Red alert warning: The centennial date of the Titanic sinking
looms just over the horizon in 2012. Get set for a vast tidal wave
of books, theories, investigations, TV shows, explanations,
debunkings and general Titanic madness. Titanic devotees,
familiarly known as "Titaniacs," are already salivating.
This volume, first off the mark, is really three books in one.
First we read a wave-by-wave account of the work of John Chatterton
and Richie Kohler. These two intrepid divers, who were the subjects
of Robert Kurson’s 2004 bestseller SHADOW DIVERS, went down
to the ship's wreckage in the North Atlantic and came up with
information that upended long-held ideas about the disaster. Then
comes the longest of the three sections, a detailed history of the
men who designed and built the ship, the magnates who conceived and
owned it, the fatal maiden voyage and the
subsequent investigations (there were two --- one American,
one British). Finally, there is a section confirming (at least to
the satisfaction of author Brad Matsen and the two divers) that the
truth differs drastically from what the world was told at the time,
and that the truth has been successfully covered up to this
This is a heavy load for one book to carry. And while the
subject still retains every iota of its tragic romance, mystery and
nostalgia, like the Titanic itself, it has weak spots that prevent
it from fully achieving its goal.
The basic facts are well known. The Titanic, a monster ocean
liner touted as the last word in technological wizardry and sheer
opulence, struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic on the night of
April 14/15, 1912 and went down in less than two and a half hours,
drowning 1,504 passengers and crewmen. At the time of its birth,
Matsen points out, the Titanic was bigger than "any man-made object
that had ever moved." Worldwide shock at the disaster quickly gave
way to worldwide recriminations. The ship's veteran captain, E. J.
Smith, was pilloried for taking his ship at high speed through an
area infested with killer icebergs, and that was that. The owners,
designers and fabricators of the ship were absolved of blame. The
sunken ship itself was not located until 1985.
This book brings onstage divers Chatterton and Kohler, plus
people like naval architect Roger Long and Belfast shipyard
employee Tom McCluskie, who say this is all a fairy tale cooked up
by interested parties to cover their own malfeasance.
First of all, they say, the ship should not have sunk so fast
and did not in fact break in two as it plunged down to the bottom.
They insist that the Titanic was constructed with fatal weaknesses
in its steel to save money, and that it sank so fast because it
broke apart on the ocean surface, flooding the hull with water
and causing many more deaths than were necessary. Further, they
claim that the weaknesses in construction were known to owners and
designers before the ship sailed, but were deliberately covered up
during the post-disaster investigations. They concur with the
commonly accepted idea that had the Titanic stayed afloat for
another couple of hours --- as it was supposed to --- the death
toll would have been dramatically lower. Rescue ships were en route
when the Titanic went down; arriving too late, they found only
lifeboats bearing survivors and scattered debris on the sea
Brad Matsen has done his best to weave all of this into his
narrative. The central section, dealing with the event itself, is
by far the best part of his book. He provides lively character
sketches of the central figures --- owner J. P. Morgan, Captain
Smith, White Star Line President Bruce Ismay, Belfast shipyard
magnate William Pirrie, crusty old Irishman Tom McCluskie, who
nailed the book's theory down with his authentic documentation, and
others. We learn fascinating details about the cargo carried on the
voyage, the process of construction at the Harland and Wolff
shipyard in Belfast and the layout of the great ship itself (it had
four funnels, but one of them was a dummy, installed solely to
match the four-funneled liners of the rival Cunard Lines ships). We
even learn the exact composition of the Titanic's string orchestra
--- which did NOT play "Nearer My God to Thee" as the ship sank,
but rather something called "Chant d'Automne."
The other two sections of the book are far less compelling,
partly because the individuals involved, for all their expertise
and Titanic passion, are just not that interesting. There is a lot
of rather daunting technical chit chat about deep-sea diving.
Though perhaps fascinating to the participants, much of this is
just not very interesting to this reader.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011