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Copper Kettle, Light Fixture Among Eerie Details : Explorer Gives a Video Tour of Titanic

July 31, 1986|BOB DROGIN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Robert D. Ballard, chief explorer of the Titanic, led reporters on a dramatic guided photographic and video tour of the 74-year-old sunken luxury liner Wednesday, telling a hushed auditorium that "the Titanic is protecting itself" from salvage by its severe decay.

"Most of the artifacts that would motivate people, I think, are not there," said Ballard, leader of the scientific expedition that returned Monday after making 11 submarine dives to the wreck about 2 1/2 miles under the North Atlantic.

Except for a shiny two-foot-high bronze statue sighted near the bow--apparently of a Titan, one of the legendary Greek giants for whom the storied ship was named--Ballard said most of the visible debris is from third-class cabins and a kitchen in the broken stern area. Nearly all the ship's once-ornate wood paneling and structures were eaten by wood-boring worms.

'Only a Nub' Remains

"To see the whole wheelhouse eaten was very disappointing," Ballard said. He said that "only a nub" remains.

The expedition provided the most detailed photos and first eyewitness accounts of the wreck's condition since the Titanic, then the world's largest and most luxurious ship, hit an iceberg and sank on April 15, 1912, with a loss of more than 1,500 lives. The wreck was discovered last September.

Using a three-man mini-submarine and two remote-controlled submersibles, the scientists shot more than 57,000 photos and about 50 hours of videotape of the wreck and debris. The only artifact taken, a broken and rusted cable that accidentally lodged in one of the submersible's casing, was thrown back.

Ballard's descriptive tour of the Titanic--augmented by a plastic ship's model, several dozen slides and a five-minute video film--drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 to the news conference at the National Geographic Society.

Close-up slides and videos showed in eerie detail how the ship's once-gleaming hull is blanketed by what Ballard called "rivers of rust" and stalactites of brilliant red, yellow and gold. The rust even formed "eyelashes or eyelids over the portholes," he said.

Kettle Polished Clean

One slide showed a copper kettle, polished clean by ocean currents and particles in the water, sitting upright and surrounded by lumps of coal in the mud. Another slide showed a handrail and hanging light fixture outside the third officer's cabin window. A video shot showed what appeared to be a small fish nibbling at the growth near a porthole. Another focused on the Titanic's stern, where Ballard said, "time has wiped its name away."

The photos and video take on a murky blue tint as the distance increases. Ballard, an ebullient 44-year-old engineer and geologist, compared the problem of photographing the giant ship to "looking at bark and trying to describe the forest."

Holding up the plastic model, Ballard said the Titanic's bow nose-dived into the bottom with such force that it "made a shock wave in the sediment" and created an "impact crater" that buried the forward area up to 50 feet deep.

He said it was "very puzzling" that none of the ship's four 62-foot-long smoke stacks was found. He said the stacks may have drifted farther as they sank, or more likely, their thin steel plates had rusted more quickly.

Ballard repeated his finding that scientists found "absolutely no evidence" of a suspected 300-foot-long gash where the iceberg hit the starboard bow. Instead, Ballard said the iceberg apparently sheared rivets from the steel hull plates and punctured others. "When you think about it, a snow cone trying to go through an inch of steel, maybe the gash was an overdone thing," he said.

Surprised by Stern

Ballard said he also was surprised to find the ship's stern broken off, 600 meters from the bow, and turned completely around. He said the stern now points in the same direction--north by northeast--as the better-preserved bow. In addition, the inner ribbing of the stern's steel hull is "peeled outward" and exposed, presumably from damage as the ship sank through the ocean's crushing depths.

"The bow was still majestic, the bow still had its nobility," Ballard said. "The stern was a carnage of debris. It just looked violent, torn and destructive."

To some in the audience, Ballard's description was an emotional journey to a gilded symbol of another age. Charles Haas, president of the Titanic Historical Society, said he got "shivers up my spine" as the video showed the ship he has studied for about 25 years.

"It was like meeting an old girlfriend with whom you corresponded for many, many years and this was our first face-to-face meeting," he said. "It was a very special feeling."

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