Titanic Wreck Observations
by Parks E. Stephenson ©2006
for consideration by the Marine Forensic Panel (SD-7), chartered by the Society
of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers,
at a special meeting held at Phoenix International, 6340 Columbia Park Rd., Suite A, Landover, MD 20785
on Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Click on the small images to see the full-size version
Purpose – The purpose of this Paper is to document my observations concerning the material condition of the Titanic wreck, as observed in my analysis of the imagery captured during the NOAA/IFE/URI (2004) and Discovery Channel/Earthship Productions (2005) expeditions. My personal observations from my dive to the wreck in Mir 1 on 03 August are also included. Some of my conclusions were arrived at after reviewing and discussing specific imagery with noted Titanic visual historian (and expedition colleague) Ken Marschall and technical expert Bill Sauder. Based on my observations, I will conclude with an opinion of future salvage of the wreck.
Assumptions – Late last year, I was contacted by the NOAA Ocean Exploration office to provide analysis on imagery taken during their 2004 expedition. I was able to review literally thousands of hi-definition images and footage, covering the entire wreck and portions of debris fields close to the wreck site, to assist NOAA in their cataloguing of images into their database. My baseline for comparison was the dive footage from James Cameron's 2001 expedition, portions of which I had reviewed during my work for the documentary, Ghosts of the Abyss. Comparisons concerning relative deterioration in this Paper will be made against the material condition of the wreck as observed in 2001. Unless I state otherwise, the assumption can be made that there was little difference in the condition of the wreck between the NOAA/URI/IFE expedition of 2004 and the Discovery Channel/Earthship Productions of 2005.
Observations – The Titanic wreck shows evidence of significant deterioration, a culmination of years of ongoing corrosion. I will defer to the microbiologists to state whether or not the rate of deterioration and corrosion has increased in recent years, but it seems obvious to me that structures appear to be failing quickly because the steel in highly-recognisable structures in the ship's superstructure has corroded to a point where it can no longer support suspended weight. The hull itself, made from thicker steel, still appears solid and intact, but there are unsettling indicators that point to the wreck being less stable than assumed. I will recount my observations of each area in turn:
Forecastle and stem – The stem and forecastle appear least changed of any place on the wreck. The anchors remain suspended from their chains in the hawse pipes and the forward anchor crane still points the way forward. No holes appear to have opened up in the foredeck and the ground tackle appears unchanged since the wreck was first discovered. Hatch No. 1 still lies upside-down on the ocean floor about 80 meters forward of the stem. There is continued deterioration of the lighter machinery just forward of the base of the mast; in particular, the cable reel and air vent are almost completely corroded away. Ken observed that a section of railing on the starboard side is now hanging outboard.
Foremast – The foremast provides the most striking example of deterioration. Despite its having been pushed back against the forward edge of the Boat Deck during the sinking, the foremast has always appeared to be a rigid, albeit reclining, structure until recently. It now lies completely collapsed, fragmenting into sections as it sagged to conform to the front of the superstructure and forward well deck. This dramatic collapse happened sometime between 2001 and 2004. The top portion of the mast is completely detached from the rest and lies in pieces on the Boat Deck next to the #2 boat davit. The upper end of the remaining portion of the foremast now lies on A Deck. The "knuckle" at the base of the mast where the metal crimped forms almost a flattened 90° angle now. The portion of the mast with the access opening to the crow's nest is perpendicular to, and only a few feet above, the well deck. The foremast is split apart its entire length like an overripe fruit. The steel plating that once formed the forward half of the mast now lies corroded inside the curved gutter created by the plates on the after side.
Forward Well Deck – The well deck (and the rest of the bow section forward) currently assumes an approximate 110° down angle from the vertical, a visual indicator of how fractured the structure of the wreck's bow section actually is. The shaft of a mushroom vent was found to be wrapped around the bitts on the forward port side of the well deck. The head of this vent lies upside-down nearby. The condition of this shaft suggests a great force, probably hydrodynamic, driving it forward (not aft, as would be expected as the wreck fell to the ocean floor) with enough energy to deform the vent shaft around the bitts.
Tucked away in the forward port corner of the well deck is a beautifully preserved dual-wattage space heater of a type that has not been seen in archival photographs, lying with its ornate grille front facing upward. The heater is of bright yellow colour. Exactly where it came from (assumed to be from either B or C Deck) and how it ended up on the well deck is unknown. A bright spot in the 1986 ANGUS imagery indicates that this heater is most likely not a recent addition.
Below the well deck, port side of the hull, the E-deck entrance door there is missing. NOAA imaged the safety gate for that door in the down position from a vantage point outside the hull in 2004, Cameron imaged it from inside in 2005. Was the door blown open when the bow section impacted with the ocean floor, or was it open during the sinking? If the latter, then this would have allowed sea water to reach the forward end of the non-watertight Scotland Road passageway as soon as the rising waterline reached that height.
Forward End of A Deck – The remains of the bridge bulwarks and the starboard wing cab continue to settle onto A Deck below. I was particularly struck by a curved steel panel that straddles the sagging bulwark at centreline. Because it rested atop the bulwark, it had to have settled there after the sinking. I was able to look for and examine this panel closely from the Mir and determined that it did not come from the bridge above. The panel is made from thin steel and is now largely corroded. A row of rivet holes runs parallel to the starboard edge. It is my belief that this is what remains of the crow's nest, which unexpectedly disappeared not long after the wreck was first discovered.
Bridge – There doesn't appear to be any major change to the bridge or wheelhouse area, with the exception of the telemotor, which continues to lean slightly to port. The hole in the deck around the port side of the base of the telemotor is growing, which may one day cause this prominent artefact to fall to the deck below. The forward edge of the wheelhouse is frankly cluttered with memorial plaques and the like. One recommendation to clear this area would be to establish a memorial area on the ocean floor near the stem where plaques can be placed for permanent viewing. With holes opening up all along Boat Deck, the plaques as they sit now will one day disappear into the interior of the wreck.
Ken observed that the bulwark rail at the top of the port stairway down to A Deck has deteriorated significantly since 2001, its sides now sporting several corrosion holes. The one on the starboard side is even more fragile and had completely collapsed by the end of this summer's activity.
Officers' Quarters Deckhouse – The vertical walls of the Officers' Quarters deckhouse continue to detach themselves from the structure, starting from the forward end where much of the bridge was torn apart during the sinking by hydrodynamic forces and the falling mast. On the starboard side, the outboard wall of the deckhouse has separated past Fourth Officer Boxhall's cabin and is now lying on the deck. Additional corrosion was noticed in the wall aft of the Officers' Entrance. The forward starboard corner of the First-class Entrance that once housed the Marconigram pneumatic conveyor tubes is now completely gone, leaving the brass tubing bare. On the port side, the bronze window frame from First Officer Murdoch's cabin has fallen out of the peeled-back section of wall and is now lying on the deck. The wall aft of Murdoch's cabin appears to be sound. Severe distortion can be seen in the vertical walls of the deckhouse on both sides, just forward of the opened expansion joint (this is not a new development, but is significant as an indicator of the forces acting on the superstructure around the expansion joint during the sinking and impact with the ocean floor). The wall outside Stateroom Z has almost entirely wasted away, leaving at least one window frame in imminent danger of collapsing due to its own weight. Of particular interest are a few severed cables attached to the outboard edges of the deckhouse above Captain Smith's and Second Officer Lightoller's cabins, which would have been the tie-downs for the collapsible lifeboats on the roof of those cabins.
No. 1 Funnel – The inner and outer casings for both #1 and #2 funnels show relatively even ductile tearing right at the level where they emerge from the deckhouse. A large fragment of #1 funnel outer casing – now gone – that once jutted up above the deckhouse was an exception to that rule. Regardless, the tearing of the inner casing seems to suggest that differential pressure caused the steel to tear where it did and the upper works to fail. There has been much debate over whether or not funnel stays that were cut to clear the collapsible lifeboats for launch contributed to the collapse of the forward funnel, but we found no evidence of that. In fact, the similarity in tearing of the #2 funnel casing (where stays were not cut) indicates that stays (or lack thereof) did not dictate the funnels' collapse.
As my Mir glided over the fidley grates forward of the #1 casing, I noticed that the starboard fidley grate was pushed outward (upward) from below. In addition, the bars that constituted the grating were distorted, as though something had been forced through the grating. The fact that the entire grating was pushed up from below caught my attention. Lightoller claimed that he was sucked back first against the stokehold "blower" grating (his words...the vent is actually an intake for the fans on F Deck), then again against one of the fidleys. He was blown away from both by a rush of hot air from below. I have never been certain which side Lightoller was on, since he claimed to have been to starboard, but ended up on a collapsible boat launched from the port side. The condition of this fidley grating, however, gives some weight to his claim of being on the starboard side, if we assume that the force that expelled him was the same that pushed out the grating.
Marconi Room Roof – Given my specialised interest in Titanic's wireless telegraph apparatus, I have been keeping close tabs on the condition of the after section of the Officers' Quarters deckhouse where the Marconi rooms were located. In recent years, I have nervously watched as new holes have appeared in various locations on the roof. The recent collapse of the Gymnasium roof accelerated my fear...the thin steel of these deckhouse roofs, being exposed as they are to the currents that flow over the wreck, were especially vulnerable to corrosion. I was dismayed to find this year that the holes aft of the Marconi skylight had grown much larger than when I had first seen them in the 2001 footage. Despite these holes, though, James Cameron was able to complete his documentation of the interior of the Marconi Silent Room and nearby Staterooms Z and Y that he began during his 2001 expedition. During my dive (the first to the wreck after the Discovery/Earthship expedition had wrapped), I discovered a major collapse of the roof that evidently had occurred during the period between expeditions, the roof having been visually confirmed to be relatively intact when Cameron left the wreck. Almost the entire roof aft of the skylight and forward of the vent pipe for the Elevator Machinery Room had fallen inward, taking with it the sole surviving Hayward's skylight on the roof, recently imaged by Cameron (the skylight, interestingly, showed evidence of a major hit during the sinking when viewed up close). Even more ominously, a new hole was just beginning to open up just above the motor-generator and switchboards in the Silent Room itself. Another observer who passed over the roof days after my dive reported that he could see the steel of the roof undulating in the current. It won't be long before the roof completely collapses over what are arguably the most historically significant artefacts in the wreck.
Boat Deck – The Boat Deck, which once looked solid, now looks more like rotted cheese. The deck itself sags between supporting frames and holes have opened up along its entire length. Almost the entire deck outside the Gymnasium has collapsed, revealing the passageway in the deck below. The raised roof over the alcove of the Reading & Writing Room has completely collapsed, exposing the full interior of that section of the room. The sag in the Boat Deck near the flattened Boat #8 davit continues to settle downward.
Below Boat Deck – The window screens on A Deck are deteriorating to the point of collapse, starting from aft and moving forward. Once the surrounding steel had corroded to the point where the weight of the heavy brass window frames can no longer be supported, the frames fall to the ocean floor below, making submersible navigation underneath these frames extremely hazardous. Comparison of images taken over time make it apparent that the corrosion was accelerated near the break in the structure and has proceeded forward with time. Only a few window frames remain in the promenade screens aft of the expansion joint. Another area of advanced corrosion can be found in the area around Boat #8 davit; that, coupled with the sagging deck in the immediate area, suggest some kind of massive trauma (possible funnel strike?) to that area during the sinking.
The forward port D-deck entrance shell door is long gone, leaving that entrance open. Ken pointed out that if the sailors carrying out Lightoller's orders had succeeded in opening the door, it might have proved impossible to close it again thanks to the downward trim of the vessel. The crew, unable to overcome the heavy door's tendency to swing fully open, might have abandoned it in the open position. This would have provided sea water with another large entry into the hull (similar in size to the 12-square-foot opening postulated by Harland & Wolff Marine Architect Edward Wilding) close to Scotland Road (and from there, points beyond), once the waterline rose to its level.
Grand Staircase – The collapsed roof over the Grand Staircase has now completely settled onto the Boat Deck level, pulling the side walls down with it. Both port and starboard sides of the Entrance on Boat Deck have separated from surrounding structures and are settling down on the deck. Only the entry doors on both sides remain intact. A still-legible identification plaque on the fan outside of the First-class entrance door proves to Bill Sauder that the numbering scheme for Titanic's ventilation was identical to Olympic's (as opposed to Britannic's).
No. 2 Funnel – The stokehold vent forward of the No. 2 funnel, once intact, now lies in ruins. The structure of the intake hood looked to be largely intact in 2004 but was almost completely gone when it was first imaged in 2005. The stokehold vent cover aft of the funnel is also completely gone, with no evidence pointing to any remains.
The inner casing of the No. 2 funnel is pulled aft and to port. Ductile tearing of the inner casing is even cleaner than that observed for the No. 1 funnel. In addition, the structures surrounding the funnel base to starboard are completely demolished, as is the adjacent Gymnasium roof and Boat Deck beyond. By comparison, the structures surrounding the port side of the funnel base are virtually pristine. Assuming that the funnel stays remained relatively intact when the funnel started to collapse, the speculation is (based on the damage around the casing), that the base of the No. 2 funnel "kicked" to starboard as it collapsed, while the top of the funnel fell to port, constrained by the stays attached to the funnel band. Under this assumption, the impact of the base of the funnel would have traumatised the steel of the Gymnasium roof, encouraging accelerated corrosion that would ultimately lead to the early collapse of that roof and portion of the Boat Deck in that area.
"Rear Slope" – The decks aft of the No. 2 funnel tilt downward to the break; hence, the nickname, "rear slope." The decks have compacted to the point where they now lie directly on top of one another; in addition, they are sliding downward toward the exposed end of Boiler Room #2. At one point, the decks rounded downward just aft of Funnel #2 and in 2001, Ken documented the physical separation of the "rear slope" with the rest of Boat Deck. The chasm between the severed halves of Boat Deck has increased since Ken's observation in 2001, while the distance between the bottom edge of the decks and the tops of the boilers in BR#2 has decreased. I expect that these decks will soon obscure the boilers entirely.
Some holes have recently opened up or enlarged back on the rear slope, but not to the degree seen on the Boat Deck. The roof over the forward starboard corner of the First-class Lounge has opened up, revealing a tangle of debris inside. An existing hole in the roof over the Reading & Writing Room reveals a silver-coloured metal lunette frame with no visible evidence of corrosion from one of the circular windows in the R&WR alcove. This find was unexpected, as those window frames were previously thought to be made of wood.
Stern – The stern section of the wreck was not visited during the 2005 expedition, so my observations there come solely from my analysis work for NOAA. I was mainly interested in two things...the condition of the after superstructure and the identity of the "mystery boxes" on the ship's fantail.
The aft superstructure is decaying faster than the forward part. The Second-class Entrance is likewise falling to the deck...the surviving starboard wall with two arched-window frames collapsed at some point after 2001. The housing for the elevator machinery is leaning to port at a dangerous angle. The portion of deck that includes the base of the mainmast has developed a large depression that, if history is any guide, is a prelude to a hole opening up. The surviving starboard A-deck crane has settled noticeably farther outboard. It also appears to have sunken into the deck somewhat. The entire Second-class area, including the Library, now appears flattened. The B-deck aft wall of the Second-class Entrance, once mostly vertical, now lies almost horizontal. The mental image that ran through my mind when reviewing this area was that of a giant foot stepping on the area, causing all the structures to cave inward. Ken also noticed that a long fore-aft section of Boat Deck comprising the overhead to the promenade below, which used to hang over the starboard edge of the stern section abeam the Second-class Entrance house, has fallen away since 2001.
The fantail's "mystery boxes" are still a mystery. The only conclusion that I can currently draw is that they were thrown there during the sinking, possibly when the poop deck peeled back. I would need to see the forward face of the boxes for any more information (an oblique view in the ANGUS imagery hints at openings there, which may provide a clue to the boxes' identity). At this point, I would say that they were once housings (ventilation? Liquid storage?) originally attached to the underside of the poop deck, but that's an assumption based solely on the existence of similar "boxes" still attached nearby.
Interior Exploration – James Cameron explored deep inside the wreck and brought back some amazing discoveries, the most dramatic of which were documented in the Discovery Channel documentary, Last Mysteries of the Titanic. For purposes of this report, I will only recount those observations that are of purely forensic value.
C Deck – James Cameron mentioned that he noticed that each deck that he has explored is distorted in the areas of the boiler casings, as though the casings moved downward relative to the adjoining deck. This observation requires further analysis.
A few portholes, including the one in the Straus bedroom (C-57), were noticed in the open position on C Deck...openings in the hull that allowed sea water additional entry into the hull.
E Deck – E Deck proved surprisingly impassable from both the Grand Staircase void and Scotland Road. This deck evidently bears much of the weight of the decks above, more so than previously thought. James Cameron did try to make his way down Scotland Road, but found the way eventually blocked by fallen steam and service pipes and other debris. He did, however, find one of the escape trunks from either Boiler Room #5 or #6 open, the escape ladder visible.
F Deck – The stairs leading down to the Turkish Bath on F Deck included a support column that Cameron found bent almost 90° from the weight of the deck above. The deck appeared distorted in the area around the elevator shaft (which terminated on the deck above), but thankfully the distortion barely reached the Cooling Room of the Turkish Bath, which turned out to be well preserved. The watertight door next to the entrance of the Cooling Room was observed to be closed, as expected. Inside the Cooling Room, no light could be seen from the other Mir that was pumping light into the portholes outside the Electric Bath Room and into the corridor forward of the Turkish Bath area, leading us to believe that the wall of the fore-aft corridor is either more substantial then we thought (could it be made of steel?) or that the inboard wall of the Electric Bath is not made from glass panels, as suggested by the Britannic Specification Book. In addition, the total lack of light from that direction gives additional weight to Steward Wheat's account of his personally closing both watertight doors on F Deck in the bulkhead that formed the forward edge of the Turkish Bath area. A new type of rusticle was observed in the Cooling Room, the exact nature of which will be fully detailed in Dr. Roy Cullimore's report (promulgation TBD).
Ken observed that the steel inboard wall of the Cooling Room in the area of its entrance vestibule was found to be dramatically angled inboard at the base. This deformation is reflected in the teak vestibule itself when viewed from inside the Cooling Room, looking forward. The vestibule is angled inboard at the bottom. Only the forward port corner of the Cooling Room appears to be at all deformed, demonstrating that the forces that bent the stair landing support column amidships only extended outboard as far as the port wall of the Cooling Room. The panel of decorative wall tiles closest to the vestibule on the port wall was knocked loose by this deformation; otherwise, most tiles survive to this day intact and affixed to the walls inside the Cooling Room.
Debris Field – It is not my intention to detail all the artefacts imaged in the debris field around the wreck during the 2004 and 2005 expeditions. However, a couple of items are of personal interest and I include them here as general information.
A metal box with wooden side panels was found with 17 tightly-packed brass cylinders (packed 5 x 4, with three obviously missing...it's difficult to determine whether or not the box originally held more than 20 total) still clumped together even as the wooden panels of the box have dissolved. The metal edges of the body of the box have been torn apart (some missing, some bent inward), but the metal of the lid remains intact. Each brass cylinder closely matches turn-of-the-century diagrams of rocket detonators in both size and shape ...a small brass cylinder tapering cone-like to an open hole at one end (the hole showing something bright white in some cylinders, and of a dark colour in others) with the other end being rounded. There is a line of crimping around the body of each cylinder close to the rounded end. I identified this artefact as the remains of a box of signal rocket detonators.
Two of the single-ended boilers that came from Boiler Room #1 sit in the debris field with their open furnace fronts (the furnace doors on all boilers found to date are missing) facing upward. These boilers have been imaged before but the clarity of the hi-definition images revealed something that I had never noticed before...at least one of the three furnace faces on each boiler is fractured and bent outward. Unlike Boiler Room #2, where James Cameron observed that the furnace endcaps on the boilers there were pressed inward by pressure, the endcaps on these two single-ended boilers appear normal...neither pressed in nor bulged outward. The fractured furnace fronts on the single-ended boilers, then, might contradict our conventional wisdom that the boilers in BR#1 were cold iron when the ship sank. If they were lit at the time when Boiler Room #1 was torn apart, then they were either lit before the collision (which would contradict eyewitness testimony) or possibly brought up afterward with the intention of supplying service steam.
During my approach to the wreck, I spotted one of the Downie boltless-pattern coal loaders that once fit on the furnace fronts of the boilers. This, I believe, is the first one imaged (they are, without exception, missing from both the boilers found in the debris field and those still sitting in their foundations in Boiler Room #2) and confirms my inclusion of them in computer-generated reconstructions of Titanic's boiler rooms.
Conclusion – The natural deterioration of the Titanic wreck has advanced to the point where recognisable structures have begun their final and inevitable collapse. The most notable failures have occurred in the deckhouses and upper decks of the ship's superstructure because of the thinner steel used and their constant exposure to currents and intense biological activity. Even though none of this is unexpected, we have now arrived to a decision point...should select artefacts be salvaged from the wreck to preserve their historical value for future generations? The prime example of this would be the Marconi transmitting apparatus...there is scant information on the most famous transmitter in history, and the actual apparatus survived the sinking only to be threatened by burial inside the wreck by the forces of decay. I fully support the effort to document the exterior and interior of the wreck before it fully deteriorates, capturing in images what the wreck and surviving artefacts looked like in situ. This forensic evidence is crucial to piecing together the Titanic story. After that has been accomplished, I recommend that artefacts that are threatened with imminent loss or destruction should be recovered. Because the superstructure will be first to give way, I would give the recovery of artefacts there the highest priority. This is not to be construed as wholesale plunder of the wreck...the recovery of each item should be reviewed beforehand by an adjudicatory body and a salvage plan approved before work can proceed. The tragic event that caused the shipwreck and resulted in the loss of over 1500 souls should be treated with the utmost respect, but I believe that prohibiting all forms of salvage is too extreme a measure. In searching out and preserving those items that tell the story of Titanic and the people who sailed in her, I believe we are honouring the victims of the disaster. We are, in effect, telling their story. If we don't look, don't probe, don't recover, we will in effect be turning away from any stories that the wreck has yet to tell.
My thanks to Ken Marschall, who contributed to this report; to LT Jeremy Weirich of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration, who invited me to assist on the analysis of the imagery from the 2004 NOAA/IFE/URI expedition; to Charlie Haas and Barb Shuttle, who offered to publish this article in "Voyage" (issue 54 - Winter 2005), the official Journal of the Titanic International Society, Inc.; and most of all, to James Cameron, who took me with him on his last visit to the wreck and generously offered me my own dive.
Mir 1 Dive #382
(left to right: Lori Johnston, Viktor Nischeta, Parks Stephenson)