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A Chilling View of Titanic

Historic Exhibit Docks in Baltimore

Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page C16

Will Potts couldn't get over that the 40 white dishes for au gratin potatoes looked like they could go right on his family's dinner table. After all, they had been on the ocean floor, more than 2 1/2 miles below the surface, for more than 70 years.

"I couldn't believe how nice they looked," said the Bethesda 9-year-old.

Titanic dishes are displayed at the Maryland Science Center. (Maryland Science Center)

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Will's sister Emily, 12, was surprised to learn that a first-class stateroom would cost almost $44,000 in today's dollars.

For Peter Krogh, 9, the most amazing thing was the wall of solid ice. "At first, I didn't think it was real. Then I put my hand on it and I thought, 'Oh my gosh. This is real ice.' "

The three kids were talking about the Titanic exhibit at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore. The Titanic, a luxury passenger ship, was headed for New York on its first voyage when it hit an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, and sank.

There is plenty to be amazed by in the Titanic exhibit. First you collect a boarding pass with the name of an actual passenger on that fateful voyage. Then you assume that person's identity.

Maybe you'll be Joseph Philippe Lemercier LaRoche, an engineer believed to have been the only black person aboard the Titanic. LaRoche was traveling with his wife and two children from France to Haiti, his homeland, where he hoped to get a better job.

Or maybe you'll be young Michel Navratil, who sailed with his father and brother using a fake last name. Michel's parents were going through a nasty divorce and his father took the boys without their mom's permission. Michel and his brother were among 113 kids on the Titanic. Sixty of them survived.

Cross a gangplank to board the center's re-creation of the Titanic, and music of the era fills your ears. The third-class cabins look pretty cramped (two sets of bunkbeds to a room). Even so, they were considered to be better than second-class rooms on any other ship of the day. First class was definitely the way to travel. Velvet lined the walls. Beds were high and comfy. Each room had its own bathroom, with hot and cold running water.

Straight ahead it appears that you can climb one of the Titanic's enormous yet elegant wooden staircases. Actually, it's just a huge photograph, but the angel statue on display is real and probably marked an actual stairway on the ship.

The exhibit features more than 250 such artifacts recovered on seven explorations of the ship's ocean graveyard since 1987. There are children's marbles worth pennies as well as diamond and platinum necklaces worth thousands of dollars. There are bills and coins and even a bottle with champagne still inside.

The ice wall that Peter talked about is kept at 28 degrees, about what the water temperature was in the North Atlantic when the Titanic sank. Touch the wall and see how long you can keep your hand there. Now imagine being in the frigid water for hours -- hoping and praying to be rescued. The cold, not drowning, killed most of the people who went into the water that night.

The exhibit's last room contains a list telling what happened to the Titanic's approximately 2,200 passengers and crew members. Check the name on your boarding pass to see if you were among about 700 survivors.

Emily, Will and Peter thought it was cool to see items from the Titanic, but they agreed that the ship should not be raised from the ocean floor. "It's like history still in the water," Will said.

-- Tracy Grant

© 2005 The Washington Post Company