The image was indelible long before film director James Cameron imprinted it, in all its pictorial magnificence, on the silver screen: Titanic standing "almost vertical, a weird black and white column in the middle of the ocean.
"Then," wrote the poet John Malcolm Brinnin, "she dived down, head first, to a depth of two miles."
Brinnin, in his 1971 elegy for a lost world, The Sway of the Grand Saloon, quoted Scientific American: "The shell of the ship . . . went to the bottom intact. When the after compartments finally gave way, the stricken vessel, weighted at her forward end, sank, to bury herself, bows down, in the soft ooze of the Atlantic."
Thus endeth, in the popular view, a tale of hubris, of god-defyingly conspicuous consumption, of man's puniness in the face of nature. "All the people on board existed under a false security," wrote Joseph Conrad. A casual swipe by an iceberg, and boom! What price luxury and speed?
Well, now we know.
Oh, the basic facts remain unchallenged: the enormous ship, the "unsinkable" boast, the glittering first-voyage passenger list, the iceberg, the 1,504 people, rich and poor, who went to their deaths while Titanic's owner, J. Bruce Ismay, climbed into one of the few lifeboats and survived.
What has changed, thanks to the work of wreck divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, and the marine architects and videographers and submersible pilots who joined them, is the notion that this was, somehow, an act of God.
In fact, as they and author Brad Matsen show in Titanic's Last Secrets, this was an act of human error and mercantile greed, followed by chagrin and deception. The ship, as designed, was badly flawed, its steel too thin, its hull inadequate, its rivets too small, its expansion joints unequal to their function, its watertight compartments not watertight at all.
Dying, the ship did not reach the perpendicular, hang suspended over the North Atlantic and slide gracefully, intact, into the deep. Instead, it did what you would expect a thin steel object 882 feet long to do when you stress one end of it: It broke in the middle, and quickly, at a low angle of elevation.
And the ship's bottom popped right off: The Chatterton and Kohler expedition found huge pieces of it lying half a mile from the more picturesque and famous bow and stern pieces.
Chatterton and Kohler were celebrated, if that is the word, in an earlier book, Robert Kurson's Shadow Divers (2005), detailing their work on a sunken Nazi submarine off New Jersey. Their diving exploits in that book are death-defying, but equally impressive are their research exploits, which would put professional archivists and historians to shame.
Here, in a project impressive in scope and as impressively realized, they have managed to tell us so much that we did not know before about the most famous disaster of the 20th century, and to do it, thanks to Matsen, clearly and concisely.
Three years before Titanic went down, another White Star liner, Republic, was rammed off Nantucket Island by the American steamer Florida. A handful of people died in the collision itself. Florida, much less badly damaged, tied up alongside Republic and took on its passengers and crew. Republic went to the bottom 38 hours after the collision.
In 1912, Titanic, with improved Marconi wireless and in the middle of a busy sea lane, went to the bottom two hours and 23 minutes after its collision with the iceberg. Had Titanicstayed afloat even half as long as Republic, the loss of life would have been minimal. Why didn't it? That's what Chatterton, Kohler and company wanted to know.
And now they do. Titanicwas a flawed ship, and its builders, Harland and Wulff of Belfast, knew it was flawed. They quietly reinforced its sistership, Olympic, and drastically altered the plans for a third superliner, Britannic, to include a double hull.
It was a dive to Britannic, which was torpedoed off Greece during World War I, that clinched it for the investigators: They found that, although Britannic and Titanic were supposedly built from the same plans, in fact Britannic had radically different expansion joints - proof that the builders knew flexing had been a problem in Titanic.
After the wreck there were inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic, but the ships' designer, Thomas Andrews, was not available to testify, being conveniently dead in the North Atlantic. Freed of his potentially uncomfortable testimony, the representatives of Harland and Wulff and of White Star did not bother the committees of inquiry with answers to questions they were not asked. It's a tale of market forces and government myopia that is not without relevance today.
David L. Beck is a St. Petersburg writer and editor.
Titanic's Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler
By Brad Matsen
Twelve, 329 pages, $27.99
- Brad Matsen will be a featured author at the Times Festival of Reading on Saturday.