Time, Tide and Man Take Toll on Titanic

If you travel some 450 miles east of Newfoundland, into the cold immensity of the North Atlantic Ocean, you will come to a spot that's unremarkable in every way, except for what lies below.

Two and a half miles down lies the iron soul of the greatest shipwreck of all time: the R.M.S. Titanic.

This week, Robert Ballard, the National Geographic explorer in residence and the man who discovered the Titanic wreckage in 1985, made a bittersweet return to the ship.

Ballard — along with scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a team from the National Geographic Society — has come back to document the decay — and some say the "desecration" — of this underwater graveyard.

Ten years ago, a U.S. federal court awarded an Atlanta company called RMS Titanic Inc. sole salvage rights to the ship. But as you might imagine, that court order has been nearly impossible to enforce. There are no shipwreck police or security guards out in the vast, wild North Atlantic. So the Titanic, alone at the bottom of the ocean for so many years, has most certainly been host to many souvenir-seeking visitors.

All told, it's been estimated that as many as 8,000 artifacts may have been hauled away as "salvage" from the liner — everything from the ship's china to a part of its hull.

While Ballard wants to study the site, he is hoping the Titanic and all the history it holds can be preserved. "To me, the Titanic is an old lady in her grave, and we are taking the jewels off this old lady, can't she have her jewels in her grave?"

Of course, in many ways the old lady's most precious jewel is her story, which, like the ship itself, is of epic proportions.

Ballard paints a picture of April 14, 1912, the night of the ship met its doom.

The night was beautiful — flat seas, but no moon. And that was a problem, Ballard explained. Because icebergs were lurking out there. Without the moon, they weren't illuminated.

On board the Titanic were society's glamorous elite.

"You had the wealth and power of the world riding on that ship. You had Lady Astor on the Titanic. You had Guggenheims. It was all eyes were turned to it because of its passengers," Ballard said.

But at 11:40 p.m., the lavish dream world ended with a crash against an iceberg.

History and Hollywood have not always seen eye to eye on who may have first seen the looming iceberg. But scenes from the 1997 blockbuster film Titanic are considered to be a remarkably accurate portrayal of the big ship's last moments.

Ballard explained the results of the crew's attempt to avert calamity. "By taking that evasive action, they exposed the side of the ship and it [the iceberg] raked along the whole starboard side of the ship. It took out too many watertight compartments," he said.

It took just 90 minutes for nature to undue what had taken 3,000 men and two years to build. Some 1,500 lives were lost, and as many stories were born.

"You had a young boy, 17, on the trip and when the officer said, 'You can get in the lifeboat,' he said, 'I'm a man now' and died," Ballard said.

Thomas Andrews, the man who designed the Titanic, died too.

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