The midnight watch in the control room of the research vessel Knorr was promising to be monotonously routine during the first hour or so of September 1, 1985. “Routine” consisted of one man, in this case Bob Lange, sitting before a television monitor, joystick in hand, while two others, Jean-Louis Michel, the team leader, and Stu Harris, kept close watch on banks of instruments that included monitors for side-scanning sonar, bottom-scanning sonar, and a magnetometer, as well as several additional television monitors. As the watch began Lange had asked Harris, “What are we going to do to keep ourselves awake tonight?” So far Harris hadn’t come up with any ideas, so it was likely that for the next few hours, until 4:00 a.m., these men would remain almost motionless as they monitored the progress of an ungainly looking underwater survey device called Argo cruising over two miles below them, near the bottom of the North Atlantic.
Back and forth the Knorr passed across a rigidly defined sector of the ocean, allowing Argo to conduct a thorough search of the bottom. This admittedly dull routine, which required tremendous concentration on the part of the men guiding Argo, had been going on for more than three weeks, twenty-four hours a day, with no results to show for it, just endless, unchanging views of the seabed. There was no reason to believe that this watch would be any different. In fact, a certain amount of pessimism was beginning to creep into the attitudes of the men who were controlling Argo: the Knorr was fast approaching the end of the search area; the calm, clear weather that permitted such a laborious effort, only a few weeks each year in this part of the Atlantic, was about to run out; and they seemed to be no closer to finding their elusive quarry than they had been when they began searching on August 9, three weeks before.
All that changed just twelve minutes before 1:00 a.m. Stu Harris suddenly noticed that there was something on one of his monitors that looked like a big circle. “That looks like a part of it,” he said. Lange swung the Argo toward the object and the picture grew clearer while the object grew larger.
“Look at it, will you?”
The Argo moved closer, and now a clearly discernable pattern of rivets appeared on the object. The watchers could see it was cylindrical, probably close to thirty feet in diameter, and then they saw it had doors, three of them, furnace doors at that. Suddenly everybody started talking at once.
“It’s a boiler!”
“LOOKS LIKE A BOILER!”
“YES! YES! FANTASTIC! IT’S A BOILER!”
The boiler shown on the television monitor was one of the twenty-nine boilers installed in the Titanic seventy-three years before–a single-ended boiler from Boiler Room 1.
The expedition that discovered the wreck of the Titanic was a joint project of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, one of the leading oceanographic research centers in the country, and the United States Navy. It was led by Dr. Robert Ballard, a former US Navy officer who had a long-standing passion for finding the wreck. The purpose of the expedition was to test under operational conditions a newly-designed piece of underwater search equipment, known as ANGUS, short for Acoustically Navigated Geological Underwater Survey. Essentially a heavy framework supporting equipment for several sonar units arranged along the three major axes, it also contained a high-resolution still cameras that use extremely sensitive film (ASA 200,000). A smaller, more nimble device, called the Argo, would be used for general survey work, leaving ANGUS to do the more detailed examinations of anything unusual that might be found.
The first part of the project was a highly classified operation off the island of the Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic, attempting to find the remains of the U.S.S. Scorpion, an attack submarine lost in 1969, as well as that of a possible Soviet sub that might have played a part in Scorpion’s destruction. The second part was a French-American expedition to locate the wreck of the Titanic. IFREMER, the French Oceanographic Institute, would provide one of the survey ships, Le Suroit, as well as a number of technicians and scientists.
Le Suroit began the search while the Knorr was still off the Azores, but by the end of the first week of August, with her supplies running low, she hadn’t found anything, and the Knorr took over. Three weeks of patient sailing back and forth across the search area towing the Argo behind her, a process the crew christened “mowing the lawn,” brought the Knorr and her crew to the spot where, a little after 1:00 a.m. on September 1, when Stu Harris noticed something unusual on the video display….
The survey crew were transfixed as the seemingly endless field of debris–it was later determined to be more than 600 yards long–passed under the Argo’s cameras: lumps of coal…a silver platter…bottles of champagne…rusty bedsprings…chamber pots…leaded glass panels from the First Class Smoking Room…copper pans from one of the galleys…the corroded remains of a workman’s tool kit….
The Argo was brought up, since “flying” it just forty feet off the sea floor ran too great a risk of having it running smack into the wreck itself. It was time for ANGUS, and before the weather forced the team to suspend operations, the camera sled was able to shoot a remarkable amount of footage, including a complete photo-montage of the wreck.
What the expedition found left everyone gasping in surprise. The most startling discovery of all was finding the wreck in two pieces: even though several survivors had stated that the Titanic had broken in two before she sank, their testimony was inconsistent and sometimes contradictory, and expert opinion had it that she went under in one piece.
For years, it had been an article of faith among those who studied the disaster that the iceberg had ripped a continuous, three hundred-foot-long gash in the Titanic‘s side. But there was no sign of such a grievous wound. Admittedly, most of the bow is buried in a massive pile-up of mud, but what was visible was a series of split seams, popped rivets, and sprung plates, the result of the iceberg bumping and scraping along the side of hull. When the records of the British Inquiry were examined, it was found that the rate of flooding indicated an area open to the sea that totaled little more than twelve square feet. Translated into a continuous gash three hundred feet in length meant that the cut could have been only about three-quarters of an inch wide–possible with an acetylene torch, but not an iceberg. Nevertheless, bent plates and open seams in the first five compartments caused by the iceberg grinding its way along the Titanic‘s hull would have had the same effect as a long continuous gash: uncontrollable flooding.
The overall condition of the wreck was also startling. For decades oceanographers and marine archaeologists had believed that the ship was sitting in a veritable deep-freeze, with the cold water (only a degree or two above freezing) and the tremendous pressure (six tons per square foot) keeping the free oxygen to very low levels and reducing the salinity of the water, retarding corrosion and rust. It was also thought that there would be a near-total absence of marine life, sparing the wood and fabric furnishings of the ship from consumption. Instead, the expedition discovered that the Titanic rests in an area where the oxygen and salinity are higher than normal for such a depth, and that wood-boring worms no one suspected lived at those depths had eaten away almost all of the wood. Instead of a near pristine ship, they found a dilapidated wreck, covered with iron stalactites running down her sides. She was slowly but inexorably decaying.