Wreck Explorer: Titanic's Captivating Heroes, Villains

Apr 10, 2012
Originally published on April 11, 2012 8:01 am

On April 10, 1912, the Titanic set sail for New York City from Southampton in England. Four days later, the ship struck an iceberg and sank in the frigid waters of the Atlantic.

The rest of the story has been the subject of countless books, shows and films about the thousands of people who traveled on the ship's maiden voyage, the dramatic events of the final few hours, and the legend of the "unsinkable" Titanic.

Bob Ballard, the explorer who discovered the Titanic wreckage, tells NPR's Neal Conan that Titanic's dramatic end is why her legend endures. The Lusitania sank rapidly just a few years later, but the Titanic took longer, sinking into the ocean over three hours on a clear night. With that kind of time, "I think everyone wonders what would they have done, and they all put themselves on the Titanic, and they're not quite sure which role they would play," says Ballard.

The people onboard really made the story. "You had heroes and villains," says Ballard. "You had the owner of the Titanic sneaking into a lifeboat on the starboard side. You had a young man who had turned 18 the day before who, when offered a seat in the lifeboat, said, 'No, I'm a man now. I'll stand with the rest,' and perished."

And then there's the story of the Strauses, who owned Macy's department store. Ida Straus got in the lifeboat, and then her husband, Isidor, tried to follow her in. "The officer stops him and says, 'I'm sorry, sir, women and children only.' She says, 'where he goes, I go.' [So] she gets out and goes down with the ship," says Ballard.

On shore, in New York City, a young man named David Sarnoff received the ship's first distress calls. "I think it was just this slow news day in the world," says Ballard. "It was an age of innocence. ... The stars of the time were wealthy, and they went down on the ship," he says. In so many ways, the story was "straight out of central casting."

Ballard has done 130 expeditions, but it was his 70th — Titanic — that changed everything. On other explorations, his teams made incredible discoveries, from hydrothermal vents to new life forms. But he never got letters from children for those voyages.

"After I found the Titanic, I was inundated," he says. He channeled their interest into a nonprofit organization, The JASON Project, which works to get kids excited about science. "And if the Titanic helps me do that," he says, "then I want to thank the memory of the Titanic for all the impact it's had on young kids in a positive way."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


A hundred years ago today, the Titanic set off from Southampton on a voyage into legend. Some remember the doomed ocean liner as a snapshot of a world about to vanish in the caldron of world war as an object lesson in hubris - the limits of technology or the folly of the class system. More than 1,500 people would die. But a century later, why does this disaster still hold such a grip on our imagination? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us here in Studio 3A is Robert Ballard who led the expedition that discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985. He's an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic. And there's a display on his discovery at National Geographic's museum here in Washington. It will run through June. Nice to have you back on the program, Bob.

DR. ROBERT BALLARD: Nice to see you again, Neal. Last time, we were on a rolling ship somewhere, weren't we?


CONAN: We were. Now, just a few years after the Titanic, another ocean liner, the Lusitania...


CONAN: ...went down off the coast of Ireland with far greater historical consequences. That's another wreck, by the way, that you explored. But why does the cultural memory of the Titanic dwarf that of the Lusitania?

BALLARD: I think it's because the Lusitania sank so rapidly. What happened in the case of the Titanic, it was a ship that took three hours to sink. It was a beautiful night. There was this deck that became a stage in morality plays. And you had heroes and villains acting out their roles. You had the owner of the Titanic sneaking into a lifeboat on the starboard side. You had a young man who had turned 18 the day before who, when offered a seat in the lifeboat said, no, I'm a man now. I'll stand with the rest and perished.

You had the Strauses from Macy's Department Store. She gets in the lifeboat. Her husband goes to get in. He's 80-some years old. The officer stops him and says I'm sorry, sir, women and children only. She says where he goes, I go. She gets out and goes down with the ship. I think everyone wonders what would they have done, and they all put themselves on the Titanic, and they're not quite sure which role they would play.

CONAN: So not so quickly that people had a chance not to make choices...

BALLARD: Correct.

CONAN: ...but not so slowly that rescue could be organized...

BALLARD: Correct.

CONAN: ...if something had come up on the horizon.

BALLARD: And that's exactly why I think everyone is captivated. They wonder what they would have done.

CONAN: There is also the fact that the news of this is at the dawn of radio telegraphy. There's a young man in New York City by the name of David Sarnoff...

BALLARD: Who receives the first distress calls, which was a CQS, then SOS transmitted for the first time. You know, I think it was just this slow news day in the world. You know, we were - World War I had not started like in the case of Lusitania where ships were sinking every day. Thousands of people are dying, but there was a slow news day. It was an age of innocence before income tax. The stars of the time were the wealthy, and they went down on the ship. So I think it was just, you know, straight out of central casting in many ways.

CONAN: And as you think about the stories that we've told about that night - I forget how many - the count of how many different movies have been made about the Titanic, but it's dozens.

BALLARD: Every generation rediscovers the Titanic, whether it was Walter Lord's book "A Night to Remember," and then the movies that came after that, or Deb Kelly was "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," or when I found the ship, or when Cameron makes the movie and now the 100th anniversary. I'm sure that in another 20 years, something will cause the public to rediscover the Titanic.

CONAN: And there is the Titanic Museum that's opening at Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast.

BALLARD: Unbelievable. In fact, this week, we have the wonderful exhibit opening at National Geographic. Tomorrow, I head up to Mystic, Connecticut. We have a beautiful exhibit focusing on the discovery, and then off to Harland and Wolff in Belfast for an unbelievable, unbelievable exhibit.

CONAN: We want you to contribute to the conversation. Why, after 100 years, does the Titanic holds such a grip on our imagination? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Kit's on the line with us from Boone in North Carolina.

KIT: Hi there.


KIT: This is very meaningful to me. I was given up for adoption as a baby but was always told by my adopted family that I have a family member that had gone down on the Titanic. And when I was 35, I found my mom and she - I'm sorry, I get very moved by this. And they told me about him and as time went by, I learned more. And he had gone to England to get his sister-in-law - my great-grandfather Robert Bateman had gone to get his sister-in-law (unintelligible), and she was going to come back to the U.S. and work with my great-grandfather and his wife in a shelter that they were running in Jacksonville, Florida, for homeless women and children.

BALLARD: It doesn't sound as if they were on the same decade as the Strausses.


KIT: No, they weren't. But the thing about it is that that's the work that I do, and I didn't know this until I found my family and found out what he did. So, you know, I work for battered women and children for a long time, and it's just, to me, supremely kind of ironic and uplifting that, you know, he lost his life on his way back to the United States to help marginalized women and children, and that's the same work that I'm doing.

BALLARD: It is amazing how many people I've met over the years since the Titanic discovery that have a connection to the Titanic. It's quite surprising, that one degree of separation.

KIT: Yeah.

CONAN: Kit, thanks very much for the call.

KIT: Thank you so much.

CONAN: This is an email from William in Little Rock: I wonder how long the Titanic will be a shipwreck. We keep in our minds most people have already forgotten about the Sultana where more than 1,600 were lost...


CONAN: ...April 27, 1865, which is more than the Titanic. However, the Sultana was a wooden ship, where the remains had faded away from most memories, so is the tragedy. You also mentioned the Lusitania where 1,198 in 1915, three years after the Titanic.

BALLARD: The Empress of Ireland was Canada's Titanic. More passengers died on the Empress of Ireland than the Titanic. So, no, it's quite amazing.

CONAN: I know you have also said that if you could go back and do it again, you would not publicize the location of the wreck.

BALLARD: Yes, and I probably would go into the courts and argue for ownership. Now, it's interesting. When I found the Titanic, I went to the courts, and I said, well, can I own the Titanic? And they said, yes. It's an abandoned shipwreck. All you have to do is go down and retrieve one object of saucer or plate or something, come into the courts, and we'll make you the owner. But we'll make you the owner under one condition, that you remove it from the bottom of the ocean, which is - I was opposed to that. I wished I'd gone and got that one cup and brought it up and said, I want to turn it into an underwater museum. I'd rather take people there through the technologies we now have, and I really regret I didn't do that.

CONAN: Let's go next to Sherry(ph). Sherry with us from Wilmington in North Carolina.

SHERRY: Hi, Dr. Ballard, I just wanted to say thank you for finding the Titanic because I'm somebody - I was about 25 when you did it. And up and until then, I was somebody who was convinced that there must have been sabotage involved because how could an unsinkable ship sink on its maiden voyage? I thought that was just too much of a coincidence. So thankfully, when you found the Titanic and confirmed it was an iceberg, it was a load off my cynical mind.


CONAN: Sabotage by whom?

SHERRY: That was the pattern...

BALLARD: That was the Lusitania.

SHERRY: I'm - we're having a party this Saturday in a house that was built in 1909...


SHERRY: ...and all of us are excited to think that, you know, when that - people that were living in that house in 1914 - in 1912 would have, obviously, been talking about the fact the Titanic had sunk.

BALLARD: If walls could speak.


CONAN: Again, Sherry, sabotage by whom?

SHERRY: I don't know, a competitor of the White Star Line.

BALLARD: The Cunard Line.


SHERRY: There's a (unintelligible) convinced me that an unsinkable ship would sink on its maiden voyage.

CONAN: I think it was practically unsinkable...

BALLARD: Well, they never actually made that claim. The media, of course, coined...

SHERRY: Oh, really?

BALLARD: ...the media is the ones that put it the unsinkable, but the Harland and Wolff and the White Star Line never used that in any form.

CONAN: Sherry, thanks very much for the call.

SHERRY: Thank you for your work. OK.

BALLARD: Thank you.

CONAN: And we forget the Titanic had sisters.

BALLARD: Yes. She had an older sister, the Olympic, which made almost 500 crossings, as she just didn't hit an iceberg. She had the same steel, the same rivets, the same everything, and she just avoided the icebergs. And then her second - her other sister was - became the Britannic, which was sunk by the Germans during the Battle at Gallipoli. And thank goodness, she was a hospital ship, and she was on her way to Gallipoli empty and not on her way back. That would have been really tragic.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert Ballard who discovered in 1985 the wreck of the Titanic, and there is an exhibit of his - highlights of his discovery of the Titanic at the National Geographic Museum here in Washington, D.C., through June.


CONAN: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's an email from Paul in Roseville, Minnesota: I think the reason the Titanic's story resonates with so many, including me, is that at its bottom, the story is straight out of Greek tragedy. The story of the Titanic is a story of hubris, the unsinkable ship - he uses that phrase again - ultimately struck down by the gods, so to speak, sunk by an iceberg. It's a powerful myth 2,000 years ago, 100 years ago or today.


CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is John. John with us from Traverse City in Michigan.

JOHN: Yeah. Thank you very much. I met you briefly, Dr. Ballard, in 1985 when you're leaving for your trip. I had just come back as a public school teacher on Atlantis II with the scientists that had just come from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. And I remember your comment that was very interesting to me as a teacher, that it took something like the Titanic to bring attention to ocean exploration, whereas something like the fantastic work they did on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, very little media was there to greet them.

BALLARD: That was funny because, you know, I've done 130 expeditions now. I turn 70 in just a matter of a couple of months, but I feel I'm just hitting my stride, but Titanic was like my 70th expedition. We'd found hydrothermal vents, new life forms we've found, black smokers, plate tec - what is ironic, that we did all this very serious scientific work. I never got a letter from a kid for any of that. But after I found the Titanic, I was inundated. I still receive thousands of letters, but we now try to turn that excitement. We had a children's program, the JASON Project, where there are over 11 million children go through our program right now, and we're trying to get them to study a little harder in school. And if the Titanic helps me do that, then I want to thank the memory of the Titanic for all the impact it's had on young kids in a positive way.

CONAN: John, thanks very much.

JOHN: Thank you very much. We got to get more teachers out there on the...

BALLARD: Absolutely. We have teachers on the Nautilus. I have my own ship now. And if you go to our website, oceanexplorationtrust.com, you can figure out how to become a teacher at sea on the Nautilus.

JOHN: Great. That's super.

CONAN: Thanks, John. Let's go next to - this Mare(ph), and Mare is with us from Hilton Head in South Carolina.

MARE: Yes. How are you, Dr. Ballard?

BALLARD: Just great.

MARE: I think you're a national treasure, by the way.


MARE: If I may say that.

CONAN: Well, you don't know him well enough.

BALLARD: Well, you know, Neal knows me. He's going to (unintelligible).


MARE: Actually, most people have said the things that I wanted to say. But if I would add one thing, I think, as we look back and see how the captain went down with the ship, and there was women and children first, and the sort of time-honored tradition versus like the Concordia where the captain bailed, I think that's a very stark example of then and now. But it reminded me of something that Winston Churchill's said - and I'm paraphrasing - but something like, I enjoy sailing on Italian liners because they ignore that whole women and children thing.


MARE: I think it's very amusing.

CONAN: Mare, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

BALLARD: You know, there's an interesting point, is the captain's orders were misinterpreted. On the port side, they read his orders as women and children only, and the boats went away half full. On the starboard side, it was women and children first, and then they put men aboard.

CONAN: I can't let you go without asking - James Cameron, the director...


CONAN: ...of the great movie, just recently completed a dive down to the Mariana Trench, the deepest trench...

BALLARD: Challenger Deep.

CONAN: ...and it is a story that you tell a lot, of taking a couple of scientists down in the Alvin, the famous submersible. And you reach after a long...


CONAN: ...boring dive, you reach the bottom after many hours, and you realized that scientists aren't looking out the window, the porthole of the Alvin. They're looking at their computer screens...

BALLARD: That's right.

CONAN: ...and you said, why are we sending...

BALLARD: Exactly.

CONAN: ...people down to the bottom?

BALLARD: In fact, when found the hydrothermal vents in the Galapagos Islands, and there were no biologists aboard. We came back two years later, and we brought biologists with me, and I had the first charge coupled device digital camera from RCA, and I was down playing with it. And the scientist who had gone down with me turned around, put his back to the window of Alvin and looked at the screen. I said, what are you doing? He said, well, it's better picture. And I said, what are you doing down here?


BALLARD: And that's when I began building these robotic systems. And now on my ship, the Nautilus, you can actually follow my expeditions live from the comfort of your home at nautiluslive.org starting in July.

CONAN: But the point of Cameron's dive is it got a lot of publicity that...

BALLARD: Oh, it did. It was a great feat. I mean, as you know, Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard made the similar dive in the bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960. So the race to the bottom had already taken place. But to be able to develop the technology that Jim - Jim's a great guy. He's a good friend of mine. I thought it was great. And remember, it was his own money.

CONAN: It was his own money.

BALLARD: He can do whatever he wants.

CONAN: That's absolutely right. But is there a role for manned exploration of the depths?

BALLARD: I personally don't think so. I think it's certainly recreational. I mean, I love horses, but I don't ride them to work. I see there's no reason - I just was in Graham Hawkes' glider. He has an amazing - it's not even a submersible. It's an underwater airplane, and this thing can do barrel rolls, and we're actually doing a series for National Geographic. We'll talk about it in September, called "Alien Deep," but it's about explorations of the world's oceans.

CONAN: We'll have you back to talk about it. Thank you so much.


Robert Ballard, currently an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic. There's a link to National Geographic's cover story on the Titanic at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us and the big news: Rick Santorum has decided to call it quits. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.