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Journey to the Titantic

by David G. Concannon

Spring 2001, Vol. 64, No. 1

It's shortly after 9 a.m. on July 29, 2000, and I am descending through freezing darkness in a slow spiral toward the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic. This is the first dive of the century to the Titanic. The wreck sits in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, 325 miles from the nearest point of land and at a depth of 12,500 feet. The water pressure exceeds 6,000 pounds per square inch. Fewer people have been to this place than have been in outer space. I am only the second lawyer to make "the ultimate dive," and I am being paid to be here.

I am "commuting" to work today in the Russian deep-diving submersible Mir I. This is not SEPTA's R5. Mir I was designed during the Cold War to secretly tap fiber optic telephone cables and recover objects from the oceans' deepest depths. Mir I and its identical twin, Mir II, are two of only five submersibles in the world that can reach the crushing depths of the Titanic. With the application of market forces to the Russian economy, the Mirs are now available for charter for scientific exploration, deep water recovery operations and underwater photography.

In fact, Mir I is known to the world as the submersible that appears in the opening scene of James Cameron's film "Titanic." Mir II is set to launch above us in fifteen minutes from the deck of our mother ship, the R/V Akademik Mstislav Keldysh.

My diving companions on this historic dive are former National Geographic cinematographer Ralph White, who was on the expedition that discovered the Titanic in 1985, and Dr. Anatoly Sagalevitch, the designer of the Mirs. Between them, White and Sagalevitch have made nearly sixty dives to the Titanic. Each has spent more time on the Titanic than Captain Edward J. Smith, the man who guided the Titanic to its ill-fated destiny. Our mission today is to assess the condition of the Titanic, which is rapidly disintegrating, and to explore a previously unknown area of the wreck site.

As we descend from the surface to 3,000 feet, the temperature inside the sub drops from nearly 95 degrees to a more comfortable 65 degrees. The temperature will drop continuously through the twelve-hour dive until the temperature inside the sub eventually conforms to the outside temperature of about 34 degrees. Because of the acute risk of fire in the oxygen-enriched atmosphere inside the sub, there is no heater. To stay warm, we will eventually don thick pile jackets over our black Nomex fire suits. For now, however, it is beginning to feel like a crisp fall day.

To pass the time, I reflect on the strange course of events that put a Philadelphia lawyer in the coveted third seat on this dive with two of the world's most experienced explorers of the Titanic. Two years earlier, I had been asked to represent a prominent group of explorers, including White and Sagalevitch, in litigation to restore public and scientific access to the Titanic. The request was nothing more than a lucky break for a then-32-year-old commercial litigator who happened to be in the right place at the right time. It happened purely by chance. I was sitting at a Board of Directors meeting of The Explorers Club in New York City when one of the directors, a former United States Navy submersible pilot, turned to me and asked me to review the contents of an envelope he had received in the mail the day before. I informed the director that the envelope contained an injunction issued by a federal judge in Norfolk, Virginia, that prohibited him and "all the world" from visiting the Titanic for any purpose for an indefinite period of time. "Will you represent me?" he asked, and I immediately accepted.

My overwhelming enthusiasm for this astonishing stroke of luck was quickly diminished by the realities of the practice of law. "Don't take the Titanic case," I was told by a senior partner in my law firm. "It's too much fun. It will distract you from the work that we want you to do." Thus, with this cold dousing, I was presented with the typical associate's dilemma: Do I take the safe course (in this case, reviewing thousands of documents in a toilet paper price-fixing case in Tallahassee, Florida) and continue to collect a paycheck, or do I take the road less traveled and see where it leads? The decision was easy. I kept the case and left the firm. Two years later, I had won the case and, in another ironic twist, I was hired by my former adversary to organize its 2000 expedition to the Titanic. And so it was that I found myself making the first dive of the century to the Titanic, with two men who had been specifically named in the court's injunction, in the employ of my former adversary. I was a long way from Tallahassee.

As we pass through 8,000 feet, I take a close look at the interior of the Mir. It's compact and efficient and amazingly comfortable for a seven-foot-diameter sphere crammed with three people and all their equipment. There are four "walls" formed by panels full of gauges, lights and switches. Underneath the port and starboard instrument panels are reclining benches with thin black padding.

The co-pilot sits on the port side. The observer sits on the starboard side. There is only about five feet of linear space on my bench, so I must recline or lie in the fetal position to see out the six-inch-wide starboard porthole. It is impossible to raise my feet because video housings and carbon dioxide scrubbers hang just above my knees and feet. The titanium hull curves around by my right shoulder. I have been given a towel to act as a barrier between my body and the cold condensation. The towel also doubles nicely as a pillow during the long descent.

The pilot has the most room to move. He sits on a chair in the center during the ascent and descent, and he kneels at the control panel when the sub is on the bottom. I grow increasingly envious as I realize that the pilot can stand fully upright if he wants to. I will not be able to do this until I climb out of the sub at 9 p.m., twelve hours after the beginning of my journey.

We reach the ocean floor at 12,460 feet shortly before noon. I am surprised to see that the bottom is not a featureless expanse of mud, as I expected. Instead, it is covered with large boulders that have been dropped for centuries by melting icebergs. We are one-half mile north of the bow section of the Titanic. As we quietly traverse the distance, spider crabs and rattail fish pass beneath us. Staring out of my tiny porthole, I feel insulated from the outside world, as if I am flying slowly above the surface of another planet.

My feeling of isolation is magnified by the occasional radio communication with the surface. The Keldysh sounds so faint it may as well be on another planet. Our distant communications (in Russian, no less) provide a tangible reminder that the closest point of human contact (and safety) is two-and-a-half miles above our tiny sphere. If anything goes wrong, we have little chance of survival. Each time I hear the faint sound of the Keldysh, I tick off a mental checklist of everything that can go fatally wrong: fire, suffocation, implosion, drowning, freezing to death. Ralph White's earlier assertion that we are likely to freeze to death before suffocating provides little comfort. I decide that a sudden implosion is preferable to the other means of catastrophe.

Finally, at 12:30 p.m., we arrive at the Titanic. My first glimpse of the Titanic is a section of her mast lying on the bottom north of the bow. Beyond that, the bottom rises sharply into a hill caused by the force of the ship's bow colliding with the bottom eighty-eight years ago. Suddenly, I see the great ship's hull rising steeply out of the darkness. We are on the port side of the bow, near the forecastle. As we ascend about fifty feet, I stare through ghostly portholes into the ship's dark interior. When we rise above the port-side railing, I can see the ship's fifteen-ton spare anchor still secured in the well deck on the forecastle. I am amazed that an object so heavy could have remained in its place during the ship's descent to the bottom.

I am also astonished by the appal-ling condition of the wreck. The Titanic looks like it is made of wet sand. Rusticles, which are caused by a bacteria eating the iron ore from the steel hull, drape the wreck. Sections of the hull have collapsed. The wooden decking is gone. Walls look like they are made of papier mache. The ship looks nothing like I imagined it would. In fact, the Titanic is rotting away. In a few years, she will be nothing more than a stain on the bottom of the ocean.

After surveying the forecastle, we glide aft toward the bridge. As we pass over the forward well deck, I stare down into the blackness of the number one cargo hatch. I can see the giraffe-like electric cargo cranes, still crossed like forearms, below the first-class cabins under the bridge. We follow the ship's collapsed mast as it ascends toward the bridge. Anatoly Sagalevitch points to where the crow's nest used to be. I can almost hear the voice of lookout Frederick Fleet late on the night of April 14, 1912 shouting "Iceberg right ahead!"

Near the top of the mast, we come to the bridge, or what is left of it. The walls, ceiling and nearly all of the bridge's equipment are now gone. The only fixture that remains is the ship's telemotor, the bronze pedestal to which the ship's wheel was attached. This fixture betrays the former existence of the bridge, along with the short rail of the teak molding that traces the lines where the walls once stood.

As we glide further aft to Captain Smith's stateroom, I notice that the ceiling and starboard wall have almost completely collapsed. I am able to stare directly down into Captain Smith's bathtub. Sagalevitch sets us down next to an expansion joint that has opened to expose the interior of the officers' mess, and we take a brief moment to discuss the plan for the rest of our dive. I find myself staring out my porthole during the entire discussion, fascinated by the interior of the ship as it is illuminated by the sub's powerful halogen lights. I can see furniture and fixtures still affixed to the wall inside the hull. Suddenly, I am startled by the sight of my own reflection in a piece of glass on the far wall of the cabin. I did not expect to see my own reflection inside this time capsule from 1912. We decide it is time to leave the bow. Sagalevitch makes a cursory pass over the grand staircase, and then we head off to the west.

The area to the west of the Titanic's bow has rarely been explored. This is partly because of the layout of the wreck site. The Titanic's 882-foot hull ripped in half as it sank, spilling the contents of the ship across a wide area. The water-filled bow retained its shape and most of its contents as it planed northward during its descent. The bow section now rests upright, buried fifty feet in the bottom, almost one-half mile north and slightly east of the stern. It is still recognizable today as a luxury liner from a different era.

By contrast, the air-filled stern remained on the surface for a while before sinking, spilling its contents like an upturned department store. The stern initially imploded during its descent, then exploded when it hit the bottom. The stern section is now a barely recognizable heap of twisted steel and debris. In other words, it is a deathtrap for a small submersible.

For this reason, and because you must travel half a mile due south against the prevailing currents to reach the stern, most submersible dives have focused their valuable bottom time on the bow. Additionally, because the bow section is visually striking, most of the photographic expeditions to the Titanic have concentrated their dives there. Most of the salvage expeditions to the Titanic have focused their dives on the debris fields to the north, south and east of the stern section where artifacts can be easily plucked from the bottom. As a result, the area to the west has remained virtually undisturbed.

Today, we will be rewarded for traveling off the beaten path. We find a pristine pair of binoculars, still in their case, almost immediately after leaving the bow. This is significant because only one pair of badly deteriorated binoculars has ever been recovered from the Titanic. Moreover, we know that binoculars were issued to the Titanic's crew, but they were never given to the lookouts in the crow's nest. Could this pair be one of those that remained unused in their case, possibly on the ship's bridge? We recover the binoculars and turn south.

As we travel south, we make several other unique discoveries: first-class china, wash bowls, an intact window from the first-class deck. We dutifully record the position of each significant artifact, recover some and leave the rest for future dives.

We finally arrive at the stern section around 4 p.m. Sagalevitch is visibly tense, although he denies that our presence in this eerie web of entanglements accounts for his dramatic change in demeanor. Suddenly, the sub becomes snagged by an overhanging section of the wreck. A stream of rusticles rains down in front of my viewport. Sagalevitch quickly reverses thrust, but nothing happens. Everyone is silent. Nobody wants to state the obvious-that we are beyond rescue if we are hopelessly entangled.

After what seems like a lifetime of maneuvering, we are free. We unanimously agree to leave this dangerous area of the wreck. To break the tension, I joke that we can't leave without going under the hull to see the ship's enormous bronze propellers. Sagalevitch ignores me as he flies south into the debris field.

This is an area known as Hell's Kitchen. The Titanic broke apart in the vicinity of the galleys for the first- and second-class dining areas. Consequently, this area is covered by thousands of pieces of coal, dishes, cups, copper pots, crystal decanters and cooking utensils. Nearly all of them are broken. We recover what we can, guided by a list of artifacts required for our employer's international artifact exhibitions.

Suddenly, I spot a large leather bag, the only piece of personal luggage I have seen during the entire dive. We know from previous recovery expeditions that leather bags protect their contents from deterioration. Bags recovered on previous expeditions have contained clothing, currency, newspapers, postcards, coins and jewelry. None of these items can survive independently in this hostile environment.

We immediately recover the bag. The bag opens slightly as Sagalevitch lifts it with the sub's mechanical arm, revealing a layer of books. Miraculously, I can still read the print on the pages through my porthole. I realize that I am looking at a page in a Bible that has been underwater for more than eighty-eight years, after having been lost in one of the worst tragedies of the twentieth century.

We finally begin our ascent at 6 p.m. The submersible rises slowly as water is pumped from its ballast tanks. The bottom begins to recede into total darkness. I am reminded of the scene of the moon falling away as Apollo 11 began its ascent from the lunar surface exactly thirty-one years ago. For the next three hours, I contemplate my journey to the Titanic. I have seen things that few others will ever see. I am only the second lawyer to make this trip, and it never would have happened if I had taken a predictable route for my career. When we break the surface shortly before 9 p.m., I can think of only one thing: When can I go back?