The Titanic, 106 years later

Once one of the wonders of a noisy industrial age, she now rests on a gentle incline on the seafloor enveloped in complete silence. A single davit that was used to launch collapsible lifeboat C reaches out over the bow section of the wreck, as if plaintively beckoning to a visitor that will never come to this lonely, frigid world. I understand that it is difficult to imagine the degree of blackness at a depth of over 12,000 feet.

The two sections of the once proud liner, prematurely hailed as mankind's ultimate conquest of the ocean, now lie nearly 2,000 feet apart. The stern, which sank directly to the bottom, suffered damage so massive it is hardly recognizable, although blades from Titanic's 23-foot starboard wing propeller still protrude from the seabed. Her gigantic reciprocating engines are visible amongst the fallen beams in the vessel's skeletal interior.

Because of its more gradual descent to the bottom, the bow section is largely intact. Dives to the wreck that utilize remote control vehicles capable of entering the ship's interior reveal facets of a gilded world that enabled the rich and famous to cross the Atlantic in a style that matched the most sumptuous of European hotels. A gold clock rests on a fireplace mantel; intricately patterned tiles still adorn the Turkish bath; a rust draped bathtub is visible through the collapsed walls of the captain's cabin; crystal light fixtures still dangle from ceilings.

They remain, for the present, recognizable symbols of another age. But, like the age itself, everything resting in this silent world will inevitably fall victim to time and the elements.

Legends, too, are vulnerable to the ruthlessness of time. We have a propensity for adding a sugary frosting of legend upon even the most dramatically potent historical events. The short history of the RMS Titanic has not been exempt from embellishment.

Although the word "unsinkable" was popularly applied to the Olympic-class ships, the White Star Line never adopted it to promote the superliners. Not surprisingly, it didn't discourage the notion either.

The unsinkable perception was based on the fact that Olympic and Titanic were constructed with 16 transverse bulkheads. The idea that the compartments were essentially watertight, however, was patently false. The bulkheads extended up as high as D deck, but they were not capped. That simply meant that, if enough compartments were breached, water would eventually spill over into undamaged compartments as the vessel assumed an unnatural angle with the sea (keep adding water to the first few slots in an ice tray for a demonstration).

Shortly after the collision, Captain Edward Smith summoned one of the ship's principal architects to the bridge. He told Thomas Andrews to go below and assess the damage. Andrews determined that five of the watertight compartments were flooding. He knew that Titanic could only survive four.

When Captain Smith asked if his ship was going to sink, Andrews replied, "She can't float." He gave the liner two hours to live. She lasted 20 minutes longer than that. Mr. Andrews, immediately understanding the gravity of the situation, spent the last hours of his life urging people — many of them reluctant — to don lifejackets and enter the lifeboats. His body was never recovered.

He was hailed, perhaps rightfully so, as a hero by some of the passengers and crew who encountered him that night. There have been many tales of heroism that have woven themselves tightly into the fabric of Titanic legend. In all my reading about the night to remember, the notion that selfless gallantry was in full flower rarely occurred to me. The fact remains that a larger percentage of men in first class survived than children in third class.

A story published immediately after the disaster stated that Captain Smith was last seen handing a baby over into a lifeboat and then swimming off into the night with a parting exhortation to "Be British!" The ridiculous fabrication nevertheless served to deflect blame for the catastrophe off the deserving shoulders of White Star's senior captain, who at least had the good sense to go down with his ship.

Another story that White Star was particularly anxious to cultivate was that its brand new, state-of-the-art ship had slipped beneath the water intact. As late as the publication of Walter Lord's popular book in 1955 and the meticulously faithful 1958 movie adaptation, the ship went down in one piece. The discovery of the wreck in 1985 indicated that Titanic had fractured between the third and fourth funnels.

The most prominent purveyor of the intact story was the ship's senior surviving officer, Charles Ligtholler. In the final minutes of the sinking Lightoller had been drawn beneath the water and pinned against an open ventilator until a blast of air from the shaft propelled him back to the surface. He swam to the overturned collapsible B moments before Titanic's forward funnel collapsed and the ensuing wave washed the fragile lifeboat further away from the sinking liner.

Olympic eventually would earn the nickname of "Old Reliable." After she reared out of a fog off the eastern coast of the United States and cut the Nantucket Lightship in half, she was quietly scrapped in 1935.

Alden Graves is a Bennington

Banner columnist.


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