Voyage to doomed Titanic an emotional trip for diver

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BY PATRICIA A. MILLER

Richie Kohler thought he would be prepared for the moment when the Titanic first loomed in front of him, just 3 feet from the Russian Mir submersible he was cocooned in.

He wasn’t.

“When I saw it for the first time, all I could say was this is unbelievable,” the Brick Township resident said. “It took me hours to regain my composure.”

And it wasn’t just the sight of the bow of the massive, doomed liner far down on the ocean floor in the North Atlantic that got to him. It was the debris field. Dozens of square miles of wreckage of twisted steel, bedsteads, wine bottles, toilets, plates, coffee cups and hundreds of other items once used by the people who perished on the ship.

Kohler saw a lot of things, but a few stand out. A perfectly matched pair of high-top shoes. The shoes lay on their sides. They were still laced, he said.

“That was a person that fell to the sea floor,” he said. “This was where someone died.”

A pair of spectacles. A kapok life jacket that had somehow managed to survive the frigid ocean depths for almost 100 years.

“Oh my God, 1,500 people died here,” he said. “The sphere gets a little colder and the darkness gets a little darker.”

Kohler and John Chatterton, his longtime friend and diving partner, mortgaged their homes and drained their bank accounts to pay for a trip to the Titanic in the Russian submersible Mir in the summer of 2005.

“We went with the hope we could possibly add to the understanding of what happened to the Titanic,” Kohler said.

They did. The two men, stars of the History Channel show “Deep Sea Detectives,” found two huge 90-by-70-foot sections of Titanic’s bilge keel, far away from the main body of the wreckage.

“No one had every documented them before,” Kohler said.

The Titanic lies two and a half miles down in the icy waters 400 miles off Newfoundland. The liner struck an iceberg and sank in less than three hours on April 15, 1912. More than 1,500 passengers went down with her.

That makes Kohler angry. More people could have been saved if Titanic Capt. Edward J. Smith had made sure the lifeboats were full before they were lowered from the ship, Kohler said.

What most people don’t realize is that there were 500 unfilled seats on the lifeboats that dropped from the Titanic, he said.

“Those lifeboats should have been filled to capacity,” he said.

Kohler and Chatterton made the arduous trip to the Titanic in a Mir submersible. The interior of a Mir sub is 6 feet across, holds three people, has three 8-inch-thick quartz portholes and a 5- inch-thick nickel sphere. It took two and a half hours for the sub to slowly descend 12,500 feet to the Titanic’s final resting place and two and a half hours to return to the surface.

They had six hours of bottom time for each dive.

Chatterton and Kohler found something no one else ever had. Two huge 90-by-70-foot sections of the ship’s bilge keel, the red paint still intact.

“Richie and I didn’t go there to be tourists,” Chatterton said in a Jan. 9 interview on Bloomberg Television. “Our goal was to contribute … to the cumulative knowledge of Titanic.”

The discovery of the two large sections of the liner’s bottom was chronicled in Brad Matsen’s new book “Titanic’s Last Secrets.”

Chatterton and Kohler took their hours of carefully documented video to Roger Long, a Maine engineer. Long’s theory is that Titanic had not broken apart as it sunk, and certainly not at the huge angle depicted in the 1997 movie “Titanic.”

Instead, the ship had come apart on a low angle on the surface of the water, then sank. That had frightening implications for the passengers still on the ship, Matsen wrote.

“For those still on Titanic, stranded after the departure of the lifeboats, the dreadful message that they were about to die would have come in the form of loud cracks and shivering under their feet when the hull broke,” Matsen wrote. “Less than five minutes later, the entire ship was underwater.”

The discovery of the two giant sections also meant something else. Thomas Andrews, Titanic’s chief designer for builder Harland and Wolff, had recommended the thickness for the hull plating be 1.25 inches, along with 1-inch rivets.

But J. Bruce Ismay, a principal in the White Star Line, which had ordered the ship, wanted the hull to be 1 inch thick and the rivets 7/8 of an inch, which would still have complied with British Board of Trade regulations. Since White Star was the customer, Harland and Wolff acquiesced, Matsen said in the book.

Thinner steel meant less money spent on coal to power the ship, Kohler said.

“The Titanic sank because of hubris, arrogance and the bottom line,” he said.

Thomas Andrews went down with the Titanic. Ismay managed to get into a lifeboat and survived.

“I don’t think anyone can make the dive to the wreck of the Titanic and not be affected,” Kohler said.

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