The fascination with the Titanic just goes on and on. The latest tantalizing development is a sneak preview of the first comprehensive map of the ship's wreckage strewn along at the bottom of the North Atlantic.
The expedition, co-sponsored by the RMS Titanic Inc., the U.S. National Park Service, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, used sonar imaging to map the three-by-five-mile debris field, and snapped more 130,000 photos.
Among the findings were indications that the ship's stern -- which snapped off when the ship began to plunge -- began to spin like a helicopter rotor. Scarring along the ocean floor, where the stern came to rest, provides evidence of this.
The new images provide a much more detailed picture of the Titanic's remains than underwater photographs taken in 1985, when the wreckage was first found. They could also provide new clues about what really happened to the ship that fateful night in April 1912.
"The reason this is important is because to this day, we really don't know exactly what happened to the ship," says Parks Stephenson, an amateur Titanic historian who was a consultant to the expedition.
"We've turned the lights on in the room. We've seen the entire crime scene, if you will. And now we can piece it all back together and determine exactly what happened. What we have now is all the evidence. We have all the pieces of Titanic now."
The complete imagery won't be made public until the History Channel airs the documentary on the expedition in April. But Stephenson hints that there will be some startling new revelations.
"I think what we've found challenges even some of the most basic questions," Stephenson says. "Such as, did the Titanic even hit the iceberg? The evidence brings up additional information that we just didn't have before and some of the results have been surprising."
The Titanic apparently struck a hulking iceberg in the North Atlantic, ripping open the hull. In a matter of hours, the "unsinkable" luxury liner sank, killing more than 1,500 people. About 700 people survived.
Even before the blockbuster 1997 movie "Titanic," the luxury liner's ill-fated maiden voyage in 1912 had gripped imaginations of generations.
"Everyone wants to know who the villain was," says Stephenson. "Who messed up? Who caused this disaster? Did somebody cut corners?"
With the coming centennial, comes some new theories.
A physicist at Texas State University says an extremely rare alignment of Earth, moon and sun could have created unusually high tides that carried huge icebergs much farther south than was normal for that time of year.
There's also a previously overlooked account from a survivor of the disaster who claims that the captain of the Titanic was drunk,
Emily Richards wrote a letter in which she claimed Capt. Edward Smith had been drinking in the ship's bar shortly before the Titanic hit the iceberg.
Richards, who was 24 at the time, and her two sons survived. Her brother, George, died.
In a letter to her mother-in-law, she wrote: "The boat struck a(n) iceberg at 11 o'clock on Sunday night. The captain was down in the saloon drinking and gave charge to someone else top stare (sic) the ship. It was the captain (sic) fault. My poor brother George."
Several Titanic historians have said that is the only account alleging the captain was drunk. Stephenson says it doesn't even matter because another officer was steering the ship when the accident occurred.
"i have seen no evidence Capt. Smith was drunk, and even if he was, it would have had no impact on the disaster," he said.