The Unsinkable Titanic

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, we dug into our archives for this remarkable account of the disaster and its aftermath. Plus: Titanic video clips of the survivors, the wreckage, and more.

Also in Reader's Digest Magazine April 2012

The Search Begins

Parallel investigations, the first by the U.S. Senate, the second by the British Board of Trade, probed into the tragedy of the Titanic. Both agreed that the great ship had ignored repeated warnings and steamed at full speed through a sea of deadly ice. There was a “ram-you-damn-you” philosophy in those days among all the steamship lines. They wanted to deliver “express train” service, holding exactly to schedule even if it meant going full tilt through fog banks, ice fields, or fleets of fishing vessels. The Titanic paid the price for this folly.

After the investigations were ended, save for an occasional memoir, little was added to the tragic account of the . Yet the story still stirred in the psyche of the world. To this day, invoking the name of the Titanic has an emotional value greater than all but a handful of history’s most extraordinary events.

Then, in 1963, the first of a series of deepwater disasters fostered the development of equipment and techniques that would finally make it possible to find the Titanic.

The first was that of the nuclear submarine USS Thresher, which sank 220 miles off Cape Cod on the morning of April 10, 1963. Atlantis II, a research vessel from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, attempted to take pictures of Thresher. A 500-pound camera with strobe lights was lowered 8,000 feet over “protuberances” located by the U.S. Navy. It was, said Woods Hole’s former head of geophysics, J. B. Hersey, like dropping “a Ping-Pong ball into a beer can from the top of the Empire State Building while blindfolded and during a northeaster.”

Nevertheless, photos were obtained showing crumpled sheet metal, torn lengths of electrical cable, even an open book. The Navy’s deep-diving bathyscaphe Trieste later dived to the ocean bottom and, using a device similar to a mechanical arm, retrieved identifiable debris from Thresher.

Five years later, a Russian Golf II-class submarine sank northwest of Hawaii. It was located through the use of sensitive detection equipment—hydrophones, sophisticated cameras, side-scan sonar, magnetometers. A high-security U.S. government-sponsored project later developed retrieval techniques, including a clawlike device called Clementine on the end of a five-kilometer-long “pipestring” that was used to bring part of the sub to the surface.

One scientist interested in finding the Titanic was Robert D. Ballard, a marine geologist at Woods Hole. In 1971, Ballard proposed using Alcoa’s Seaprobe—a camera sled lowered on lengths of drill pipe—to locate and photograph the wreck. Ballard would then descend in the submersible Alvin, which was certified to go to the ’s depth. But no financial backing could be found for the proposal. Then, in 1980, a Texas oilman geologist, Jack Grimm, announced he would finance an expedition.

At Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, William Ryan, an oceanographer, read in the newspaper about Grimm’s project and was intrigued by its scientific possibilities. He offered Grimm help and proposed using deep-tow, side-scan sonar to find the ship. He also suggested that the man who pioneered its development for deep-ocean surveying, Fred Spiess of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, could be of great help. Grimm accepted Ryan’s offer.

It would not be easy. The Titanic’s resting place, Ryan said, “is in one of the largest known areas of natural magnetic disturbance in the North Atlantic.” The Titanic sank near what is now known as the J-Anomaly Ridge, a 110-million-year-old volcanic feature of high magnetism.

Between July 31 and August 16, 1980, some 500 square miles of North Atlantic ocean bottom were mapped by Grimm’s chartered vessel, H. J. W. Fay, and its long-range, side-scan sonar. At least three good acoustic targets were detected that matched the size of the Titanic, but fate dealt a severe blow to the expedition when a storm came up and tore off the vital magnetometer. Spiess jury-rigged another one out of a shampoo bottle and some wire from a discarded exciter belonging to the ship’s generator. But the weather got worse, supplies and fuel ran low, and the Fay headed into Boston.

Grimm confidently promised that a 1981 expedition would return with photographs of the sunken wreck. The searchers did obtain a photo of a propellerlike object, but it could not be positively identified. And a 1983 expedition was compelled by gale-force winds to abandon the mission.

Despite these failures, Robert Ballard remained optimistic. “I always thought that finding the Titanic was not the hardest part of the puzzle,” he said. “Filming it in an appealing way would be the hardest part.”

The violent gales of the North Atlantic soon put his confidence to the test.

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