New Clues about the Sinking of Titanic

MS. SUSAN PAGE

11:06:54
Thanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is recovering from a voice treatment. One hundred years after the sinking of the Titanic, the tragedy continues to captivate the public imagination. Now, high definition photographs reveal details of the undersea wreck that have never been seen before. They provide clues about what really happened on that fateful April night. Joining me in the studio to discuss this is David Alberg of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

MR. DAVID ALBERG

11:07:31
Good morning, Susan.

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11:07:32
And from member station KANW in Albuquerque, N.M., we're joined by historian and journalist, Hampton Sides. Hampton Sides, thanks for being with us.

MR. HAMPTON SIDES

11:07:43
It's good to be with you.

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11:07:44
We invite our listeners to join our conversation later in this hour. You can call our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850, send us an email to drshow@wamu.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Hampton Sides, you have the cover story in this month's National Geographic Magazine, titled "Titanic, Illuminated." So why 100 years after this ship sank does it still warrant the cover of National Geographic?

SIDES

11:08:17
Well, I think National Geographic has always kind of viewed the Titanic as its turf. You know, Bob Ballard discovered it or co-discovered it back in 1985 and the magazine has increasingly viewed this subject as, you know, central to their mission because there's so much technological prowess that goes into putting together one of these issues. Every one of these expeditions, I mean, we're talking two and half miles down. It's a real test of photographic ingenuity as well.

PAGE

11:08:56
Oh, yeah.

SIDES

11:08:57
Just to get these images. So it's central, I guess, to their mission. And every time they go down there, they bring something back that's fascinating.

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11:09:07
You know, I guess, I meant less why National Geographic was interesting, more why people continue to want to read about it or...

SIDES

11:09:14
Yeah.

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11:09:14
...have learned more about the Titanic. Why is it still interesting?

SIDES

11:09:18
Yeah, well, it's one of those subjects, it's almost like a fable or a Greek myth, a tragedy of such proportions that, you know, there's something in it for everyone, whether you're someone who's interested in the period costumes or the folks on board and what sort of time capsule the ship gave us of Edwardian times. Or if you're more technologically oriented, the engineering wonks and the people who are really interested in the forensics of the ship, the architecture, the engineering, all of it is viewable on the ocean floor with this new image. So there's something in it for everyone. And I think that probably 100 years from now, it'll still be one of those handful of subjects that is always talked about.

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11:10:13
Yeah, interesting. Well, David Alberg, you were a member of the deep sea expedition Titanic that was August 2010, so almost two years ago, which resulted in these new high definition images that we can now see. So tell us what that expedition was like? How did it come about?

ALBERG

11:10:34
Well, it came about as a byproduct of discussions between the company that has the salvage rights for Titanic, a company called RMS Titanic Incorporated, they're part of Premier Exhibitions. And they had reached out to NOAA, the National Park Service and Woods Hole to talk about developing an expedition back to the site that would be different from anything that they had done before. And expedition not geared at recovering artifacts but recovering information. And this was done, quite honestly, I think, in some regard to answer critics of the company who had said, we shouldn't be recovering artifacts, salvage at a site this significant shouldn't happen.

ALBERG

11:11:19
And there are people on both sides of that debate that can argue back and forth. But, I think, in response to that, RMST wanted to go back and do something different, do something for the greater good. And it was in NOAA's best interest as well as Woods Hole and others that were a part of the expedition, Waitt Institute was also a part of this, to participate because, as I said, the goal was to recover information. Information that would then be distributed to the American public and people around the world to help us better understand the shipwreck, the shipwreck site, the sinking, the history, all facets related to Titanic.

ALBERG

11:11:55
And just to touch on something Hampton had said, I think one of the things that's interesting about it is, Titanic continues to attract people from all different facets, the tech people, the forensic people, the romance -- the people that are interested in the story because of its romance. And I think the expedition touched on all that, too. It was a group of people from different technical backgrounds, all coming together, maybe for slightly different reasons, but for the greater good of the site.

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11:12:22
But not to take anything away from the site. To map the site and photograph it?

ALBERG

11:12:26
Correct, yeah.

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11:12:26
And what kind of technology was used in doing this? Things that some devices that hadn't been available before.

ALBERG

11:12:35
Yeah, the approach that was used was to look at the site in its entirety, not at individual pieces, not a study of the bow section or the stern section or a piece of keel bottom that had been found in previous expeditions. But to step back, step -- something that was technically was very difficult to do, but to step, you know, up to the 100,000 foot level, so to speak, and look at the entire site as a whole. And the technology that was brought to do that were some very advanced autonomous underwater vehicles, we call them AUVs from the Waitt Institute. These things are about -- gosh, I guess, they're about 10 feet long, the big yellow flying torpedoes and they were named Ginger and Mary Ann. And we used those in combination...

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11:13:20
Now, that would be a reference to Gilligan's Island, I guess?

ALBERG

11:13:22
Precisely.

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11:13:23
Yeah.

ALBERG

11:13:23
Precisely. And these two robotic craft can take sonar images, optical images but they can do it incredible detail. And their location on the Earth is linked to satellite, so we know exactly where they are as they're going over the site. And then in addition to that, Woods Hole's advanced underwater visualization laboratory brought, for the first time, 3D cameras -- high definition 3D cameras that were attached to a fairly sophisticated ROV or Remotely Operated Vehicle that worked on the site. So as the two torpedoes were flying back and forth over the site, we could go in in specific areas and image those very specific things that we wanted to look at.

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11:14:08
If people want to view some of these new photos, you can go to the drshow.org website and look at a slideshow from these National Geographic pictures. Well, Hampton Sides, what did we learn from these pictures? What did we learn that we didn't know before?

SIDES

11:14:23
Well, it's been said that, in previous expeditions, our view of the wreck was as if we were, say, in New York City at midnight, in a rainstorm, trying to understand the city with a little pen light. You know, we were getting limited views of pieces of the wreck in the murk. It's viewed through the porthole of a submersible with a little bit of light directing us. Now, what we have, for the first time, is a macro image of the entire site. Every object, every davit, every crane, every hatch cover, the bow, the stern but ever other piece in between.

SIDES

11:15:07
And what it allows us to do, for the first time, and I say us generally, I think we're really talking about forensic experts who know every inch of that ship, the living ship. It allows them to work backward and begin to say, well, how did these things get here the way they did? What does it say about precisely how the ship broke up and why the ship broke up. Perhaps it indicates some structural flaws in the original ship. It basically is a crime scene photograph which could keep people busy for decades.

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11:15:44
You know, it was interesting, some of the photos shows things like, you can see a clock, this very elaborate gold clock, still sitting in place. So you can see small things as well as some of these big things that you're talking about. David Alberg, what does this site look like now?

ALBERG

11:16:01
Well, it's a very barren place. Initially, you see it appears very desolate. And after you've spent, you know, it's just gray clay bottom and then the massive debris that lies all around the wreck. After you've been down there for a while, you start noticing a lot of things. And you begin to notice that the site is actually, even though it's two and a half miles down, it's very alive. There's all sorts of crabs and mollusk living on the site. You see fish constantly moving through. We saw octopus, just an amazing variety of life. But it is very much like looking at the surface of the moon. The color is very much like that.

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11:16:40
And, you know, one of the interesting things is that there is some debris from previous expeditions that are kind of littering the site. What kinds of things are there?

ALBERG

11:16:51
Well, I've saw a number of things while we were there. There was a detergent box laying on the bottom. There was a beer can. And I think the beer can, in particular, really was one of the first pieces of garbage that I'd seen on this site, really struck home the need to begin, from NOAA's perspective and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, to begin looking at how we manage this site differently. There was plastic cups, like you'd use at a party, laying on the bottom. And some of this stuff, to say that it was from previous expeditions, may not all be true. I think some of it is debris that is just thrown overboard by passing ships.

ALBERG

11:17:29
And so you have this site which is regarded by almost everyone on the planet as hallowed ground, as a place where an amazing tragedy took place that's hundreds of miles from the nearest shipping lane and it's littered with garbage. And it begs the question, if we're not taking care of a place like this, how are we taking care of our coastlines and on our oceans on a grander scale? So it was disturbing, I guess, to see that.

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11:17:57
We're talking with David Alberg, he's superintendent of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He's here in the studio with me. And we're also talking from station KANW in Albuquerque, N.M., with Hampton Sides. He's a historian and journalist. He wrote the cover story on the Titanic in this month's National Geographic. He's also the author of "Ghost Soldiers" and "Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King, Jr." We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we're going to go to the phones and take some of your questions. Our phone lines are open, 1-800-433-8850 or you can send us an email, drshow@wamu.org. Stay with us.

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11:20:04
A hundred years ago this week the Titanic sank. Hampton Sides, do we know for sure what led to this ship sinking?

SIDES

11:20:14
Well, of course, it was declared an unsinkable ship and whenever you declare something unsinkable, the very first thing that's going to happen is it's going to sink. And it was its maiden voyage. It struck this iceberg. It struck it in a very particular kind of way. If it had hit it straight on, there's a good likelihood that the ship could have survived that impact. But instead, it sideswiped the iceberg which resulted in the puncturing of not one, not two, but five of these airtight compartments -- watertight compartments. And that ensured that the ship would sink.

SIDES

11:20:58
So that's not really the greatest part of the mystery. The greatest part of the mystery is why it sank so quickly and questions about the people onboard. You know, there was questions about could there be more people saved, were the lifeboats used correctly, were people put into the water quickly enough? And there was another boat not very far away that could have come to the Titanic's rescue that, for a combination of reasons, didn't appear to get the message and didn't understand the gravity of the situation. So it became this great tragedy of errors, small errors that were committed after the striking of the iceberg.

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11:21:41
One of the things that became clear through this new research is how quickly it sank. How fast did it go down?

SIDES

11:21:49
I believe it was two hours and forty minutes, which was just enough time for this great kind of tragic play to be enacted on the stage of the Titanic. It gave people enough time to react. Those who were cowards were going to be cowards. Reports of one individual who put on women's clothing, a man who put on women's clothing and got in one of the boats. The band played on. The Marconi radio operators continued to send out their distress signals. The captain stayed at the bridge. By and large most people acted honorably and kept to their Edwardian stations.

SIDES

11:22:33
All this going on with the lights blazing. For some reason, all the lights stayed on until the very end. So it's like, you know, this little play being acted out. And it allows I think all of us to imagine what we would've done in that situation. Would we have been brave? Would we have been cowardly? How would we have handled the stress of the situation?

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11:22:56
Well, the granddaughter of the Titanic's second officer wrote a book that came out in 2010 saying that she had kept this family's secret that her grandfather had turned the wheel the wrong way and that's why they crashed into the iceberg. Is that correct, do you think?

SIDES

11:23:14
I've heard that and I don't know what to make of it. It seems like every anniversary, and particularly this one being the 100th, there's a bunch of new books that come out saying, no, the real reason the Titanic sank was the quality of the rivets. They didn't use the right rivets or the quality of the steel in the hull of the ship. Or, you know, this story about the -- about turning the wheel the wrong way. It is actually -- you know, this whole idea of smashing directly head-on into that iceberg and that the ship might've survived, that is a really interesting idea to me. And it is true probably that by turning at all, they may have ensured the sinking of that ship.

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11:24:03
Interesting. Well, let's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join this conversation. Christopher's calling us from Gulf Breeze, Fla, which is a great name for a town. Hi, Christopher.

CHRISTOPHER

11:24:15
Howdy. I was calling because a report I did as a kid said that the RMS Titanic was actually a mail ship. It was the Royal Mail Ship Titanic. And the purpose of it was built to ship mail across the sea. And all the reports I've been hearing lately is it was actually a passenger liner. So was it built for mail, was it built for passengers? Were the passengers just inconsequential?

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11:24:39
All right, Christopher. Let me ask our panel. David?

ALBERG

11:24:42
Well, the ship was built as a passenger ship cut and dry but like -- even like a modern airplane today the purpose of the ship is to make money for its owners. So they do that through passenger revenues, but they also do it through, in essence, in the case of Titanic, a contract with the British government to be certified as a Royal mail steamship to carry mail between the United States and England. So it was very much a mail ship, but its purpose was to move passengers. That was its primary purpose.

ALBERG

11:25:18
The fact that she carried the title RMS was an honor, I would say, that she was certified as one of these ships that was a sign that it was a well regarded ship and was under contract with the British government. I think hopefully that answers your question.

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11:25:40
And, Hampton Sides, in fact, it had some of the wealthiest people in the world as passengers on that maiden voyage. Who was on the ship?

SIDES

11:25:49
Well, because it was the maiden voyage everyone who had the wherewithal wanted to be on there and this is probably one of the reasons why it is an enduring source of fascination. It's just the incredible wealth that was onboard. I can't remember all the individuals, but I think there were, what, like five or six millionaires were onboard, which was...

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11:26:17
John Jacob Astor IV, of course, famously was on there. Isidor Straus, who owned Macy's and I think...

SIDES

11:26:22
Macy's, yes.

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11:26:23
...it was his wife who refused to get in a lifeboat if he couldn't, so they went down together. Molly Brown, famously, who did survive.

SIDES

11:26:31
Right. And so I think that the fact that there was all these millionaires and this whole glamorous life that was being lived in the first class state rooms. But also then there was third class, steerage class, a lot of people who were coming to America to start a new life. Unfortunately they were the ones who died in the largest numbers. And, you know, it was a snapshot of Edwardian society and all the different classes.

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11:27:02
And of course one reason we remember it is because of the movies that have been made about it. I think we have Andrea from Morehead City, N.C. with a question about that. Hi, Andrea.

ANDREA

11:27:13
Hi, thank you so much. I just heard on NPR Jim Cameron is a diver and I just wanted to understand, did the movie come about, you know -- and I've seen the original with George C. Scott as captain and I've seen the romance version, if you will, of it over and over again. Did the movie -- because of the diver and I'd just like to know how the movie actually, you know, came to us. Thanks.

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11:27:42
All right, Andrea. Thanks very much for your call. Hampton Sides, can you answer that?

SIDES

11:27:47
Yeah, I spent a decent amount of time with Cameron at his place in Malibu and kind of came to understand his fascination with this wreck, which goes way back. He did the movie in some ways because he really wanted to dive the wreck. His fascination with the actual wreck site drove his interest in making the movie. He's been down there 33 times. He is not a dilettante on this subject.

SIDES

11:28:14
He, along with his brother and some other engineers, have developed a new class of very agile robots which are able to go in to the state rooms and bring back these amazing images, which are also published in the magazine, of the Turkish baths and various rooms. And some of the rooms are actually in remarkably good condition as these images show.

SIDES

11:28:37
But Cameron is an explorer and has a lot of money to explore with. And what's interesting is that some of his profits from making the movie Titanic have gone back into all kinds of exploration both at the Titanic site -- he's been down to the Bismarck, he's been down recently to the Mariana Trench and is developing a new submarine to stay at depth for long periods of time. So he's really into this stuff.

SIDES

11:29:07
I spent a decent amount of time with him trying to understand his fascination with it. It's almost like bordering on obsession, I would say. And when he gets wound up on all this stuff, there's this sort of Melvillian intensity on his brow there, you know. He likes to get in a room with other experts and really hash it out. And, you know, it's pretty esoteric stuff.

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11:29:30
And are the movies a pretty accurate recreation of what happened that night, do you think?

SIDES

11:29:35
Obviously, the central storyline is a fiction, complete fiction, you know, and he makes no bones about that. But the period authenticity, the costumes, the sets, the ship itself, which he built to scale and I think it was somewhere in Mexico where the thing was filmed, is remarkable. His attention to those details all the way to the breakup of the ship is very accurate.

SIDES

11:30:05
He now knows some things that he said if he knew then he would've made the movie slightly differently. That steep angle at the very end when the ship is plummeting was probably not quite so pronounced. Little things like that that he might've changed, but, you know, basically no. I don't think anyone's calling any question the accuracy in terms of the way the ship itself is portrayed.

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11:30:30
All right. Let's talk to Denise. She's calling us from Tampa. Hi, Denise. Denise, can you hear me? I'm sorry -- oh, here, Denise?

DENISE

11:30:40
Yes, good morning.

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11:30:40
Yes, that was my fault. Denise, my apologies. Please go ahead.

DENISE

11:30:45
Yes, my grandfather was in Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. He was quite elderly when I was born so my line goes back further. And so he would've worked on Titanic. My mother's best friend, her father lived to be 100. He was interviewed by the media sometime back. So actually, I walked on the slipway a few years back where it was launched. I held a rivet in my hand that came up from the ship. And yes, it was a bit rough 'cause it felt like burning a hole in my hand.

DENISE

11:31:19
I took a little boat down by the river where the lagan come out to Belfast loch to see where it comes out in the water. And there's a big concrete block which actually had to move, surprisingly enough. And it must've been just like a birth, you know. It was heard five miles away in the town of (unintelligible) . You should look at the map of Northern Ireland. There is a peninsula and just at the head of that odd peninsula, the town of (unintelligible) .

DENISE

11:31:44
The Vikings, by the way, sailed their boats 1,000 years ago, upstream, the loch just there, the inland sea. So the loch is their shipping history. And I talked to the man Francis John Crockinson (sp?) and he was 90 -- he's passed away. His father of the same name made the doors. And I saw the plane and his chisels that he used. No computer-aided design. It was all hand skills and...

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11:32:11
I want to ask you, so your grandfather helped build the Titanic. Was there sensitivity at that shipbuilding yard about the idea that there might've been mistakes made in the design or construction of this ship that contributed to its demise?

DENISE

11:32:26
Well, I don't know because my grandfather -- I just visited him on Sundays after Sunday school and I wasn't old enough really to ask questions. And I have to say that in Belfast over many, many, many years nobody discussed it. It was something so much in the past and almost like a pool of shame as if something, you know, so bad had happened to their company.

DENISE

11:32:47
I knew Bill Gillespie. He was the office -- the collection audits for Harland and Wolff and he used to say, you know, everybody wants to know about it got put through to him. And he felt that the company was just so shocked, so overwhelmed that one of their ships would've gone in that way that they didn't even want really much known about it. They just more or less destroyed things and said well, we really can't tell you much. It was so long ago.

DENISE

11:33:11
I heard a man who was discussing the rivets. I went to a convention in 1997 in the Waterfront, a new beautiful auditorium (unintelligible) there where Titanic was launched. And actually, Art Garfunkel was there the day before on the new auditorium. And then we had a Titanic conference next. And this man was actually discussing about the state of the rivets, which was come from Scotland.

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11:33:36
Right. Well, that's so interesting, Denise. We're so glad you gave us a call to tell about your family connection to the Titanic. I'm Susan Page of USA Today and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." You know, David, we have an emailer, Laura, who's writing us from Vermont who says, "For my whole life, and I am now 50, I have never understood why the Titanic was so darn important. What about the Lusitania or the Maine? Was it because there were so many very rich folks aboard?" What do you think?

ALBERG

11:34:04
Well, I think that gets to the heart of all these questions. What is it about this ship that makes it so important? I mean, it was not the only passenger liner. In fact her sister ship the Olympics went on for a number of years before it was scrapped and Britannic was lost during World War I. But there are certain stories -- and maybe it's our enduring connection with the sea, maybe it is the way all these events came together. I was thinking about Cameron's movie -- if Jim Cameron had made that movie and the Titanic had not happened in reality, nobody would've bought a ticket. They would've thought that it was so fantastic that nobody would've believed it.

ALBERG

11:34:51
But the fact is it did happen. And I think for so many different reasons it is one of these stories that is locked in to our collective conscious as part of our collective humanity, as part of our memory as a culture, not just here. You know, use the example of Titanic as an analogy, people anywhere in the world will understand what that means. And I think it's hard to answer the question why it is so significant to so many people. But it is and I think that's why you get so much attention on these anniversaries, and why we're interested in seeing the shipwreck protected.

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11:35:31
You know, Hampton, also -- I'm sorry, go ahead.

SIDES

11:35:33
Yeah, I was going to say, I think that also contributing to that is the depth of this wreck. It is so deep, it is so far down there, it took so long for us to even find it -- it wasn't until 1985 that Ballard co-discovered the wreck so its depth creates obstacles for anyone, any explorer or archaeologist to study this thing. And those obstacles have produced incredible advances in technology, like these images in the current issue of National Geographic.

SIDES

11:36:07
But every step along the way there's been these huge advances and so it's a little bit like going to the moon. It's like, yeah, that's the goal but it's the spinoff technology that's interesting and creates this great puzzle to solve. It's so deep, it's so far down there that, you know, whole categories of technology have had to be invented. It's sort of like the Everest of shipwrecks. And I think if it had sunk in 300' of water like the Lusitania most of the mysteries would've been solved a long time ago. And perhaps some of the mystique of the ship wouldn't be there.

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11:36:44
How did they go about initially discovering the wreck in 1985? I mean, it had been so many years since it had gone down, what enabled them to finally find it?

SIDES

11:36:53
Well, part of it had to do with money, you know, raising enough money to mount these sorts of expeditions. The second thing was the technology. The sonar technology improved after the war. But, you know, there were a number of people before Ballard who tried who spent enormous sums of money thinking they found it, wondering if they'd found it. And then finally Ballard really found it kind of by accident. It was kind of luck. Certainly a lot of effort and a lot of painstaking sort of mowing the lawn as they call it, going back and forth, back and forth...

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11:37:33
Yes.

SIDES

11:37:33
...over this area of the ocean. But it's so far down there. And another thing contributed to that which...

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11:37:39
And we're going to just take a short break and when we come back, we'll let you continue your story. We hope our listeners will stay with us. Thanks.

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11:40:05
Welcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're joined by David Alberg, who's a member of the Deep Sea Expedition Titanic in August 2010. And Hampton Sides is joining us. He's the historian and journalist who has written about new research and photographs from the site of the Titanic. And, Hampton Sides, before the break I interrupted you as you were discussing how this wreck was initially found in 1985.

SIDES

11:40:32
Yeah, sorry for kinda going on before the break there. But the point I wanted to make was prior to the discovery in 1985, most people believed that the wreck was in one piece. There was testimony in the inquiries after the disaster from eyewitnesses who thought they saw the ship break up in half, but others said, no, absolutely not, it was in one piece, it was intact. So people like Ballard who are looking for the ship were essentially looking for one intact vessel. They really weren't looking for this sort of scattering of debris all over the place.

SIDES

11:41:11
It was only when they found it and realized that the stern section and bough section were actually considerably far apart from each other that this realization was proven, that it really did snap in half at the surface like some of the eyewitnesses had suggested.

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11:41:29
Here's an email from Wendy who's writing us from Michigan. She writes, "My grandmother, a Finish citizen, would've been a third class passenger on the Atlantic sailing to America for an operation by a U.S. doctor. One version of our family's story says that she was literally boarding the ship when her friends and family told her she did not need to board because a doctor had been found for her. The other says that she was turned away because of her condition. But needless to say, my mother and my siblings would never have been born had she gone on the voyage. Where can I go to find out information about the people who had tickets to board at that time? It would be a very important keepsake for our family."

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11:42:06
Any advice for her? Hampton or David, either one of you have any idea where she might be able to go to get this kind of information?

SIDES

11:42:16
There's a lot of stuff on the web now. There's just -- and this speaks to the enduring fascination of the ship is that there's so many websites devoted exclusively to RMST, I mean, to RMS Titanic. And I'm sure that there would be some information there. Another thing is to go to the new museum that's in Belfast at the site of the Harland and Wolff shipyard. Those are two likely places. Perhaps also the archives of Cunard.

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11:42:50
You know, Denise...

SIDES

11:42:52
I mean, White Star -- excuse me, the White Star Line.

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11:42:54
...Denise, an earlier caller, was talking about how her family in Belfast, this was not a subject that was discussed. David, you said you had also had that experience there.

ALBERG

11:43:04
Yeah, I was in Belfast about four years ago and was -- and at the time the -- and it may still be the case, that the grounds that Harland and Wolff had occupied where Titanic were built were being converted into -- there was a development company called Titanic Quarter that was converting that to condominiums and a museum and a visitor center and a number of other things. But my expectation was that the community would have embraced Titanic as part of their past and their history. And I found that Titanic, even as recently as a few years ago, was something that they just didn't talk about. There weren't a lot of monuments. There were a few.

ALBERG

11:43:41
And when you went -- and it didn't help that it was sort of a dreary day that I was there, but the slipways and the drafting room where the draftsman had worked on titanic, there was nobody there. It was all in disrepair. It was sort of on the edge of town and it was not what I had expected. And I was very aware of the fact that this was a history that certainly wasn't embraced by the people of Belfast.

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11:44:06
You know, that's interesting. Do you have theory, Hampton, on why that is?

SIDES

11:44:11
No, no, not really. That's a good question though.

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11:44:16
Let's...

SIDES

11:44:17
I should give it some thought.

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11:44:18
All right. Let's go to Lawrence. He's calling us from Louisville. Lawrence, thanks for holding on.

LAWRENCE

11:44:22
Yes, thanks. I've been fascinated by this since high school and seeing "A Night to Remember," the movie back then. But in hindsight, the only thing floating after the Titanic struck the iceberg was the ice. In hindsight, would it have been smart and would it be smart today to offload passenger onto floating ice, that is the growlers and the sheet ice that was in the area, rather than put them into an insufficient number of lifeboats, transfer them over to the ice in order to try to save lives?

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11:44:50
Well, interesting question. David, what do you think?

ALBERG

11:44:54
I've heard that question asked before. My gut reaction to it, not -- we don't even know conclusively if the iceberg that's been shown in some of the photographs was in fact the iceberg, but the picture that I have seen of the berg that was reported to be the one that hit Titanic was fairly steep sided. And it's easy I guess to quarterback after the fact, but the prospect of unloading 1500 people onto a sheet of ice when -- on a platform that was already sinking, I would imagine the disaster would've been ultimately worse than maybe a better coordinated effort to get them into the lifeboats that they already had.

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11:45:37
Well, Hampton, we have an email from -- I'm sorry, Hampton, did you want to say something else?

SIDES

11:45:40
I was just going to say it does seem -- I've heard that same thing discussed and it seems so counterintuitive, you know, the very thing that's sinking you, you go back to find it, track it down somewhere and offload your passengers onto it. It could've, you know, it could've worked actually. But it just violated the thinking at the time that, you know, you -- also it's really important to understand for the first hour or so, people could not believe this thing was going to sink. It was really hard to get people into those lifeboats because they felt, well, that looks like a lot more dangerous thing to do. I'm gonna stay here on this big ship, this unsinkable ship. So there was a lot of denial to work through in that first hour. It's one of the reasons the death toll was as high as it was.

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11:46:28
We have an email from Susie and from any number of other people saying, "So why were there fewer lifeboats than the number of passengers and crew? Why was that situation?"

ALBERG

11:46:40
Well, Hampton, you may have more information on this, but the short answer is that the Titanic carried the number that were required by law, but they didn't care. But that number didn't necessarily -- because the size of Titanic was larger than any other ship that had been built, the ratio of boats to passengers was in fact out of whack. And so although the original designs called for more lifeboats on the decks of Titanic, they were removed because it was thought that they would detract from the promenades and the walkways that the passengers would enjoy if they were not onboard. So that was one of the reasons.

SIDES

11:47:22
Yeah, basically it was just the minimum, the bare minimum required by law. And of course the other sad aspect of this is that the first few lifeboats that were launched didn't have near capacity. Because, like I said earlier, people just couldn't believe this was gonna sink. They were in denial, so some of those boats were launched with, like, half the capacity. So the death toll certainly didn't need to be anywhere as large as it was.

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11:47:49
Did this disaster have an impact on safety regulations for ships in the aftermath of its sinking?

SIDES

11:48:00
Yes. One of the big things that happened after the disaster was in January of 1914, the International Ice Patrol was established, which patrolled the sea lanes basically looking for icebergs. And it still exists today. It's mostly done by air now, but that certainly has helped with safety. And I don't think there's been a single other major liner that's struck an iceberg or resulted in any kind of death toll ever since the Titanic.

ALBERG

11:48:30
And it's important to note that striking icebergs was not a -- I don't wanna say that it was a common occurrence, but Titanic is not the only ship that's ever hit an iceberg. If you look at the history of the maritime record, that has happened on a number of occasions with anything from fishing boats to other ships. But there is the unique confluence of all these special factors about the maiden voyage and the ship size and her significance and the depth and all these other things that make this story the one that has resonated.

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11:49:04
Here's an email from Lucille. She asks, "Could your guests comment on a recent theory that unusually strong springtides because the moon was at its closest point to earth produced very strong currents that brought the iceberg into the path of the Titanic?"

ALBERG

11:49:20
Yeah, there was an article that was just -- I guess it was yesterday in the New York Times, an article about a book that was released with -- and this theory's been posed before that the unusual high tides, the cold water may have caused mirages that put a haze at the lower part of the horizon which allowed -- did not allow the crew to see the iceberg. And it seems plausible. I'm not an atmospheric researcher, but I think as you talk about rivets and steel and mirages and all these things, one of the things that has interested me is our ongoing fascination.

ALBERG

11:49:57
It's one of the only disasters that I can think of that typically we study a disaster like this from a forensic perspective to incorporate new designs into things to make it safe. If an airplane crashes tomorrow, we wanna know exactly why it happened so that the next airplane doesn't fall out of the sky for the same reason. The way Titanic was constructed, the technologies that were used in Titanic are long gone. We don't do that anymore. So it begs the question why are we still so fascinated with what was it that caused it, what was the exact sequence of the sinking. It really has nothing to do with incorporating new safety designs. It has to do with something deep inside all of us, wanting to know or desire to wanna know everything about this ship.

ALBERG

11:50:43
I think it comes back to something that I've heard on a number of occasions and even Hampton brought it up. We can't help but ask ourselves how would we have acted, how would we have dealt with that situation if we were on the deck of Titanic. So the different theories, I think they're all interesting, they're all good. Whether we'll know for sure conclusively what was the spiraling down sequence to the bottom, what was it that actually caused the compartments to flood and the order and the speed with which they did, we may never know. But I think the larger question, at least for me that's more interesting, is why we still care so much.

SIDES

11:51:19
Yeah, I mean, what other wreck causes people to go back and study the tidal patterns from 100 years ago? What other wreck causes people to go back and study the possibility of mirages on the horizon? There's really nothing like it.

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11:51:38
You know, we've gotten a couple of emailers asking about whether there were any black people aboard the Titanic. One of them says, "Boxer Jack Johnson was not onboard because he was refused passage because he was black." I don't know if this is a question you know the answer to, Hampton. Do you?

SIDES

11:51:54
I believe there was one, a Jamaican doctor or, no, Haitian doctor. I saw this at the RMST exhibit which was interesting, you know, all these artifacts that have been brought up, over 6,000 of them, by the RMST Corporation, which is based in Atlanta. But their show is currently at the Luxor Hotel of all places in Las Vegas. And in that exhibit somewhere I did see something about this Haitian doctor who apparently was the only African American onboard the ship.

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11:52:30
All right. I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've been taking your calls and questions. We'll keep doing that. Let's go to Halethorpe, Md. and talk to Al. Hi, Al.

AL

11:52:43
Hi. I just had a question about if you guys could draw any comparison between the Titanic and the Concordia that just ran against the reef a couple weeks ago and the behavior of the crew and the confidence of an emergency situation, the emergency procedures. Can you draw a contrast or similarity between the two?

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11:53:11
Okay. Al, thanks very much for your call. David, would you have a view on that?

ALBERG

11:53:14
Yeah, just some thoughts. I think that it actually goes beyond the crew. One of the things that has fascinated me over the years is the different ways in which people in 1912 handled tragedy versus the way we handle it today. When I was out on the site, I kept thinking repeatedly, especially at night when you'd be by yourself looking out over the water, what an amazing event it must've been, that juxtaposition of one minute you're in the lap of luxury and everything's great and you're a day or two away from New York and two hours later you're sitting in a lifeboat if you were one of the lucky ones going, what just happened? How did this happen? How does the world change so quickly?

ALBERG

11:54:00
People sat in those lifeboats and they watched their husbands and wives die. They got into a boat knowing that they wouldn't see their family members again, saying goodbye to their children for the last time and seeing this event that even by modern standards would be something that you would think would change you forever. But interestingly enough, the survivors who lived on to old age, who talked about Titanic, I have never gotten a sense -- there wasn't this -- they sort of quickly moved on. It became part of their past, part of their family history. Some would not talk about it, some would.

ALBERG

11:54:37
But it has always struck me as sort of stark contrast with maybe how we handle things in our modern lives, tragedies of this sort where we -- I even think that the investigations that took place into Titanic, the Senate investigations and inquiries that took place afterwards were designed to understand it and to prevent it from happening again. And, again, this is just my opinion, but much less about trying to put blame and seek -- you know, certainly there were lawsuits and things of that nature, but it was just a different world. People seemed to deal with that differently, those type of events, than they do today.

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11:55:13
Interesting. You know, today there was supposed to be an auction in New York for 5,000 relics salvaged from the wreck of the Titanic. We've just gotten a report from AFP that that auction's been delayed. We're not sure why. But this auction of relics, what kind of things are included in that? And it's been, I guess, David, somewhat controversial that it's being auctioned off.

ALBERG

11:55:35
Yeah, I think the salver of Titanic, RMST and RMS Titanic Incorporated, they have the salvage rights for the ship. They don't own the Titanic and their company has made the decision to put the collection up for sale and are looking for buyers through an auction approach. What's important about this sale, though, is that -- what's important, I guess, about the relationship with RMST and the court which granted those salvage rights is that although they are allowed to go forward and seek a buyer, the court has worked very closely with NOAA and others to generate a set of covenants and conditions that will protect that collection for the better good of humanity for all time.

ALBERG

11:56:23
So for instance, the collection can never be broken apart, a teacup sold here, a piece of silver there. It has to be sold in mass in its entirety as one piece to a entity that will assure that it is displaced for the public good. And the court has to approve that sale. So I know that RMST was hoping to announce a winner for the auction of sorts. But even if they had made that announcement today, all they really would've done was announce that they had a bidder that had been approved by their board at least to go to the next level, but ultimately it's the court that will decide where that goes and that's done to make sure that these artifacts are protected.

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11:57:02
David Alberg of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We've also been joined this hour by Hampton Sides. He's a historian and journalist and the author of the cover story for this month's National Geographic. It's titled, "Titanic Illuminated." Thanks to you both for joining us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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