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

“That’s It!”

On August 13, Ballard and Michel rendezvoused in the Azores with the 245-foot, 2,100-ton Woods Hole research vessel Knorr, and two days later set sail for the Titanic search area 3,862 kilometers away.

The co-chief scientists were now in reversed roles, Ballard heading up the search while Michel acted as head of the noon-to-4 p.m., midnight-to-4 a.m. watch. “Because it is the most demanding physically, you always put your best crew on the 12-to-4 shift,” Ballard said, and that was the slot assigned to Michel in the small “control van” erected on the starboard side of the aft deck.

The search area contained three different types of terrain: a canyon with many tributaries; a sand-dune area not unlike the Sahara; and part of a large mudslide, the possible aftermath of the 1929 earthquake. “We made an assumption,” Ballard said, “based on all the evidence at hand, that the wreck would be a ‘plume’ of debris about a mile long, and that it would be oriented basically north and south.” So instead of “mowing the lawn,” they established a search grid of east-west lines—and by sending down a video camera, they improved chances of identifying small debris.

Two new deep-sea probes, Argo and Angus, were used in the search. The more critical was Argo, a sledlike submersible the size of an automobile. was equipped with sonar, powerful strobe lights, and sophisticated video equipment. Like the French acoustical system, Argo was pulled by a steel-jacketed cable with a breaking strength of 30,000 pounds that carried power down to the submersible and data back up to the surface ship.

As the days went by, hope for finding the wreck waned. A routine of keeping eyes glued to the video monitors settled in. Ears listened to rock and country music, and mouths bulged with buttered popcorn. August was slipping away, and the “weather window” was about to slam shut.

On the night of August 31 to September 1, Jean-Louis Michel came on duty in the control van for the 12-to-4 a.m. watch. Michel took his position at the ship-driving console. With him were six others on the graveyard watch including the navigator, the video operator, and the sonar expert. Ballard went to his quarters for the night.

As the Knorr was moving cautiously over its course, the unblinking eye of Argobegan to record pieces of debris. Gray images of coal and lengths of metal piping slid across the video screen. This could be it, Michel thought, his excitement mounting. “We watched for perhaps five minutes as other fragments came into view. Then, suddenly, there was the unmistakable image of one of those giant boilers!”

While people stared at the image, an air of intense surprise and wonder permeated the control van. “Somebody should wake up Bob Ballard,” Michel said. But nobody wanted to leave. It was too emotional a moment.

Just minutes later, at about one in the morning, cook John Bartolomei knocked at Ballard’s door, stuck his head in the cabin, and reported, “The guys think you should come down.”

Ballard hurried to the control center, stepping into the soothing red light of the large room for his first look at the video image of the boilers on the monitors. “That’s it!” he exclaimed.

As word of the discovery spread throughout the ship, the control van filled with excited crew members and scientists. Amid the jubilation, Ballard later recalled that “the human side hit us. It was so close to the time the disaster occurred—the Titanic sank at 2:20 a.m.—that it seemed appropriate to make a gesture. It was spontaneous. I just said that some of us wanted to have a moment of silence. If others wanted to join us for a brief ceremony, they could.

“I don’t remember how many came. We were very quiet. All I could think was that those many lives had been lost needlessly. If only there had been enough lifeboats. If only the Californian’s radio operator had been awakened. To finally put those souls to rest was a very nice feeling.”

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