The wreckage of the Titanic, the "unsinkable" victim of one of history's most storied ocean disasters, has been found 13,000 feet below the surface of the North Atlantic, a joint U.S.-French expedition announced yesterday.
The Titanic carried a glittering array of American and British socialites and a fortune in gems when it collided with an iceberg 73 years ago on its ill-fated maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York. It was identified early yesterday, its wreckage lying on the ocean bottom at an undisclosed location off Newfoundland, according to expedition officials.
Repeated attempts over the decades to find the Titanic's resting place had failed -- largely because of the depth and the perennially harsh sea conditions in the area of North Atlantic where it sank, and contradictory reports of its position when it went down, with the loss of 1,500 of the 2,200 passengers and crew aboard.
In the end, according to yesterday's reports, the wreckage of the vessel that was acclaimed as the best outfitted and most technologically advanced liner of its time was tracked down by the newest and most sophisticated deep-sea technology available to the United States and France.
Details were sparse yesterday on how the ship's resting place was located, and there was no indication whether the expedition planned a salvage attempt.
The announcement of the discovery came from the expedition leader, Dr. Robert Ballard, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, in a ship-to-shore interview with CTV, a Canadian television network. It was confirmed in Paris by the government-run French Institute for Research and Exploitation of the Sea.
"We came on it early this morning," Ballard told CTV, according to United Press International. "It was just bang, there it was. . . . We went smack dab over a gorgeous boiler" of the ship.
"To finally put those souls to rest was a very nice feeling," he said.
Shelley Lauzon, public information director for Woods Hole, said late yesterday that the institution had not been able to contact Ballard and had no direct information about the reported discovery.
The French announcement noted that the expedition sponsors had agreed beforehand to make no public statement on the results of their search "unless they were absolutely certain of the facts," The Associated Press reported from Paris.
The announcement said news conferences would be held in Washington and Paris on Sept. 13, with expedition members present. The U.S. sponsors include the National Geographic Society.
According to the French announcement, the Titanic was located and identified by the French-made SAR side-scanning submarine sonar system and an American-made ARGO underwater camera. The French research ship Suroit began working in the area on June 28 and it was joined by the Knorr, a Woods Hole and U.S. Navy vessel designed for such missions.
Lauzon said the ARGO, an underwater camera capable of operating at depths of 20,000 feet and showing three-mile-wide swaths of the ocean floor, had undergone its first sea trials only last summer.
The Knorr, which tows the ARGO, has cycloidal propellers -- giant blades in the bow and stern -- that allow it to hold its position in heavy seas, hover over a site and turn on its axis. It is 245 feet long -- about one-fourth the length of the Titanic -- and carries a crew of 25 plus 24 scientists.
Ballard, an accomplished diver and marine biologist, has sought for years to find the Titanic, beginning in 1973, when he formed Seaonics International Ltd. for that purpose.
In a 1978 interview, he described the 13,000-foot depth at which he hoped to find the vessel. "It's an area of total darkness and freezing temperatures," he said. "It's a preserving environment, with no plant life, no encrustation. The history of mankind is preserved in the deep sea."
He has also distinguished himself as one of the first scientists to find and explore the great hot vents on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, where many creatures new to science have been found.
The Titanic, an 882-foot, 46,328-ton luxury liner, was considered unsinkable because of its construction, a double hull, divided into 16 watertight compartments. But on April 14, 1912, on a clear night in a calm sea, and despite warnings of ice packs, it collided with an iceberg that opened a 300-foot gash in its side.
It sank 2 1/2 hours later, after women and children had been loaded into its insufficient complement of lifeboats. A vessel nearby did not hear a radioed distress call because its radio operator was off duty. Another ship later rescued 705 of the passengers and crew.
Among the victims were a number of glamorous socialites and philanthropists, among them John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim and George D. Widener, as well as major Archibald Potts, military aide to president William Howard Taft. It reportedly carried diamonds and other gems now estimated to be worth $300 million.
The disaster -- which shocked America and Britain and inspired seven movies, 28 books and 500 songs -- also prompted an international conference on safety at sea that produced strict new requirements for sufficient lifeboats, lifeboat drills, creation of an International Ice Patrol and mandatory 24-hour radio watch.