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Titanic-Pieces of the puzzle

The discovery of the Titanic wreck and the salvage of artifacts from the seabed have solved some, but not all, of the unanswered questions that surround the fatal voyage. We now know that the hull broke up as it sank, and that the steel used in its construction was not strong enough to withstand the cold waters of the North Atlantic. We also know that the ship sank some 13 miles (21 km) away from the position estimated at the time of the disaster. This casts doubt on various accounts of which ships were in the area and able to come to the rescue. The story of the Titanic still excites controversy, almost 100 years after the event. Many people think that recovering items from the wreck site is like robbing a grave, and that the Titanic should be left in peace. Others want to raise as much of the ship and its contents as possible in order to put them on display. Whatever the final outcome, one thing is sure: the controversy will continue.


Among the items raised from the seabed are numerous pieces of coal that spilled out of the bunkers when the ship sank. Of all the rescued artifacts, individual lumps of coal are the only ones to have been sold. The money raised helps to fund further salvage efforts.


The ship’s compass stood on a wooden stand, a large proportion of which was eaten away by teredos (marine worms). Painstaking conservation has restored the stand to something of its former stature.


Investigation of the steel used in the hull revealed that the plates and rivets became brittle when exposed to low water temperatures. On the night of the disaster, the water temperature was about 31°F (–0.2°C). In addition, the steel had a high sulfur content, which made it more liable to fracture, and the rivets used were low grade, making them liable to splinter. This explains why the iceberg caused such serious damage to the hull.


Many of the artifacts retrieved from the seabed were stored in laboratories in France. There they were kept in stable conditions and used to help scientists study the corrosive effects of seawater. Most of the objects have now been restored, although this was a slow and painstaking process.


The corrosive effect of the seawater on metal produces rust that cements objects into unlikely combinations called concretions. Here, spoons and a lump of china have become firmly joined. To separate such artifacts, conservators use electrolysis passing electricity through metal objects in a chemical bath to slow further corrosion and soften the concretion.


What happened?

Although some eyewitnesses stated that the ship broke in two before it sank, there has always been some doubt about this, as other witnesses claimed that the ship went down in one piece. The discovery of the wreck in two pieces, some 1,970 ft (600 m) apart on the seabed, confirms that the hull did indeed break up.


As the “watertight” compartments filled with water one by one, the bow slowly sank, pulling the stern of the ship upward and out of the water. The angle of the ship began to put great strain on the keel.


The weight of water inside the hull finally pulled the bow underwater. By now the stern was right up in the air, causing funnels, deck equipment, engines, boilers, and all the internal fittings to break loose and crash forward.


The keel could stand the strain no more and fractured between the third and fourth funnels. This caused the stern section to right itself and float upright in the water for a few minutes.


The bow plummeted forward and downward to the ocean floor. As it did so, it broke free of the stern section, which floated by itself momentarily before it too sank below the waves. Debris was scattered over a wide area of seabed.


It was long believed that the iceberg sliced into the Titanic like a can opener, causing one continuous gash along the hull. The fact that the hull is now buried in up to 55 ft (17 m) of mud made it impossible, until recently, to study the damage. Recent sonar images, however, show that the iceberg actually made six narrow incisions in the ship’s hull.


The only way to remove the dirt from sea-damaged clothes and restore them to their former glory is by hand. With careful brushing and the use of sensitive cleaning agents and preserving chemicals, the effects of almost 100 years under the sea can slowly be reversed.


Many items of clothing from the wreck are remarkably well preserved, having survived wrapped up in trunks and suitcases, or folded neatly in drawers. Clothes recovered include a pair of gloves, a neatly pressed shirt, and a steward’s jacket.