Journey to the Titanic, Part 2

(Editor’s Note: At the end of Part One, David Concannon was curled like a pretzel in a three-man submersible, more than twelve thousand feet below sea level. After a two-and-a-half-hour descent, the submersible approached the wreckage with its crew of Concannon, National Geographic cinematographer Ralph White, and Anatoly Sagalevitch, the vessel’s designer.)

Finally, at 12:30 p.m., 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 created by the force of the ship’s bow when it collided with the bottom eighty-eight years before.

The Titanic's bow

The Titanic's bow

We wait a few moments for Mir II to join us. Then, we begin to ascend. As the Titanic’s hull rises steeply out of the darkness, Sagalevitch whispers one word: “Terrible.” White says nothing, still captivated by the sight of the ship that he has already seen twenty-four times before.

I am appalled by the condition of the wreck. The Titanic looks as though it were made of wet sand. Rusticles, caused by bacteria’s eating the iron ore from the steel hull, drape the wreck. Sections of the hull have collapsed. The wood decking is gone. Walls appear to have been constructed of papier-mâché. The ship looks nothing like I imagined. Instead, it appears to be rotting away, like a candle melting from the top down. It is easy to believe that the Titanic will be nothing more than a stain on ocean’s bottom in a few years.

We are on the port side of the bow, near the forecastle. As we ascend some 50 feet, I stare through ghostly portholes into the ship’s dark interior. When we rise above the port side railing, I can see the Titanic’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.

After surveying the forecastle, we glide aft toward the shelter deck. In the blackness of the No. 2 cargo hatch, I can make out giraffe-like electric cargo cranes, which remain crossed like forearms, below the first class cabins on C Deck. This area of the bow section, which is canted forward, shows significant deterioration. Rusticles drape the walls on the front of A, B, and C decks. Mounds of them have fallen onto the shelter deck and the front of B Deck. The upper third of the mast, which used to run straight, has collapsed in the shape of a Z onto the boat deck and A Deck.

We follow the ship’s collapsed mast as it ascends toward the bridge. 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!” White recovered the crow’s nest bell, which Fleet rang three times to signal the bridge that an obstacle lay directly ahead, on the 1987 expedition. A few days after this dive, White will also recover the telephone that Sixth Officer James Moody answered on the bridge when Fleet called to relay the same distress signal.

R.M.S. Titanic

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

As we glide aft on the starboard side of the boat deck past the officers’ quarters, we notice that the ceiling and wall of Captain Smith’s stateroom have almost completely collapsed—significant because the wall was here just ten months ago, although then it was hanging precariously. Now, a large section of the wall has disappeared, and I can stare directly down into Captain Smith’s bathtub.

Sagalevitch sets the sub down next to an expansion joint that has opened to expose the interior of the officers’ quarters. While we plan the rest of the dive, I stare out my porthole, fascinated by the sight of the ship’s interior brilliantly lit by the sub’s powerful halogen lights. I can see fixtures still affixed to the wall inside the hull. For a moment I am startled by my own reflection in a piece of glass on the far side of the cabin—I did not expect to be part of this scene from 1912. We decide to leave the bow section, and Sagalevitch makes a cursory pass over the grand staircase as we head west.

The area to the west of the Titanic’s bow has rarely been explored. This is partly because of the wreck site’s layout. The Titanic’s 882-foot hull ripped in half as it sank, spilling the contents of the ship over a wide area. The water-filled bow retained its shape during its long descent to the bottom. The bow now rests upright, buried 50 feet deep in the mud, almost half a mile north of the stern. The air-filled stern remained on the surface for a while before sinking, spilling its contents like an upturned department store. It initially imploded during its descent and then exploded when it hit the bottom. Because of the great distance between the two hull sections, most submersible dives focus their valuable bottom time on one section of the wreck or the other.

There is also a more practical reason to explore just one area of the wreck: the bow section is more visually striking than the stern. The bow is still recognizable as a luxury liner from a different era, whereas the stern is a barely recognizable heap of twisted steel and debris. Consequently, most of the photographic expeditions to the Titanic have concentrated on the bow, while the salvage expeditions have concentrated on the debris fields to the north, south, and east of the stern section, where artifacts can be easily retrieved.

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 have remained unused in its case, possibly on the ship’s bridge? We recover the binoculars and turn south.

We soon 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.

It is easy to see that we are exploring new territory. Each submersible that visits the Titanic leaves distinctive tracks on the bottom. There are no tracks in this area of the wreck site. Our observations confirm that, even after twelve expeditions to the Titanic, much is still left to explore. After this dive, we will divide the wreck site into 400-square-meter grids and then systematically search each grid in 10-meter-wide swaths until the entire wreck site has been surveyed.

We finally arrive at the stern section around 4 p.m. Sagalevitch is normally easygoing, but his demeanor changes dramatically as we approach this eerie web of entanglements. Torn hull plating, wires, plumbing, boilers, and fixtures are everywhere. This area is a death trap for a small submersible. As we drift over a torn section of plating, I can see the exposed ribs of the ship.

Suddenly, the sub is snagged by an overhang. A stream of rusticles rains down in front of my porthole. Sagalevitch quickly reverses thrust, but nothing happens. He manipulates the controls, to no effect. Then, after what seems a lifetime, 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 which are broken. We recover what we can, guided by a “wish list” of artifacts for our client’s international exhibitions.

Suddenly, I spot a large leather bag, the only piece of personal luggage I have seen during the dive. We know from previous expeditions that leather bags protect their contents from deterioration. Other bags have contained clothing, currency, newspapers, postcards, coins, and jewelry — none of which could survive independently in this hostile environment. 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.

Subsequent research will reveal that the bag belonged to a second-class passenger named Edgar Samuel Andrew, a seventeen-year-old Argentinian who boarded the Titanic in Southampton, England, not far from where he was attending school. Two days before he departed on Titanic, Andrew wrote a letter to his friend Josey Cowan lamenting that his transfer from another steamship to the Titanic required him to depart from England a week early, which meant he would miss his friend’s arrival from Argentina:

You figure, Josey, I am boarding the greatest steamship in the world, but I don't really feel proud of it at all, right now I wish the 'Titanic' were lying at the bottom of the ocean.

Seven days later, Andrew got his wish. Both his bag and the Titanic were lying at the bottom of the ocean, and Andrew perished in the sinking. His body was never recovered.

At 6 p.m., Sagalevitch announces that it is time to begin our ascent. The submersible begins to rise slowly as we pump water from our ballast tanks. As the bottom begins to recede into total darkness, I am reminded of the scene of the moon falling away from Apollo 11 as it began its ascent from the lunar surface exactly thirty-one years before. For the next three hours, I contemplate my journey to the Titanic. I have seen things few others will ever see: a time capsule from a different era slowly dissolving into the sea. When we break the surface at 9 p.m., I can think of only one thing: When can I go back?

About the Author

David Concannon ’88 graduated from Widener University School of Law and also studied international law in Kenya and the Netherlands. His lifelong love of scuba diving led to interest in the law’s impact on undersea exploration and the protection of intellectual property rights. In addition to his commercial litigation practice, he currently advises several exploration groups, including director James Cameron and his company, Earthship Productions, Inc.

Concannon also advises expeditions bound for such places as Mt. Everest and New Zealand. In July, 2001, he served as expedition counsel to Atlantic Sands, LLC on its trip to the Atlantic Ocean’s Blake Basin, deep in the heart of the infamous Bermuda Triangle. The expedition discovered the world’s deepest wooden shipwreck, a merchant ship nearly two hundred years old, resting at a depth of 4,818 meters—almost 16,000 feet. Concannon made a dive to the wreck in a submersible on July 6, becoming one of fewer than a hundred people ever to dive three miles deep.

As expedition counsel to R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. on its 2000 expedition, Concannon made three submersible dives to the R.M.S. Titanic, at a depth of 12,460 feet, including the first dive of the century (the one described here). He lives with his wife, Karen, and children, Ian and Megan, in Malvern, Pa.