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Iceberg, Dead Ahead

In a little-known epilogue to the story of the Titanic disaster, the International Ice Patrol was formed. To this day, its mission is to scour the North Atlantic and warn ships

April 15, 1998|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland — Today, over the deep, cold waters of the North Atlantic, three wreaths will fall from the sky.

Around midday, a lone U.S. Coast Guard plane will slow as it approaches latitude 41-46N, longitude 50-14W--the coordinates at which the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank into history 86 years ago. A brief prayer will be said, and the red-bowed wreaths of pine branches, and blue and white carnations will be cast out of the aircraft's side door.

Two of the wreaths are from Titanic historical societies in America and Britain and are offered as memorials to the maritime disaster that claimed 1,517 lives in the darkness of early morning. The third is from the International Ice Patrol and is meant, too, as a remembrance, but also as a warning of what could still happen in that vast expanse of iceberg-rich sea.

"When you fly over it, it's real eerie," said Elisa Fusco, 32, who's been tracking icebergs for the patrol for three years. "It looks like normal water, but you know all those people lost their lives around that spot. We just want to prevent something like that from ever occurring again."

Despite significant technological advances, icebergs still loom as the single greatest hazard to shipping in the North Atlantic. The mammoth ice blocks command a fearsome respect among the hundreds of ship captains who must contend with the potentially lethal menace.

As big as a city block and weighing up to the equivalent of 14 Empire State Buildings, "bergs" are perilous natural marvels well beyond human control. In the extreme, if wind and water cooperate as they did the year the Titanic sank, icebergs can make it as far south as Chesapeake Bay, off Virginia, before succumbing to their only real enemy, warm temperatures.

Usually settling into one of seven main shapes, icebergs can resemble a jagged cathedral of ice, with one or more steeples reaching skyward. At other times, they can appear as flat and smooth as a giant bar of soap. And on a bright day, the reflection off the pure white surface can be near-blinding, but an iceberg can also generate hues of brilliant turquoise just below the surface.

"They are the sculptures of nature," said Lt. Brandon Jones, 32, a patrol copilot and Alaska native. "They're mountains of ice. They just make us seem so minuscule."

Not a Single Ship Lost or Damaged

For 85 years, the International Ice Patrol has been the first and best line of defense against icebergs. Logging an astounding safety record, the public agency has more than lived up to its original purpose as established by international treaty shortly after the Titanic disaster. Not a single ship that has heeded the patrol's warnings has ever been lost or damaged because of an iceberg.

The feat is even more noteworthy considering the Grand Banks, the shoal just off the eastern coast of Canada, is one of the most dangerous shipping areas in the world. Dense fog, severe storms and icebergs beset these heavily traveled shipping lanes between Europe and North America, and doomed hundreds of vessels long before Titanic's tragic maiden voyage.

In spite of its success, and that of the cinematic juggernaut "Titanic," the 16-member patrol continues to labor in cold obscurity. While the film has spurred record numbers of media inquiries, Web site hits and phone calls to its headquarters in Groton, Conn., the patrol still draws far more looks of bemusement than recognition.

"Most people have no idea who the International Ice Patrol is because nothing has happened," said the patrol's Lt. Tom Wojahn, 33. "But if, say, the Queen Elizabeth 2 hit an iceberg, we'd get very popular, very quickly."

If the patrol's name did somehow become better known, it could easily create a wrong impression. For starters, the patrol chases icebergs only in the North Atlantic, not around the globe.

Its crew is also about as international as the International House of Pancakes. The U.S. Coast Guard staffs the patrol and has done so since it was formed a year after the Titanic accident.

Seventeen nations are obligated to contribute to the patrol's annual budget of $3.6 million, but the United States pays the bulk of it. Patrol officials generously characterize efforts to collect full payment from other member nations as a "challenge."

And though it's Coast Guard-run, the patrol works exclusively from the air, not the sea. They abandoned cutters in favor of radar-equipped aircraft decades ago.

But every ice season, the patrol faces losing its good if somewhat misleading name from the hundreds--even thousands--of icebergs that drift south from Greenland into its territory. From February to August, each mission casts an electronic net over 500,000 square miles of ocean, ever mindful that a mistake could send another ship to an early grave.

Scanning the Waters, Then Waiting

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