ABOARD L'ABEILLE SUPPORTER -- By dawn, the ocean-going French tender reached the secret spot in the ocean, 2.5 miles beneath which are the remains of the Titanic. When just before midnight on April 14, 1912, the slight yet distinctive sound was heard (like shredding a piece of calico, one survivor put it), Capt. Edward Smith was roused, went to the bridge and asked Second Officer C. H. Lightoller to calculate the ship's position so that emergency help might be summoned. In a few minutes he gave out the coordinates that figure in all the literature of the Titanic: 41-46 N, 50-14 W. And that position was fixed in romantic and scientific memory up until the summer of 1985, when a French-U.S. expedition, using technology much of which remains secret, succeeded in locating the remains of the vessel, approximately 10 miles away from the legendary spot.

This datum has major historical interest for those who put the blame for the human loss on Capt. Stanley Lord, master of the Californian, two of whose officers reported seeing eight flares coming from a vessel. How far away? Exactly where? Capt. Lord must have been very sleepy, because he asked the officer who woke him to advise what exactly the flares were like. That mystifying question was on the order of asking what language an SOS had been received in. Capt. Lord went back to sleep, as 1,500 passengers and crew from the Titanic froze to death.

It wasn't until the following morning, when the Carpathia hove in to rescue the survivors in the lifeboats, that Capt. Lord was induced to proceed to 41-46, 50-14 to pick up corpses. He spent a few hours in that location, gave up, and then resumed his journey to Boston and to historical obloquy, never mind that he continued to serve as a sea captain, though not for the White Star Line.

There are specialists who mitigate the responsibility of Capt. Lord on the grounds that the lighting of the flares was at a different time, according to survivors, from the time the flares were sighted aboard the Californian. But since it wasn't the Fourth of July or the king's birthday, it remains hard to know what it was that caused Capt. Lord to continue to immobilize his vessel (he had ordered it halted pending daylight because of ice conditions).

So then, who else might have been at fault? It is popularly supposed that Capt. Smith led the vessel at high cruising speed (21 knots) because he and J. Bruce Ismay, British chairman of the U.S.-owned White Star Line, wished to set a transatlantic speed record, and damn the torpedoes. Their explanation was not endorsed by any of the three investigative bodies, though it has never entirely lost its advocates.

The principal fallibility of the argument is that there was no way the Titanic could have set a record. There were boats in service that were smaller, lighter and faster. And besides that, the captain was taking a North Atlantic route, which was the fairway for transatlantic traffic, so that the icebergs that several ships had spotted (warning the Titanic of their presence) were thought to be anomalous. (Never again: after the Titanic disaster, the ice patrol was instituted, and since then there have been no iceberg deaths in the North Atlantic thoroughfare.)

There was, of course, the dearth of lifeboats. Even if every one of them had gone off filled, more than a thousand would have drowned. Yet their number fulfilled the specifications of the relevant British Board of Trade. One of the designers of the Titanic, the prodigious effort of the great shipbuilders Harland & Wolff in Ulster, had recommended extra lifeboats and, to that end, had provided davits strong enough to handle four fully loaded lifeboats, one after another. But management hadn't wanted to use up precious deck space for more boats than, surely, were needed by a ship which, before it left England on April 10, was widely thought to be, God help us, unsinkable.

So quickly after the iceberg was struck (within about an hour), it became known that hundreds would die. And the melodramatic two hours and 40 minutes before the ship went down was accepted by the great public galleries as final testimony to British phlegm -- this even though the most conspicuous bravery was that of American millionaires. Mrs. Isidore Strauss had declined to step into a lifeboat and leave her husband behind, so they went to deck chairs to die. Benjamin Guggenheim, accepting without question the priority given to women and children, went back to his cabin and reemerged in black tie, sitting down at a table in the first-class lounge where he would die as a gentleman should, as a gentleman did.

The Titanic was for three-quarters of a century a continuing source of legend and historical curiosity, and then, in 1985, it was spotted. There was further diving in 1986 and then this summer, with the retrieval, for the first time, of artifacts. There is a lot of bottled wine down there, and much else that captures the curiosity of men and women who are not questioned when they decide to collect anomalous stamps or coins, but who, expressing through the entrepreneurs of this mission curiosity to see something of what went down to the bottom of the very deep sea 75 years ago, are by some segments of the public thought to be engaged in grave robbing.

The people aboard this working tender aren't that way at all, not at all. They have given time, solicited research funds and raised speculative investments from people who can think of fitter places than the bottom of the sea, at a still-secret location, for the spirit-catching debris of the most mythogenic sinking in international history.