Frank J. W. Goldsmith remembers the night the Titanic sank. He was just nine years old when he and his mother stepped into one of the last lifeboats to leave the sinking ship.His father remained on board and apparently went down with the ship.

The English family, like most of those in third class, was emigrating to the United States. The Titanic could have carried up to 4,000 persons that night, mostly in third class. But there were only 2,224 aboard due to emigration restrictions imposed by the British government.

A third-class ticket cost $30; John Jacob Astor paid $5,000 for his stateroom. But unlike the masses below, he had access to fancy salons, a small driving range, and expensive cuisine. An estimated $250 million in wealth belonging mostly to first-class passengers went down with the ship, says William Tantum IV, president of the Titanic Historical Society in Indian Orchard, Mass.

With hindsight, it was a foolhardy, perhaps even arrogant thing to do -- steam swiftly ahead in the night despite the possibility of icebergs in the area.

But then the luxurious British passenger ship Titanic, on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City, was being called "virtually unsinkable" by its owners, the White Star Line. Its double-bottomed hull was divided into 16 watertight compartments, four of which could be flooded without sinking it.

Mr. Goldsmith, now living in a mobile home in Florida, recalled the games of children on board during the days before the disaster. "We kids would occasionally try to get into one of the lifeboats and play," he said," and a sharp voice would cry out: 'Boys, stay away from those lifeboats.'"

Then on April 14, 1912, at 11:40 p.m., after the ship veered slightly to avoid a head-on collision with an iceberg spotted at the last minute, five of those watertight compartments were ripped open by an underwater edge of the towering iceberg. Over the next 2 hours and 40 minutes, the bow of the ship sank lower and lower. Young Frank and his mother and 38 other persons were lowered in collapsible lifeboats, minutes before the Titanic sank. Some of the women had "overcoats over their nightgowns," Mr. Goldsmith recalled. "Lots of crewmen jumped overboard at the last minute."

Finally at 2:20 a.m., with some 1,500 persons still on board, the stern of the 15-deck, 882-foot-long Titanic (nearly the length of three football fields) lifted almost perpendicular to the sea and slid rapidly beneath it. The water at the location is estimated to be 12,000 feet deep.

That was 68 years ago, but by some estimates the ship may be in one piece and in relatively good condition. This July, an adventuresome Tampa filmmaker, Michael Harris, will attempt to locate the Titanic using sonar echoes and to film the remains by dangling underwater cameras and bright lights from a search vessel. He is backed financially by a wealthy poker-playing Texas oilman, Jack Grimm of Abilene, who has funded unsuccessful searches for the legendary Loch Ness monster and Big Foot.

Several attempts to find the Titanic have been made before by others but have failed for lack of money or organizational talent. If the current attempt is sucessful:

* The public will get its first look at the sunken ship whose disaster spurred ship safety reforms (see accompanying article on this page). The Titanic has been the subject of several books and will soon be the topic of a movie. Mr. Harris hopes to produce a documentary film of the search, including close-ups of the sunken ship.

* Oceanographers hope to learn more about long-range effects on animal life from man-made intrusions on the ocean floor. Such data could help predict environmental effects of such projects as deep-sea oil rigs, says Dr. William B. F. Ryan. Dr. Ryan, of the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory of Columbia University, and other scientists from the University of California Scripps Institution of Oceanography have been contracted by the search organizers to try to help locate the Titanic this summer.

* Project organizers hope to reap a sizable bounty from their efforts and investments. Mr. Harris talks in terms of millions of dollars in profits from the sale of a documentary film, advertisements, selling film rights to other countries, and by other promotions. Even more money might be forthcoming if access to the ship's cargo or safe can be gained. Many of the passengers were very wealthy and may have left considerable valuables in the ship's safe. Other "souvenirs" from the ship might fetch attractive prices.

Mr. Harris estimates the project will cost $3 million to $4 million, far above the $150,000-$250,000 he has spent on each of his three previous documentaries. A professional promotion agency has been hired to handle distribution of the intended films and photographs of the Titanic. "We would be able to claim ownership of the Titanic," says Mr. Harris.

The project's success is by no means guaranteed. "It's not an easy job," says Dr. Ryan. The biggest uncertainty, he told the Monitor, is finding the Titanic. The ocean floor where the Titanic is supposed to have sunk is a "long, long slope," he says. Other oceanographic research has found rocks the size of houses that have moved a hundred miles on only a four-degree slope "in a few hours or a few days," says Dr. Ryan. The Titanic could have slid far away from its supposed location, he says. "We're telling Mr. Harris it's a possibility," says Dr. Ryan.

Filmmaker Harris speaks optimistically of being able to locate the Titanic. He notes there were several ships that took navigational bearings on the distressed Titanic the night it sank. And further clues come from the location of lifeboats picked up. These clues all locate the sunken ship within about five square miles, says Mr. Harris, some 380 miles southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland.

The search team will use sonar scanners pulled slowly back and forth near the ocean floor over the target area and, if necessary, over a 30-mile area. The scanners, unlike some currently being used that detect objects only up to a few hundred years away, can detect metal objects "a couple of miles" away, says Dr. Ryan. As sound waves echo back to the scanner, they are translated into images on a screen aboard the search vessel, which is equipped with bow propellers to minimize drift. Details the size of a lifeboat will be clearly distinguishable, says Dr. Ryan.

Mr. Harris says the search team should be able to cover the targeted 30 -square-mile area within 10 to 15 days. But bad weather could delay the search, cautions Dr. Ryan. After about two weeks at the site, the ship would need to return to shore for refueling, he says. And even if the Titanic is where Mr. Harris hopes it is, it may be capsized, says Dr. Ryan. (This could lower its value as a film object.)

But wherever the Titanic is, both Mr. Harris and Dr. Ryan venture that it is reasonably intact. The low level of oxygen and low water temperatures at that depth are believed to have maintained the ship against major rusting and deterioration. If the Titanic is located this summer, Mr. Harris hopes to spend the rest of the time at sea filming it with still and television cameras dangled more than two miles beneath the search vessel.

Dr. Ryan says such a filming task compares roughly to dangling cameras from the Empire State Building in a 40-mile per hour wind and trying to take close-up pictures of a manhole cover on a street below. (Actually, the Empire State Building, 1,250 feet tall, is only 1/10 to estimated depth of the Titanic.)

If the Titanic is located and filmed this summer, and if the water is not too murky, and if there are not too many snagging cables in the area, Mr. Harris hopes to take even better pictures in the summer of 1981. Then he will descend to the Titanic in a specially equipped research submarine, the Aluminaut. The submarine will have two robot-like cameras tethered to it that can be guided inside any open passageways, he says. Two arms on the front of the submarine will be able to grasp objects.

"That's what I've dreamed about: going down in a submarine to see the Titanic ," says Mr. Harris. "I just love adventure," he says. He candidly adds that the Titanic search, if successful, should be a great commercial success as well.Mr. Harris's track record so far, he admits, has not been one of great commercial success. His only distributed film is on ships sunk in the Marshall Islands by atomic and hydrogen bomb exercises by the US. Two other documentaries have not been released.

Mr. Harris, who has spent considerable time in Turkey, also would like to make a film about the biblical sites Paul visited. And, says the former Eagle Scout, it would be exciting to travel to the moon some day and perhaps even explore earth's most dense rain forests in search of evidence of dinosaurs.

Mr. Harris claims no interest in raising the Titanic, a scheme that was the subject of a popular novel now being made into a movie. Dr. Ryan calls the idea "absurd," but adds that it might be possible with the use of some kind of flotation device, such as millions of glass ping pong balls. To him, "the ship is exciting because it's on the bottom of the ocean."

Mr. Goldsmith, who is in touch with a few of the other survivors, is interested in the plans to find and film the Titanic for more personal and more simple reasons. Somewhere in a water-filled third-class room, he says, lies a nine-year-old boy's cap pistol and a mother's sewing machine, abandoned in haste some 68 years ago.

Several international navigational reforms were drawn up in 1913 as a result of the Titanic Disaster, says William Tantum IV, president of the Titanic Historical Soceity (which plans its own search and film expedition for the sunken ship in the summer of 1981):

1. Formation of the International Ice Patrol to warn ships of ice in North Atlantic shipping lanes.

2. Requirement that all ship radios be manned 24 hours a day when at sea. The radio operator of the California, which was only 19 miles from the Titanic when it sank, was off duty when distress signals were radioed, says Mr. Tantum.

3. A regulation that the number of life jackets and lifeboat seats mustmatch the maximum number of passengers allowed on board.m

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today