Revealing the Titanic's Secrets

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The liner "Titanic" on her ill-fated.

In his book, Titanic's Last Secrets, Brad Matsen tells the story of wreck divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler and their search for the truth about the Titanic's sinking in 1912. More than just a tragic iceberg crash, the story the divers uncovered is one of bad management, shoddy construction and an ocean liner that sank so quickly that most passengers didn't know what was happening until it was too late. Chatterton and Kohler talk to TIME about deep sea diving, investigating shipwrecks, and the allure of the Titanic.

What draws you to shipwrecks? Why them and not other underwater dives?

John Chatterton: You mean, why aren't we fish guys?

Richie Kohler: We both started out as fish people.

Chatterton: But if we stuck to that, we would have lost interest a long time ago. Wreck diving is so complex. You've got all the equipment, you have the hyperbarics, the challenging environment. You have to be able to physically deal with it all. Intellectually, you need knowledge about diving medicine, decompression, about gas mixtures, about equipment. You also have to know about the wrecks themselves, the ship's construction, the peripheral events related to the sinking, and at the same time when you're talking about diving deep using life support equipment. There is a high intimidation factor. With the Titanic, you're 2.5 hours away from the surface.

Kohler: There's also the concept of going somewhere no one has ever been, that has been lost to mankind from the moment it slipped beneath the waves. You're constantly immersed — mind the pun — in this alien marine environment and you really never know what's going to quite literally come over your shoulder.

What is it like to go diving that deep?

Kohler: When I grew up as a little kid, the space program was in full force. I sat in front of a black and white television and watched Neil Armstrong take those first steps on the moon. As a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. I made my mom buy me Tang and TV dinners. I even dressed up my G.I. Joe figure in aluminum foil 'cause it looked like a space suit. That's part of why I think I'm a diver. You are, in a way, going into inner space. You're standing on the deck of the boat, ready to go down. There's hundreds of different people dressed in different colored uniforms, each with an important task, working so that six people can go down in two MIR submersibles. As you're climbing up the ladder into the MIR, everyone is on the deck and there's a hush. And you're in your suit with an American flag on your shoulder, and you know, my heart is full.

Why do you think people are so fascinated with the Titanic?

Kohler: There's something about the whole story, something about "The Ship of Dreams," — quite literally the most opulent passenger liner — that sank on its maiden voyage. Everything about this wreck was big including the passenger list. It had the elite societies, the richest of the rich. And conversely, it had the poorest of the poor. People who left everything behind, looking for a new life. And when that ship sank, the heavy hand of the sea cut right across them all. The poorest of the poor drowned and died the same as the richest of the rich. And although history will have us believe that many people acted with the most noble intent —

Chatterton: They called it a heroic ship.

Kohler: — the reality is probably something much more different. People thought they had hours when they literally had minutes. It came down to making a decision. Do you get off the big steel ship and climb into the little wooden lifeboat hanging over the side five stories up off the water. Or do you take your chances and stay?

How did the movie Titanic change the business of investigating the ship?

Chatterton: Jim Cameron's movie was a great movie and sometimes people have trouble differentiating fact from fiction and think Jack was really on the Titanic. But before that movie there was A Night to Remember. The Unsinkable Molly Brown was a Broadway play. The Titanic has woven itself into modern culture. When Bob Ballard found it 20 years ago, it was front page news. When we left the dock, we believed mostly what we saw in the film because it was the conventional wisdom of the day. We didn't know any better.

On this dive, you discovered that the Titanic wasn't built properly. What was your reaction when you learned this?

Kohler: These White Star Line men took gambles that today would be unthinkable. Imagine they built an airliner and it just plummets from the sky. Can you imagine if the federal government worked with the airliners that flew it and the company that built it to cover up the fact that they built a weak plane?

How come no one had made this discovery before?

Kohler: Imagine your living room. And in your living room, you drop an earring. But now you want to find it in the middle of the living room. And the way you have to do it is with all the lights out, and you can only use one eye and a small penlight.

Chatterton: Put it this way: you break a ship up, spread on the bottom in 12,500 feet of water. There's a lot to see.

Are there any mysteries about the Titanic that are still left to be solved?

Kohler: One of the questions that bothers me is how, after nearly an hour, water starts coming from a boiler room way back from any of the damage that had occurred with the collision with the iceberg. What happened there? Other questions that John and I have are things like the crew. The crew was brand new to the ship. Did they know how to operate the pumps? There's the possibility that they actually hastened the ship's demise because of their inefficiency. In trying to get the water out, what if they actually pumped water IN?

What's your favorite dive?

Kohler: The next one. John and I would go back to the Titanic in a heartbeat. But that's not the end of it all. The sea has many different mysteries and John and I have dedicated our lives to going out there in search of them.