Sunday, April 14, 1912. The night was clear and cold. There was no moon and no wind, and the enormous luxury liner, the RMS Titanic, was steaming across the Atlantic at full speed. Called "The Millionaire's Special" and "The Last Word in Luxury", it was nearly nine hundred feet long, held together with three million rivets and weighing over forty-six thousand tons when unloaded. Four days into its maiden voyage from England to New York City, it boasted two thousand, two hundred and twenty-three passengers, plus crew. Built with sixteen watertight compartments, it could still float if as many as four somehow filled with water. It was considered one of the safest ships at sea, and the builders claimed that even God couldn't sink the Titanic.
|Ken Marschall has done many beautiful paintings of the Titanic, including this one.|
At the urging of J. Bruce Ismay - president of White Star Line, the company that owned the ship - Captain E.J. Smith had kept the great ship moving at a top speed of twenty-one knots, despite the fact that they were steaming into an area known to be full of icebergs. Ismay hoped to arrive in New York early and surprise everyone with the speed of the titan. But at 11:40 p.m., the lookout Frederick Fleet called the bridge with a message - iceberg right ahead!
The ship reversed and turned to port, and for just a moment it seemed that they were out of danger. But then the iceberg scraped along the starboard side, leaving a three-hundred foot gash in the metal siding and filling six of the ship's watertight compartments.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
|Another Ken Marschall depiction.|
Fast forward one hundred years and four days later to Thursday, April 19, 2012. It's a quarter after six in the evening, and my family is seated in the Ryan Center of the University of Rhode Island, waiting for a presentation to begin.
Several years ago, I watched James Cameron's blockbuster Titanic movie and fell in love with Jack and Rose's story. And so I began digging deeper, researching the real history of the ship. I was obsessed, and everyone around me knew it. So when my aunt saw that Dr. Robert Ballard - the man who discovered the wreck of the Titanic in September of 1985 - was speaking at URI, she sent along the information to me, and I appealed to Mom. Which is why on Thursday, my family was part of the crowd of several thousand who gathered to see his presentation. (And of course, seeing as we're kind of taking a break from school right now, it also served as our school lesson of the day!)
|Dr. Robert Ballard himself.|
Before Ballard, there had been three teams and four trips whose goal was to discover the wreck of the Titanic. One of them had used sonar to sweep an enormous area of a hundred square miles, missing the Titanic by mere meters.
And then there was Dr. Ballard. He talked about how in 1985, his real mission wasn't to actually find the Titanic. That was his cover story - in fact, he and his French/American team was working for the Navy to discover the wrecks of two submarines, the USS Scorpion and the USS Thresher, which sank in the 1960s carrying nuclear reactors. Previous missions to find the Titanic had taken up to sixty days and still didn't find the wreck. After searching for the submarines, Dr. Ballard had only six days to look for the ship. But unlike those previous missions, he didn't search for the ship itself - he calculated the general area where the debris field would be and used sonar to search there instead.
At first when they came across scattered wreckage, they didn't know that they were looking at the Titanic's debris field. It was an area full of underwater rubble from World War II, and the team assumed that's what they were looking at - until they came across a boiler. It was then that they realized they were looking at the wreck of the Titanic.
Soon afterwards, they found the hull as well.
Using underwater robots, they were able to photograph and videotape the wreck. They were careful not to disturb it, but after the ship's discovery, divers knew exactly where to go. And not all of them were as careful as Dr. Ballard.
In his slideshow, he showed comparison photos which showed the marks where submarines landed on the deck and caved in areas of it. Treasure hunters had taken artifacts from the wreck, and litter has since begun to collect on the ship.
Robert Ballard is against this. He wants to conserve the wreck, and he's hoping to turn it into a historical monument, where people can "visit" without destroying it. He also wants to clean up the wreck and paint it, using special underwater equipment, to preserve it for years and years to come.
At the end of his presentation, he answered questions that the audience had texted in, and one person in attendance asked a very good one: What is it about the Titanic that makes it so much more famous than other shipwrecks?
To answer, he used the RMS Lusitania as an example. It was also a luxurious liner, made by White Star Line's competitor Cunard Line; it had a number of renowned people on board, including the millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt; and when it sank, the loss of life was nearly the same as that on the Titanic. The difference between the two ships is that the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat during World War I and sank in eighteen minutes. The Titanic, on the other hand, stayed afloat for three hours after striking the iceberg, leaving plenty of time for the last moments of the passengers and crew, the various heroics and "cowardices", to be seen and remembered.
|Isidor and Ida Straus|
And so, Dr. Ballard said, when we think of the Titanic we think of stories like that of Ida and Isidor Straus. When the older couple tried to board a lifeboat together, Isidor wasn't allowed on. "Women and children only," the officer said, and Ida climbed back out of the lifeboat to be with her husband. "As we have lived, so we will die, together," she said, and they did. Or we think of J. Bruce Ismay, the president of White Star Line, who left behind the other men and slipped aboard a lifeboat to save his own life.
There are stories of people who bravely went down with the ship and people who boarded lifeboats instead. And that's what makes the Titanic so famous - because the ship was like a stage for all examples of humanity, and we often wonder: what would I have done?
We can't truly know, not without being put in that position. And that's what is so intriguing about the tragedy. It's like a fictional story, full of drama and suspense and sadness; but the catch is that it actually occurred.
That's what fascinated me years ago, and what still draws me in to this day. And it's why I wanted so badly to hear Dr. Robert Ballard speak. Because the whole story is so timeless, so haunting and heartbreaking, and I doubt I'll ever lose interest in it. Hopefully someday, I'll be able to "visit" the wreck with underwater cameras; but until then, I'm content to research and learn in any way I can. So thank you, Mom and Dad, for taking me - it really means a lot to me!