CANADA

That sinking feeling

Salvagers fail to raise a piece of the fabled Titanic

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 9 1996
CANADA

That sinking feeling

Salvagers fail to raise a piece of the fabled Titanic

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 9 1996

That sinking feeling

CANADA

Salvagers fail to raise a piece of the fabled Titanic

After 84 years of myth, mystery, despair and debate, it all finally seemed so close to an end. There, four kilometres below the Atlantic Ocean’s surface, about 600 km southeast of St. John’s, Nfld., lay the battered remains of the Royal Mail Ship Titanic, the most famous shipwreck in history. The recovery plans sounded bold, but straightforward: a mini-submarine would attach cables to a 10ton section of the ship’s hull, which would be connected to huge gas-filled bags. Once the ballast was removed from the bags, the hull section would float to the surface, then be lifted onto a salvage ship and finally brought to North America—the Titanic’s original destination. That was the goal last week of a controversial $5-million international expedition whose organizers boast-

ed—just as the Titanic’s engineers did in their day—that they would vanquish nature with state-of-the-art technology. As the section of hull rose to within 65 m of the surface, it seemed that this time, they had. “The piece,” said Chris Clancy, a spokesman for the salvage group, “is stabilized below the surface.”

But once again, the best-laid plans of a group of men, along with the finest equipment, were no match for nature. One day be-

fore the raising, two cruise ships containing 1,700 onlookers had gone home, stymied by incoming bad weather and a series of failed salvage attempts. And less than 12 hours after Clancy’s statement, the piece of hull was gone, too—dropping swiftly back to the ocean floor after the cables holding it snapped, one by one, under the force of choppy waters. With that event, a storm approaching, and their food—and luck—all but out, the backers of the New York Citybased RMS Titanic Inc., which sponsored the salvage effort, gave up. “I think we’ve proved,” said company president George Tulloch, “that the Titanic is not something to put arrival schedules on.” Nor, it seems, is the air of mystique surrounding the Titanic in any danger of dissipating. The circumstances of its sinking in April, 1912, mark it among the few events in modern history that fascinate people of all ages: how a huge luxury cruiser billed as “unsinkable” and filled with the cream of North American and European society hit an iceberg and sank, resulting in the death of more than 1,500 of the 2,200 people aboard.

Beyond those bare facts, virtually everything, ranging from innuendo about the behavior of individual crew members and passengers to the present-day ownership of the wreck and its contents, is in dispute. Much of the most intense debate since the wreck was first discovered by a crew led by American oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard in 1985 has centred on what to do with it. Ballard and many others, including some relatives of the dead, argue that it should be left untouched as both a piece of history and a memorial to those who died. ButTulloch and others argue that if the wreck is not salvaged, it will ^ eventually be destroyed by the “ ocean and its corrosive salts. And still others say that salvaging parts of the ship provides a vivid and useful reminder of the frailties and hubris of mankind. Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, the former American astronaut who participated in the expedition, told reporters that he did so because “we need to learn from the mistakes. I am not of the opinion that just because something involves the loss of life, it ought to be a memorial.”

Still, the atmosphere surrounding the expedition risked, at times, seeming more celebratory than ceremonial. The cruise-ship

passengers who accompanied the salvage vessels on separate ships paid between $2,500 and $8,000 for the privilege. Some were lured by additional incentives, including the presence of several personalities such as Aldrin and actress Loni Anderson, as well as three survivors of the sinking. During salvage efforts, most of the passengers lined the railings of the ships, or watched giant screens showing the underwater events by a live video feed.

In fact, several historians working with the expedition concluded that the 10-foot-by-30foot slab of hull section they were raising came from the starboard side of C-deck, and would have included parts of two first-class passenger cabins. Had the wreck been raised, it would have been put on display in New York by Tulloch’s company, alongside about 4,000 other small artifacts that the company has raised from the wreck since it won legal salvage rights in 1987. Those items range from dinner dishes and a silver soup tureen to a piece of paper that, after chemical restoration, turned out to be a $5 silver certificate.

But almost from the outset of the threeday trip, efforts to raise the piece of wreckage ran into a series of technical problems. On the first day, a release mechanism failed on a ballast holding down one of the gas bags. On the following day, a crew in a minisubmarine trying to fix the problem cut the wrong cable, sending one of the bags floating to the surface, while the slab floated about 800 m above the ocean floor. Then, remote-control equipment designed to release ballast on other flotation bags failed. Finally, on the third and final planned day of efforts, all of the balloons worked, and the slab rose up almost to the water’s surface in less than 30 minutes. Then, just as the operation appeared to be a success, with salvagers preparing to attach it to a ship that would tow it to more shallow waters, the lines parted within seconds of each other, and the chunk sank back into the depths.

Now, organizers say it will be at least another year before weather conditions—and new funding—allow for a return. If it is any consolation, the hex surrounding the Titanic also struck elsewhere. At the same time as the expedition was at sea, the crew of an upcoming big-budget Hollywood movie about the Titanic, directed by Canadian James Cameron, held a wrap-up party in Halifax. After the meal, about 80 people who attended the party were sent to hospital with suspected food poisoning. Although all eventually recovered, tests showed that the cause was traces of the hallucinogenic drug phencyclidine, or “angel dust,” sprinkled into the lobster chowder. Whether by mischief or mystery, those who fall firsthand under the spell of the greatest legend of the seas invariably seem to experience both its romance—and its risks.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH