'Titanic' Survivor Reflects, 90 Years Later

When it set sail from Southampton, England, 90 years ago, the supposedly unsinkable Titanic was the very symbol of the future.

"We were not supposed to go on that ship; we were supposed to go on another one," says Millvena Dean, 90, of Ashurst, England, one of only four survivors still alive today. "But as there was a lack of coal and they wanted all the coal for the Titanic … so we were asked if we'd like to go on the Titanic. So my father was delighted."

But on April 14, 1912, on its maiden voyage, the Titanic hit an iceberg. It sank to the bottom of the frozen North Atlantic, more than 2 miles beneath the waves.

Dean was just an infant.

"My brother and I in were bed, and [family members] heard a crash and went to see what it was," she says. "Of course, they heard that the ship had struck an iceberg. And then my father acted so quickly, I'm pretty certain he saved us.

"He … got us up on deck to a lifeboat, where, as I said, the other people said, 'Oh no, it's unsinkable, it won't sink,'" Dean said. "But he was quicker on the uptake, and I think that's what saved us."

Dean's father, Bertram, saved his family but not himself. He was among the more than 1,500 of about 2,200 people on board the Titanic who died at sea. His daughter is the youngest of the four remaining survivors, who also include fellow Briton Barbara West, 91, and Americans Lillian Asplund, 96, and Winnifred Quick, 98.

The Stuff of Movies

The Titanic was originally scheduled to arrive in New York City, bringing with it many eager to start a new life in America. Instead, so many lives were lost, and entire families changed forever.

Contemporary newspapers reported an iceberg had brought down the jewel of the White Star Line in less than three hours. But we know now there was much more to the story.

"There was an arrogance about it all in some regards, too, disregarding the ice warnings, where other ships stopped and the Titanic steamed on — into fate," says oceanographer Robert Ballard, president of the Institute for Exploration at the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn.

Over the years, the public's fascination with the tragedy lingered. Hearings on the cause of the disaster made early headlines, and then came books and movies such as A Night to Remember, Raise the Titanic and the 1997 Best Picture Oscar winner, Titanic.

It took more than seven decades before Ballard and a team of explorers found the great ship's final resting place in 1985.

"It was a Mount Everest in my field, a mountain that hadn't been climbed," says Ballard. "The time had come to climb her. And I was fortunate to be the first to the top in that regard."

Ballard's small titanium subs and rovers, with cameras that could dive to bone-crushing depths of 12,000 feet, finally gave the world its first glimpse of the sunken ship, and the gash that ultimately spelled its doom.

"I was afraid that every time I started talking about the Titanic I would lose it, because it was such a powerful experience, and one I totally did not expect," Ballard said. "I think, 'Here I am a scientist, you know? I know what I'm doing. I'm a pro, you know?' And yet when I start talking about this ship, it takes on a human aspect to it and it's very powerful."

Monument to Tragedy, Bravery

The Titanic is not just a monument to tragedy, but also to heroism. The ship's captain, Edward J. Smith, went down with his ship in the wheelhouse and Margaret Brown — the famous "Unsinkable Molly Brown," who was saved by the ship Carpathia — helped weaker survivors.

"When the Carpathia docked, all of her friends went off to the Ritz and to the Plaza, and they kicked back and they broke open a bottle of champagne, downed some caviar and just put their feet up and said 'oh,'" said Helen McKinney, Brown's great-granddaughter.

"Margaret never left the Carpathia," McKinney added. "She stayed on board until every one of the steerage passengers, the second-class passengers and anyone who had come over who had lost absolutely everything in the sinking, had a place to go or at least had someone to meet them and take care of them."

Questions swirl over what should happen to the Titanic now: Should it become a public memorial or private mausoleum? Tourists are spending small fortunes to travel down and see the great ship with their own eyes. Should it be salvaged or left where it lies, at final rest?

ABCNEWS' Don Dahler contributed to this report.