Washington — The pilot house awnings are still up, offering shade from an unseen sun. Cargo cranes on the forward deck look ready to swing into action, as do the winches and chains and other bric-a-brac that one might expect to find on the deck of an ocean vessel. The short jack staff perches proudly on the ship's bow. So, too, stand the davits that once held lifeboats. One can almost make out the elaborate oriental patterns woven into the carpets of a grand staircase leading to the men's first-class smoking section.
These are the first images, revealed in blue-tinted photographs on Wednesday, of what remained after one of the biggest maritime tradgedies in history. The luxury liner Titanic, gashed by an iceberg late on the night of April 14, 1912, slipped beneath the frigid waters of the North Atlantic and hit bottom some 13,000 feet below the waves. More than 1,500 of the ship's 2,200 passengers are thought to have perished in the disaster.
Dr. Robert Ballard, the scientist who helped head the expedition that found the great ship last week, seemed still just as affected by the images as anyone at a press conference held Wednesday at the National Geographic Society headquarters here.
``Amazing,'' he said. Several photographs revealed china plates, wash basins, fully-packed luggage, and whole cases of wine tossed carelessly on the sea floor, yet preserved as pristinely as if flash-frozen in time. Not far away lay hulking coal boilers.
Dr. Ballard said he found particularly arresting ``the gentleness of something next to a massive, twisted bulkhead,'' refering to the intact but fragile objects on the sea floor. He also added that the images made him wonder just ``how some things survive and others don't.''
Although the expedition, carried out jointly by United States and French teams, has resulted in one of the most spectacular underwater finds ever, Dr. Ballard and his colleagues are particularly excited by the performance of the equipment used to locate the wreck. Ballard says that the expedition was carried out primarily to test a deep-towed sonar and video-camera system, dubbed Argo. It is billed as being on the cutting edge of a new era in underwater exploration.
The US Navy has provided the lion's share of Argo's $15 million development cost and is reported to be acutely interested in employing Argo-style technology in undersea search, rescue, and surveillance work. Some observers speculate that Argo-style technology could be used to find underwater canyons that might be used as launch sites for nuclear missiles.
Ballard intends to take the system with him to the North Pacific Ridge next year to continue his research on underwater mineral vents.
The Argo may have been the factor that allowed this search for the Titanic to succeed where others failed. Although it was believed to have gone down at longitude 41 degrees, 46 minutes north and latitude 50 degrees 14 minutes west, no one has been sure of the exact location. Stormy seas and chilly waters have hampered efforts to find it out. Jack Grimm, a Texas oilman who has launched searches for Noah's Arc, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness monster, thought his 1983 Titanic search yielded a fuzzy image of t he ship's propeller blade. But bad weather prevented them from verifying the find.
In the most recent expedition, investigators from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution teamed up with scientists from the Paris-based Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea. French researchers undertook a systematic study of navigation logs from ships that rescued some of the Titanic's passengers so that the team would have a better chance of locating the Titanic.
The French research vessel Suroit went out first, trailing a specially modified side-scan sonar to rule out large sections of a 100-square-mile research area. Later, US researchers on the Woods Hole vessel Knorr concentrated on critical areas found by the French ship, and made visual contact with the wreck on Sept. 1.
The elation that researchers aboard the Knorr felt with the initial discovery of the Titanic soon gave way to a sober contemplation of the tragedy it represented. The realization was made all the more poignant, said Ballard, by his discovery that the accident probably could have been prevented in the first place.
The California, a US luxury liner that was supposedly 12 miles from the Titanic at the time it hit an iceberg, may have actually been as close as five miles from the sinking ship. That would have been close enough, Ballard said, for the ship's captain to have spotted the Titanic and saved many, if not all, of its passengers.
To foil any salvage efforts, Ballard and his crew won't divulge the ship's precise location. Ballard has said he plans to return to the site in the deep-sea manned submersible Alvin next summer. But he strongly opposes any attempts to raise the wreck, saying it should remain a memorial to those who died on the Titanic. To those ends, Rep. Walter B. Jones (D) of New York has just introduced a bill to designate the liner a maritime memorial and defer any tampering with the site pending an international ag reement on the shipwreck's future.