In late October I found myself in Manhattan Beach, California, inside a hangar-size film studio where James Cameron, surrounded by dazzling props and models from his 1997 movie, Titanic, had assembled a roundtable of some of the world’s foremost nautical authorities—quite possibly the most illustrious conclave of Titanic experts ever gathered. Along with Cameron, Bill Sauder, and RMST explorer Paul-Henry Nargeolet, the roundtable boasted Titanic historian Don Lynch and famed Titanic artist Ken Marschall, along with a naval engineer, a Woods Hole oceanographer, and two U.S. Navy architects.
Cameron could more than hold his own in this select company. A self-described “rivet-counting Titanic geek,” the filmmaker has led three expeditions to the site. He developed and piloted a new class of nimble, fiber-spooling robots that brought back never before seen images of the ship’s interior, including tantalizing glimpses of the Turkish bath and some of the opulent staterooms.
Cameron has white hair and a close-clipped white goatee, and when he’s wound up on Titanic matters, a certain Melvillean intensity weighs on his brow. Cameron has also filmed the wreck of the Bismarck and is now building a submarine to take him and his cameras to the Mariana Trench. But the Titanic still holds him; he keeps swearing off the subject, only to return. “There’s this very strange mixture of biology and architecture down there—this sort of biomechanoid quality,” he told me at his Malibu compound. “I think it’s gorgeous and otherworldly. You really feel like this is something that’s gone to Tartarus—to the underworld.”
At Cameron’s request, the two-day roundtable would concentrate entirely on forensics: Why did the Titanic break up the way she did? Precisely where did the hull fail? At what angle did the myriad components smash into the seabed? It was to be a kind of inquest, in other words, nearly a hundred years after the fact.
“What you’re looking at is a crime scene,” Cameron said. “Once you understand that, you really get sucked into the minutiae. You want to know: How’d it get like that? How’d the knife wind up over here and the gun over there?”
Perhaps inevitably, the roundtable took off in esoteric directions—with discussion of glide ratios, shearing forces, turbidity studies. Listeners lacking an engineering sensibility would have extracted one indelible impression from the seminar: Titanic’s final moments were hideously, horrifically violent. Many accounts depict the ship as “slipping beneath the ocean waves,” as though she drifted tranquilly off to sleep, but nothing could be further from the truth. Building on many years of close analysis of the wreck, and employing state-of-the-art flooding models and “finite element” simulations used in the modern shipping industry, the experts painted a gruesome portrait of Titanic’s death throes.
The ship sideswiped the iceberg at 11:40 p.m., buckling portions of the starboard hull along a 300-foot span and exposing the six forward watertight compartments to the sea. From this moment onward, sinking was a certainty. The demise may have been hastened, however, when crewmen pushed open a gangway door on the port side in an aborted attempt to load lifeboats from a lower level. Since the ship had begun listing to port, they could not reclose the massive door against gravity, and by 1:50 a.m., the bow had settled enough to allow seawater to rush in through the gangway.
By 2:18, with the last lifeboat having departed 13 minutes earlier, the bow had filled with water and the stern had risen high enough into the air to expose the propellers and create catastrophic stresses on the middle of the ship. Then the Titanic cracked in half.
Cameron stood up and demonstrated how it happened. He grabbed a banana and began to wrench it in his hands: “Watch how it flexes and pooches in the middle before it breaks—see that?” The banana skin at the bottom, which was supposed to represent the doubly reinforced bottom of the hull, was the last part to snap.
Once released from the stern section, the bow shot for the bottom at a fairly steep angle. Gaining velocity as it dropped, parts began to shear away: Funnels snapped. The wheelhouse crumbled. Finally, after five minutes of relentless descent, the bow nosed into the mud with such massive force that its ejecta patterns are still visible on the seafloor today.
The stern, lacking a hydrodynamic leading edge like the bow, descended even more traumatically, tumbling and corkscrewing as it fell. A large forward section, already weakened by the fracture at the surface, completely disintegrated, spitting its contents into the abyss. Compartments exploded. Decks pancaked. Hull plates ripped out. The poop deck twisted back over itself. Heavier pieces such as the boilers dropped straight down, while other pieces were flung off “like Frisbees.” For more than two miles, the stern made its tortured descent—rupturing, buckling, warping, compressing, and gradually disintegrating. By the time it hit the ocean floor, it was unrecognizable.
Sitting back down, Cameron popped a pinched piece of banana in his mouth and ate it. “We didn’t want the Titanic to have broken up like this,” he said. “We wanted her to have gone down in some kind of ghostly perfection.”
Listening to this learned disquisition on the Titanic’s death, I kept wondering: What happened to the people still on board as she sank? Most of the 1,496 victims died of hypothermia at the surface, bobbing in a patch of cork life preservers. But hundreds of people may still have been alive inside, most of them immigrant families in steerage class, looking forward to a new life in America. How did they, during their last moments, experience these colossal wrenchings and shudderings of metal? What would they have heard and felt? It was, even a hundred years later, too awful to contemplate.
St. John’s, Newfoundland, is another of Titanic’s homes. On June 8, 1912, a rescue ship returned to St. John’s bearing the last recovered Titanic corpse. For months, deck chairs, pieces of wood paneling, and other relics were reported to have washed up on the Newfoundland coast.
I had hoped to pay my respects to the people who literally went down with the ship by flying to the wreck site from St. John’s with the International Ice Patrol, the agency created in the disaster’s aftermath to keep watch for icebergs in the North Atlantic sea lanes. When a nor’easter canceled all flights, I found my way instead to a tavern in the George Street district, where I was treated to a locally made vodka distilled with iceberg water. To complete the effect, the bartender plopped into my glass an angular nub of ice chipped from an iceberg, supposedly calved from the same Greenlandic glacier that birthed the berg that sank Titanic. The ice ticked and fizzed in my glass—the exhalations, I was told, of ancient atmospheres trapped inside.
I could still get a little closer, physically and figuratively, to those who rest forever with the ship. A few years before the disaster, Guglielmo Marconi built a permanent wireless station on a desolate, wind-battered spit south of St. John’s, called Cape Race. Locals claim that the first person to receive the distress signal from the sinking ship was Jim Myrick, a 14-year-old wireless apprentice at the station who went on to a career with the Marconi Company. Initially, the transmission came in as a standard emergency code, CQD. But then Cape Race received a new signal, seldom used before: SOS.
One morning at Cape Race, amid the carcasses of old Marconi machines and crystal receivers, I met David Myrick, Jim’s great-nephew, a marine radio operator and the last of a proud line of antique communicators. David said his uncle never spoke about the night the Titanic sank until he was a frail old man. By that point, Jim had lost his hearing so completely that the only way the family could converse with him was through Morse code—manipulating a smoke detector to produce high-pitched dots and dashes. “A Marconi man to the end,” David said. “He thought in Morse code—hell, he dreamed in it.”
We went out by the lighthouse and looked over the cold sea, which crashed into the cliffs below. An oil tanker cruised in the distance. Farther out, on the Grand Banks, new icebergs had been reported. Farther out still, somewhere beyond the bulge of the horizon, lay the most famous shipwreck in the world. My mind raced with thoughts of signals bouncing in the ionosphere—the propagation of radio waves, the cry of ages submerged in time. And I imagined I could hear the voice of the Titanic herself: A vessel with too much pride in her name, sprinting smartly toward a new world, only to be mortally nicked by something as old and slow as ice.