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Cover: While Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio stood against the front rails of the
in the now iconic movie scene, the real bow of the
lay covered with rusticles two and a half miles below the surface of the North Atlantic.
(Emory Kristof/National Geographic Stock; cover design by Melissa Farris)
heads out to sea, magnificent smokestacks billowing black from the coal used to power the steamer
(Omikron Omikron/Photo Researchers/Getty Images)
was still in the Belfast shipyard under construction, workers lined up under one of its massive propellers for a memorable photo
(Library of Congress, #LC-USZ62-34781)
After nearly a century on the ocean floor, thick rusticles (bacterial formations that feed on iron) encrust
âs famous bow. The rusticles point in the direction of the current
(Emory Kristof/National Geographic Stock)
he year 2012 not only marks the 100th anniversary of
s sinking but also the 27th year of its discovery by Jean-Louis Michel and myself. A lot has happened since that historic moment during the early morning hours of September 1, 1985, some good and some bad. Salvagers would begin picking over the site and a blockbuster movie would take the world by storm. But what I found most fascinating of all about our discovery was its impact on the people most closely associated with
s story: the people of Belfast and the Harland & Wolff employees who built her.
When I was first doing my research in the mid-1970s on where the
might have come to rest at the bottom of the ocean, I contacted the marine manufacturing company Harland & Wolff and was surprised by their lack of enthusiasm to find her. They simply did not want to talk about the sinking; it was as if it never happened. That silence continued even after our discovery of
, when I traveled to Belfast during my whirlwind book tour for
The Discovery of the Titanic
in 1987 when Northern Ireland was experiencing what some could call a civil war. It seemed
would never reenter their consciousness.
Then in 2007, I was contacted by the Duke of Abercorn, who wanted to talk to me about a major project he and others were hoping to do with the people of Belfast to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of
s sinking on April 14 and 15 of 2012. Given their past state of denial I agreed to talk with him. For the next four years I was drawn deeper and deeper into their project, a bold plan to literally rebuild a major portion of Belfast with
and the old Harland & Wolff shipyard as its centerpiece. Later in 2011, I agreed to work with National Geographic Television to create a special about my efforts to protect the
from further destruction
by the salvagers. When I told the producers about the Belfast project, they agreed to make it a part of their show and off we went to Belfast to document what they were doing.
That is when I learned, for the first time in my long association with the
, about the Guarantee Group. Thomas Andrews, the builder of the
, had always been my hero given the calm and gentlemanly way he met his death on the
. Summoned to the bridge by Captain Edward Smith, he was asked to go below-decks to assess the damage. He then returned to tell the captain the ship was doomed, and he was last seen in the First Class smoking lounge sitting in a chair admiring his work, calmly going down with her to her watery grave.
It was during my most recent visit that I learned that Andrews was not the only employee of Harland & Wolff aboard
that fateful night. Chosen just before the maiden voyage was to take place was an elite group of nine troubleshooters called the Guarantee Group, the best of the best that Harland & Wolff had to offer, all of whom went down with the ship along with Andrews. While in Belfast I was able to meet family members of this group, who told me that they never talked about the
after she sank due to their acute sense of shame. But finally after 100 years, the people of Belfast are ready to embrace the
and to once again be proud that they built her. I found within the families of the Guarantee Group kindred spirits who like me want to protect the memory of the people who sailed on that fateful voyage.
The deep sea is the largest museum of the world, and as the
goes so go the many lost chapters of human history that lie undiscovered beneath the waves. If we cannot protect the
, then what can we protect? Modern technology is allowing easier and easier physical access to underwater wreck sites. Do we use this access to appreciate what lies there or to plunder it?
âDr. Robert D. Ballard
“having great magnitude, force, or power: COLOSSAL”
âDefinition of “titanic,”
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
ntil an icy night a hundred years ago, the word “titanic” suggested good things. Godlike Titans ruled a golden age of Greek mythology. “
big, powerful, extraordinary
That changed on April 14-15, 1912, as the Royal Mail Ship
, the world's largest and most opulent oceangoing vessel, steamed westward on its maiden voyage. About 1,000 miles east of Boston, it struck an iceberg and disappeared in 2 hours and 40 minutes. More than 1,500 passengers and crew died, including some of the grandest celebrities of the day.
A rescue ship,
, plucked 706 survivors from lifeboats. Their stories of the tragedy seemed impossible.
Sink? How could it? At 882.5 feet from prow to stern rail, and 175 feet from keel to funnel tops,
stretched as long as four city blocks and as high as a nine-story building. Fifteen steel bulkheads divided its interior into compartments advertised as watertight.
s builders figured it could stay afloat after any possible accident.