s a bookcase.”

So it is, covered in sediment, bent and misshapen, barely recognizable, but still doing its job. A couple of thick leather-bound books are tucked into the top shelf, so close they look as if you could dust off the jackets and start reading.

Evgeny Cherniaev, the 43-year-old Russian pilot, an intensely serious man who knows the wreck as well as anyone, allows himself a smile. He has made hundreds of submersible dives, including 25 to the Titanic. He piloted James Cameron in 1995 when the film director was shooting scenes for his movie.

But Cherniaev has never seen the bookcase before, never landed at this section of the wreck.

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“Titanic,” he says softly, “shows you something different every dive.”

He guides the spotlights past the books to the shadowy outline of a pair of shoes, spaced a few inches apart in the sand. Large and flat, they look like a man’s.

“Size 9 1/2,” guesses one of the passengers, breaking the shiver of unease that has crept into the cockpit.

Quietly, they discuss who might have worn them. Perhaps one of the band members who played ragtime on the decks as the last lifeboats were lowered. Or one of the young radio operators, so swamped with messages from passengers eager to try the new Marconi system that they ignored six iceberg warnings from other ships.

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Could the shoes have belonged to Capt. Edward J. Smith, known as the “millionaires’ captain” for his loyal following of wealthy transatlantic passengers? Smith had planned to retire after Titanic’s maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. Had he ended his career clinging to a bookcase as it sank to the bottom of the world?

“It took the ship 2 1/2 hours to sink,” whispers one of the tourists. “And it has taken us 2 1/2 hours to get here. I wonder how long it took the owner of those shoes?”

“Shoes,” Cherniaev says with a shrug. “We will see many shoes.”

The enormity of the tragedy hits some divers in the debris field. A copper kitchen pot reminds an Australian restaurateur of the pots he cooks with back home. The captain’s porcelain bathtub, gleaming white against the murky hole that was once his cabin, unsettles a German woman’s sleep.

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Others are moved by the fallen mast and the empty space of the crow’s nest, where lookout Frederick Fleet shouted “Iceberg right ahead” and rang the alarm three times.

For some, the enormous black hull, with its endless rows of portholes, glass still intact, reminds them of Titanic’s size--and shocking vulnerability.

“You see the size,” says Pat Brown, a 35-year-old undertaker from Vallejo, Calif., “and you are reminded how small you are.”

For many, living above Titanic’s grave was reminder enough.

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Rocked by the waves where so many lost their lives, they pondered the arrogance of those who built an 882-foot luxury liner, equipped it with Turkish baths and a Parisian cafe--and only enough lifeboats for half on board. They wondered about the rigidity of a class system where emigrants from steerage were far less likely to survive than millionaires from first class. And they talked about the gallantry of a bygone era when the band played on, women and children were lowered into lifeboats first, and gentlemen changed into dinner jackets to die.

What would happen today, they wondered, if the Keldysh hit an iceberg, or one of the submersibles sprung a leak? Would they witness the same muddled acts of bravery and desperation? Would wealth matter?

And what of their own little society on the ship? Like Titanic, the Keldysh was making the voyage of a lifetime. Like Titanic, it carried a mixture of people who might never have mingled otherwise: wealthy adventurers, lucky contest winners who had won “Titanic Dive” prizes in Europe and Australia, journalists. Like Titanic, its crew, including a dozen scientists, were more worried about survival than adventure.

With little government money in Russia for science, they had leased their ship to tourists, as they had to filmmakers in the past. It seems the only solution if the Keldysh is to continue exploring ocean beds around the world.

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“Like us, the passengers on the Titanic took it for granted they were safe,” says Anne White. “Like us, if something goes wrong, the ocean will make equals of us all.”

‘Going Somewhere Few Will Ever Go’

For the most part, such reflections came later. On dive days, the drama of watching the submersibles swung by a crane over the side of the ship and dropped into the heaving sea took everyone’s mind off the tragedy.

“There is so much going on in terms of the technology,” says Buck Kamphausen, 59, another undertaker from Vallejo who also runs a commercial diving company. “During the dive, the submersible earns all your respect.”

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Others confessed an uncomfortable guilt at not feeling more.

“You get so caught up in the adventure of it,” says Oliver Hesse, a 24-year-old student from Berlin, pale and silent before his dive, ecstatic as he drank a celebratory beer afterward. “There are just a few of us and we are going somewhere few will ever go, seeing something that will be gone in a generation.”

Scientists aren’t sure how long the Titanic will survive, but they agree that she doesn’t have much time. The iron-eating rusticles that lend her such grace are consuming her. Within decades Titanic will likely collapse into a heap on the ocean floor.

Submersibles have undoubtedly accelerated the process. Since Titanic was discovered in 1985, scientists, explorers, salvors and filmmakers have all left their mark. This summer, an American salvage company, which earlier retrieved thousands of Titanic artifacts, yanked up a 26-by-20-foot segment of hull.

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Titanic’s debris field is now littered with modern debris--sacks of weights and ropes that some submersibles drop as ballast to ascend to the surface. The Mirs drop only water, but they, too, lose small parts or bump into pieces of the wreck during dives.

On this expedition, the Mirs made four dives each over a five-day period, ushering 16 visitors to the deep.

Before the dives, the tourists immersed themselves in Titanic lore, learning about the history of the ship, those who built her and those who sailed in her. They studied the wreck and the technology that would take them there: hydraulics and navigation, sonar imaging and emergency systems. They learned what not to lean against during their 2 1/2-hour descent.

They were told that they would dive with enough food and oxygen for three days. And that they would see no bodies on the ocean floor.

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Anatoly Sagalevitch, head of the manned submersible laboratory of the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Moscow, which owns the Mirs, wrestled at first with the idea of guiding tourists to Titanic. More people have gone into space than have dived so deep, he thought. Perhaps it was better to let history be.

Piloting the first dive, he had no qualms.

“Titanic makes people think,” Sagalevitch says, “about good and bad, about bravery and cowardice, about how small we are as humans and how fragile life is. Most of all, it makes us think more deeply about how we should lead our lives.”

Munching ham and cheese sandwiches in the red glow of their submersible, suspended over Titanic’s bridge, the tourists have no misgivings. Sure, they feel uneasy as they bump the ocean floor. Sure, they contemplate their own mortality. And yes, they can’t wait to show the world their little compressed coffee cups and boast, “I had lunch on the Titanic.”

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But as they gaze at the shiny bronze pedestal that was once the ship’s wheel, as they listen to the theme song from the movie, as they say a silent prayer for those who died, no one doubts their right to be here.

“I think the dive changes you a little,” says Hendrik Hey, a 33-year-old television producer from Munich. “And I think the change will stay with you for the rest of your life.”

When they surface, they will be criticized--by descendants of victims, among others--who say the wreck is a mass grave that should be left alone. They will be vilified in a Russian newspaper as thrill-seeking “nouveaux riches” with nothing better to do than fling their money at ghosts. They will be threatened with legal action.

Soaring above Titanic’s bow, they know exactly what they will say.

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That to visit this place is to honor it. That to learn about the dead, and remember them, is to respect them. That crunched into an underwater sphere in the cold and the dark, they have never been so sure of the limits of mankind, the vulnerability of technology, the power of nature.

That the tragedy of the Titanic, which one survivor said “made the world rub its eyes and awake,” still has the power to do so.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Titanic History

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Facts about Titanic, which split apart and sank April 14, 1912, killing about 1,500 passengers and crew after it struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic:

* The largest moving object ever built by man. At 882 feet, 8 inches, it was as long as four New York City blocks and as tall as an 11-story building.

* The first ocean liner with a swimming pool and a gymnasium. The “Queen of the Ocean” also boasted Turkish baths, a kennel for first-class dogs, a 50-phone switchboard, a jeweled copy of the Rubaiyat and 6,000 tons of coal.

* Titanic took about 2 1/2 hours to sink. Lookout Frederick Fleet spotted the iceberg at 11:40 p.m. At 2:20 a.m., Titanic’s stern vanished into the ocean.

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* Number on board: about 2,210, including about 900 crew. Only 705 survived.

* Titanic’s most prominent passenger was John Jacob Astor, a real-estate mogul worth $100 million. He went down with his Airedale, Kitty. His pregnant wife survived.

* Other notable victims include Isidor Straus, founder of Macy’s department store, and his wife, Ida; millionaire playboy Benjamin Guggenheim, traveling with his mistress, Madame Aubert of Paris (who survived); and George Widner, heir to the largest fortune in Philadelphia.

* J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, which owned Titanic, survived the disaster but not public scorn. He was vilified in the press as “J. Brute Ismay.”

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* The band played ragtime as lifeboats were lowered. Legend has it that their last number was “Nearer My God to Thee.”

* Titanic’s maiden voyage had an ominous start. The luxury liner narrowly avoided colliding with another ship, the New York, as it pulled out of Southampton harbor.

* Two baby boys from France, who became known as the Titanic waifs, survived. They had been kidnapped by their father, who boarded the ship under an assumed name and put them in the last lifeboat. They were later reunited with their mother.


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