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Journey to the Titanic, Part 1

It is shortly after 9 a.m. on July 29, 2000. I am descending in a slow spiral through freezing darkness to the wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic. The wreckage is located in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, 400 miles from the nearest point of land, at a depth of 12,460 feet, where the water pressure exceeds 6,000 pounds per square inch. Fewer people have visited this haunting place in the depths of the North Atlantic than have been to outer space.

David Concannon

David Concannon

During the two and one-half-hour descent, I reflect on the unlikely course of events that brought me to this isolated place. My own journey to the Titanic had begun thirteen years before in another unlikely location: backstage at IUP’s Fisher Auditorium. On the evening of September 23, 1987, I stood in darkness as the crowd filed in on the other side of the curtain. Seated at a grand piano a few feet away was the world-renowned author William F. Buckley, Jr. Buckley had come to IUP as part of the Nell and Sam Jack Distinguished American Lecture Series.

Buckley and I were alone backstage. As he quietly tickled the piano’s keys, he exuded an aura that said: “Do not bother me.” Despite Buckley’s aloofness, there was one question I was dying to ask him.

“Mr. Buckley,” I offered tentatively. He ignored me. “Mr. Buckley.” Now he appeared at least to acknowledge my presence, like a gnat buzzing beneath his nose. “Mr. Buckley, what was it like to dive to the Titanic?”

Buckley brightened perceptibly. “How did you know that?” he asked. Apparently, it was not common knowledge that Buckley had made a dive to the Titanic just a few days earlier. A month later, he would publish an article about his experience in the New York Times Magazine. On this night, however, he seemed surprised that a college student in Indiana, Pa., knew his secret.

I do not remember what Buckley said to the assembled crowd that evening, but I do remember our brief conversation about the Titanic. Buckley described it as fascinating yet somber. We talked about the recovery of artifacts, which he alone in the press refused to criticize. The previous month, Buckley had written an editorial, which asked, “What is wrong with recovering artifacts from the Titanic?” “Nothing,” he concluded. A few days later, he was invited to join the French-American recovery operation underway at the wreck site.

I remember how our conversation ended. I asked Buckley whether, I, too, would ever be able to dive to the Titanic. “Maybe,” he said. “You never know where life will take you.”

In the thirteen years since my conversation with Buckley, I had gone to law school, lived in both Africa and Europe, sailed the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego, and become a member of an international society known as The Explorers Club. Through my involvement in the club, I eventually found myself sitting in a Russian submersible diving to the Titanic.

In 1998, R.M.S. Titanic, Inc. (RMST), the company that owns the salvage rights to the Titanic, sought an injunction to prohibit all the world from visiting or photographing the Titanic. The injunction was issued, and I was asked to represent The Explorers Club and several of its prominent members in the appeals to overturn it.

Our efforts were successful. In 1999, an appellate court, and later the United States Supreme Court, restored public and scientific access to the Titanic for research and exploration. Then, in a strange twist of fate, I was hired by RMST to help organize its expedition to the Titanic in the summer of 2000.

Now, I am sitting inside the seven-foot-diameter capsule of the Russian deep-diving submersible Mir I, the vessel that appeared in James Cameron’s film Titanic. Mir I is one of only five submersibles in the world that can reach the crushing depths of the Titanic. Its identical twin, Mir II, is set to launch above us from the deck of the mother ship R/V Akademik Mstislav Keldysh in fifteen minutes.

My diving companions are former National Geographic cinematographer Ralph White and Anatoly Sagalevitch, designer of our vessel. White and Sagalevitch have made nearly sixty dives to the Titanic. Each has spent more time on the ship than Capt. Edward Smith, the man who guided Titanic on its ill-fated maiden voyage. Together, we are making the first dive of the new century to what remains of the Titanic. Ironically, White and Sagalevitch had been specifically barred by the 1998 injunction from exploring the Titanic; all of us had now been hired by RMST.

Our mission today is to assess the condition of the ship, which is rapidly disintegrating, and to explore a previously unseen area of the wreck site. Our plan is to traverse the entire site from north to south, covering a distance on the bottom of more than a mile. We will also explore the area to the west of the Titanic’s bow and stern sections, which has received little attention on the twelve previous expeditions to 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. The inside temperature will drop steadily throughout the dive, until it conforms to the outside temperature of approximately 34 degrees. Later on, we will don thick pile jackets over our black Nomex fire suits to keep warm.

Although the Mir is twenty-two feet long, its three occupants and all their equipment are crammed into a sphere just seven feet in diameter. Each of the four “walls” is a panel full of gauges, lights, and switches. Under the port and starboard instrument panels are reclining benches with thin black padding: the copilot sits on the port side; the observer sits on the starboard side.

There is only five feet of linear space on the benches; to see out the six-inch starboard porthole, I must recline or lie in a fetal position. I can’t raise my legs, since 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 me and the cold and condensation; it 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 kneels at the forward 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 be unable to do this until I climb out of the sub on the surface twelve hours after the journey begins.

We reach the bottom shortly before noon. This is my first visit to a depth of 12,460 feet, and I am surprised to see that the bottom is not a featureless expanse of mud. Instead, it is covered with large boulders that have been dropped by melting icebergs for centuries. We are a half-mile north of the bow section of the Titanic. As we silently traverse this distance, spider crabs and rattail fish pass beneath us.

The isolation I feel is magnified by the occasional radio communication with the surface. The Keldysh sounds so faint that it may as well be on another planet. The faint communications (in Russian, no less) with the Keldysh 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 sounds from the Keldysh, I mentally list all that can go fatally wrong: fire, suffocation, implosion, drowning, freezing to death. White’s assertion that we are likely to freeze before suffocating provides little comfort. I decide that a sudden implosion is preferable to the other means of catastrophe.

Next Issue: Exploring the Titanic 

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.