“For this extraordinary team of brave scientists and explorers, the expedition represents the pinnacle of our careers. There is no greater legend or mystery of the sea than Titanic. This mission is primary in our lives. So, you can imagine the joy that will be reflected in our faces when we see the ship’s hull re-emerge from the ocean that claimed it 84 years ago.” (George Tulloch, President, R.M.S. Titanic Inc., 1996)
During July and August of 1996, a small task force was positioned directly above the wreck of the Titanic. In all there were five surface ships and three submersibles. This included two research vessels, the Nadir and the Ocean Voyager, the deep-salvage ship Kilabuk, the deep ocean submersible Nautile, capable of depths of 20,000 feet, two smaller “rover” submersibles, and two passenger ships - the Royal Majesty out of Boston and the Island Breeze out of New York.
Additionally, the expedition was covered by French television, NBC, and the Discovery Channel. A small TV studio was constructed on board the Nadir.
The piece lies about 75 feet off the stern section of the wreck. It is believed to have come from “C” Deck midway back on the ship’s starboard side between the third and fourth funnels.
Those responsible for recovering the “chunk,” however, were less jocular about their charge of raising this fifteen ton object through 2 ½ miles of unruly North Atlantic seawater as evidenced by Paul-Henri Nargeolet’s concern: “Everytime I look at it, it seems bigger . . . Very big, I don’t know about this.” Captain Nargeolet is the expedition’s commander.
The Lifting Procedure (in Theory)
Nothing of this size has ever been raised to the surface from these depths before. Recovery team experts have calculated the weight of the chunk in advance by estimating its surface area and thickness. The “mud slurp” factor (the effect of seabed sediment holding the piece down) can only be guessed at since no one is positive how deeply it is embedded into the bottom.
The simplified procedure is this; six green and red “lift bags” will each be filled with
5,000 gallons of diesel fuel from the recovery vessel Nadir.
They will be attached to the piece then raise it to the surface. Each bag has a lifting capacity of 3 ½ tons. The bags were made by the French company Pronal and are tested far beyond the strength needed to contain the fuel and there is little risk of environmental damage. If experts have underestimated the weight of the piece relative to the lifting potential of the bags, it will remain on the bottom.
The step-by-step procedure is outlined here:
1. The diesel fuel floatation bags are lowered to the seabed. They will be pulled to the bottom by 25 tons of scrap iron chain. Diesel fuel bags, while still lighter than water, are more maneuverable than air filled bags.
2. The deep sea submersible Nautile has to move each floatation bag into its final position near the piece. The six lift bags will be positioned 40-60 meters away from the piece, some above and some above and to the side. To do this, each bag is made “neutrally buoyant” to ease the maneuvering. By cutting lines hanging from each bag to smaller ballast chains and bags of iron shot, the main ballast can be lifted to a hovering position just off the bottom.
4. The Nautile backs away from the piece because its owner, IFREMER, doesn’t want their submersible anywhere close when it comes time to yank 15 tons of brittle steel from the sea floor.
5. An acoustic signal is transmitted from the Nadir on the surface to a cylindrical transponder attached to a release mechanism tying the lift bags to their chain ballast below.
6. When the release mechanism activates, the chains are dropped to the bottom, the bags begin to rise pulling the lines and the piece off the bottom.
But this expedition has had more than its share of bad luck. Yesterday, the Nautile reported from the wreck site that the largest of the six lift bags was missing along with 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel. A search was initiated to find the bag but with no success - it was gone. Several smaller bags were taken down and attached to the piece to make up for the lost lifting capacity.
Wednesday, August 28th. Recovery Begins.
The Titanic landed upright on the seabed in two major sections. The bow section, about two-thirds of the ship’s total length, is positioned 800 yards from the stern and rotated 180 degrees pointing at the stern. In between is a debris field littered with thousands of artifacts and small pieces of the ship. Most of the Titanic’s superstructure had been torn off as the ship sank at an ever increasing speed, estimated at exceeding 45 miles per hour when colliding with the bottom. Experts had thought that the Titanic would still be in good condition at these oxygen-less depths, but this is not true. Most of the ship’s wood is gone and she is dissolving at an accelerated pace on the ocean floor. In another generation or two, there may not be anything remaining.
On this morning, however, all things are calm on the ocean surface. We learned that the evening before at 6:45 PM, an attempt was made to lift the piece just off the sea floor in preparation for today’s raising. Unfortunately, two of the lift bags were not deployed because their transponders malfunctioned and didn’t release, holding the bags prisoner on the bottom. The only chance to release them now was to have Nautile’s remote unit, Robin, equipped with a cutting blade and have her slice through the remaining two lines. IFREMER will not allow Nautile to get close enough to the lines for that operation. Three days earlier, Nautile had gotten tangled among some vertical lines and there were a few tense moments. Because the largest lift bag was lost, it was replaced yesterday by two smaller bags.
“The idea is that since Buzz went all the way to the Moon, it would be really cool to take him to the bottom of the ocean. In fact, some people on the ships feel strongly that if only IFREMER would put Buzz in the pilot’s seat, why that ol’ Big Piece would be headed up in no time” (Jim Boyer of the Discovery Channel).
The launch crews are so well drilled in their duties that one dive almost exactly resembles another, each crewman in proper position and all eyes in the Dive Command Center, aboard the Nadir, are fixed on computer monitors. Placed on a moveable cradle, the Nautile emerges from its hanger and is gently, but steadily, rolled down a track toward Nadir’s stern. Crewmen in yellow jumpsuits and hard hats walk beside and behind the cradle, closely monitoring every movement.
The pilot, co-pilot, and observer attend to their final preparations before being locked into the submersible for twelve hours. Divers set out from the Nadir in inflatable zodiacs to circle the spot where the Nautile will be set into the water. When Nautile reaches the end of the fantail, a large lift line is secured to her topside. Launches can be hazardous, the 18 tom Nautile can swing wildly even in medium seas. When the submersible reaches the water, Nadir’s engines speed up so that the Nautile will drag behind but not strike the mother ship.
2:00 PM. Communication from the bottom.
The Nautile is now positioned 200 feet from the piece which is now standing upright on the bottom, two of her eight lift bags still tethered to their ballast lying on the sea floor. The remote, Robin, has been dispatched to her slicing mission.
“Then we backed away from the buoyancy (of the piece), the lifting devices, the cables, and the transponder so that we would be clear in the event that it lifted off. The vision was so clear it looked like we could just reach out and touch the cables. Unfortunately, our communications says that it is not lifting up so we are standing by. We are going to wait a few minutes then go up and give it another try on the other weights.”
There is no backup if anything goes wrong at this depth. No vessel can come to the rescue. If a bomb could be detonated at this depth, the pressure is so great that it would not explode, it would actually implode. This is why the dives are planned so carefully and rehearsed many times. The Nautile carries oxygen sufficient for three for 72 hours but, if the vessel was stranded on the bottom, the crew would freeze to death before they would run out of air. The temperatures at the wreck site are well below freezing but the currents and high concentration of salts and minerals keep the water flowing. According to Yann Houard, one of the Nautile pilots, “It’s very safe and we don’t think about nightmares, we don’t think about danger. The pressure (on the sea floor) is so high that, if for any reason, the sub had to collapse, it would be very, very quick, half a second or something. We couldn’t see anything, but we know that this couldn’t happen . . . well not for sure.”
4:00 PM. Raising the piece.
George Tulloch nervously prowls the bridge of the Nadir waiting for good news from the bottom, “I wish we had that three ton lift bag (lost two days earlier) but we put a lot more in than we took out, so we’ve given it everything we’ve got.”
Then word comes that both of the remaining lines have been cut and the lift bags are now free to rise to the surface. Whether the released floatation bags will allow the piece to rise has not been determined yet. The submersible crew has seen some movement but it is not clear if it is on its way up. It’s much too early to have a definite answer. SGI tracking has determined that the coordinates are moving slightly, giving a definite raising kind of indication.
Expectations were through the roof, then . . . word comes that the piece has not lifted from the bottom.
“Why is it on the bottom? She (the piece) doesn’t seem to be moving, She seemed to for a second. She was at 3682 (meters) now she’s back to 3701” laments George Tulloch.
After a stormy conference aboard the Nadir, Tulloch and Nargeolet announce that another attempt to raise the piece would be made tomorrow. The errant lift bag will be re-prepared immediately and taken to the bottom. The Nautile will dive early the next morning. It will reattach the lift bag, then cut the line holding the bag to the ballast chain.
7:00 PM. The Nautile resurfaces.
Buzz Aldrin and the two sub pilots emerge exhausted and anxious from the day’s events. During post-dive interviews, the confidence and optimism we saw in them this morning was gone. Nonetheless, Buzz was excited by his opportunity to dive in the submersible and get a first-hand look at the wreck. He reported, “This was an out of this world experience. This is one of those most unforgettable moments to be able to experience this. There is a lot of color down there because of the rusting away and the deterioration. The Titanic is what has the color. The rest of the surface is barren except for an occasional fish.
His assessment as to the second attempt tomorrow: “less than a 50/50 chance of bringing up the piece on Thursday.”
Thursday, August 29th. A second attempt.
Yesterday’s disappointments have given way to new hope for today’s attempt. This morning’s seas are a little more turbulent than yesterday, and in the back of everyone’s mind is the knowledge that Hurricane Eduard is racing to join them.
If the Nautile could descend by 8:00 AM, and if it reaches the wreck site by 9:45 AM, and if ballast holding the lift bags on the bottom could be released acoustically or cut free by 11:00 AM, then we might see the piece surface about noon today. A lot of “ifs.”
The Nautile is an hour behind schedule; it descends ay 9:00 AM. At 12:30 PM, a ship’s announcement brings encouragement as progress is being reported at the wreck site. One hour later, the errant lift bag has been reattached to the piece and the Nautile’s crew is busily cutting the lines holding the bag on the bottom.
Communication from the Nautile indicates that the piece is no longer on the bottom. The atmosphere becomes electric on the ships. Captain Nargeolet calculates that it should arrive just below the surface at 3:15 PM.
The Nadir is the first to approach the bags, followed quickly by the Canadian deep sea salvage ship, the Kilabuk. The piece is approximately 150 meters below the surface. Divers on zodiacs are dispatched to check the lines attached to the piece. Two then three zodiacs approach, they circle the bobbing balloons and drop off divers. The piece is suspended from lines with a combined holding capacity of 60 tons. But nowhere to be seen is the primary recovery line supposed to have been rigged by the Nautile at the bottom. This is the critical line by which the Kilabuk could reel in the piece. The Kilabuk has more than enough power for the job, but it needs something to pull on. The piece was heavier than expected and is taking a beating in the now very rough sea.
Then a knot surfaced in one of the lines. The knot tightened on the stern roller, and then the rope broke with enough force to cut a person in half. The Kilabuk’s captain, Mike Strong, was close enough to feel the concussion when it snapped. Another hour passes as larger ropes are dragged to stern to be attached by the divers.
New problems arise. The leading edge of Hurricane Eduard is now approaching the recovery site. The seas become very treacherous.
The Kilabuk winched the piece 35 meters closer to the surface, leaving three of the lift bags attached but supporting no weight. The stern roller wasn’t turning, and the ropes began to melt with the intense friction. Divers once again went down, this time to 51 meters - the legal limit o commercial air diving - and still couldn’t find the only solid thing that could bear the entire load, the ring connecting all the lift lines.
“There is another alternative,” Mike Strong says, “it’s scary . . . we could tow the piece slowly in towards . . .”
“Into shallow water,” Nargeolet interrupts, finishing the sentence.
“Where would you go? Halifax?” an anxious George Tulloch asks.
“No . . . the nearest point of land, the nearest point,” Strong replies.
“Sixty miles to the north,” volunteers Nargeolet, already thinking of the Grand Banks off the Newfoundland coast.
“What happens after is that we can take more risk with heaving it up, if we lose it, we’ve lost it in 100 meters,” says Strong.
“That’s true. Let’s do it,” responds Tulloch.
And the decision has been made.
At 8:30 PM, there is another announcement: There has been no change in the recovery situation; no updates have been received from the expedition. The piece is holding at a depth of 120 meters. The storm will soon make the seas too unstable to remain. Several of the ships depart.
Friday, August 30th.
Five hours after we departed, at about 2:30 AM, the seas became very unstable back at the recovery site. The Kilabuk was unable to raise the piece any further. She was towing the piece toward shallow water in the heavy seas. Captain Mike Strong was nearly washed overboard but survived.
There were four lines holding the piece. Each rope had to have an equal bearing of weight. If one rope breaks, you get a chain reaction and they all break
The Kilabuk was about 60 miles from the shallower fishing banks of Newfoundland when one line holding the piece snapped. The other lines followed in sequence and the piece sunk approximately 10 miles from where it was raised. One or more of the floatation bags and a transponder are still attached so the location has been pinpointed. The Nautile will be launched as soon as it is safe to do so to investigate the condition of the piece. The recovery window has now closed until next Spring.
“The greatest tragedy in the world is to give up,” says George Tulloch, “and we haven’t given up. The piece will remain on the bottom until next year and another expedition.”