On a frigid night in 1912, as the doomed steamship Titanic began its plunge into the icy waters of the North Atlantic, the monstrous vessel tried to take passenger “Archie” Gracie with it.

As the 46,000-ton ship reared its stern and headed for the ocean’s abyssal plain 21 / 2 miles below, Gracie, gripping a railing, was caught in its whirlpool.

“Down, down, I went,” he wrote later. He was fully clothed, in a sporting jacket and overcoat, and wore a waist-length life vest. And as he let go, held his breath and began to struggle toward the surface, his chances seemed nil.

The sinking of the Titanic, 100 years ago next Sunday, didn’t kill the wealthy Washingtonian, Archibald Gracie IV. At least not right away. Instead, it came to obsess him, as it would many others in the coming years.

At 11:40 p.m., on April 14, 1912, RMS (Royal Mail Ship) Titanic, then the largest moving object made by man, struck an iceberg off Newfoundland. It sank three hours later, killing about 1,500 people.

The “unsinkable,” state-of-the-art ship was on its maiden voyage from Great Britain to New York. It was a fabulous vessel — 880 feet long, with a 101-ton rudder, and the elegance of the finest hotels.

It carried 2,200 people, many of them among the nation’s elite.

Gracie, 54, was among at least five prominent Washingtonians aboard, including one who was traveling with his servant. The others were a White House aide to President William Howard Taft, a famous American artist, and a noted socialite and activist for women’s rights.

But the ship also bore hundreds of European immigrants bound for the United States, and people from many stations in life.

There were priests, blacksmiths, maids, farmers, carpenters, laborers and the stokers, firemen, trimmers and greasers from the crew.

The fate of this unfortunate colony has fascinated people for four generations, and since the tragedy of 9/11 — another huge loss of innocent lives — it seems to have a new resonance.

The Titanic’s sinking hit the world just as powerfully as the terrorist attacks, said James P. Delgado, director of the National Oceanic and Atmopsheric Administration’s Maritime Heritage Program. “Like the people in the Twin Towers, the people on Titanic knew what was happening and had time to die.”

National Geographic Explorer in Residence Robert Ballard, who helped discover the wreck site on Sept 1, 1985, said the sinking was a “morality play acted out on deck. . . . And for three hours people were either heroes or villains.”

Since 12:25 a.m. April 15, when the stricken ship sent out the distress call — “Come at once. We have struck a berg” — the Titanic tragedy has been told in books, film and song. (The Smithsonian has sheet music for 31 Titanic-related tunes published just in 1912.)

This year new Titanic exhibits and commemorations abound.

On Wednesday, filmmaker James Cameron’s blockbuster 1997 epic, “Titanic,” was released in theaters in 3-D.

The National Geographic Museum’s new exhibit, “Titanic: 100 Year Obsession,” opened March 29, and the society has two TV specials set to air Sunday and Monday. A History channel special, “Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved” is set to premiere April 15.

Also this month, officials are set to announce the winning bid in the auction of the entire lot of 5,500 artifacts that have been raised from the wreck site.

A federal court has ordered that the artifacts, estimated to be worth about $189 million, be sold together, kept together and made available to the public.

The artifacts range from a 15-ton section of the hull to a jeweled ring. They are held by Atlanta-based RMS Titanic Inc., which has conducted numerous expeditions to the site and has been steward of the artifacts for a quarter century.

The most recent expedition, in 2010, resulted in a pioneering map of the wreckage landscape, which resembles the barren surface of a distant planet.

The ship rests on the bottom essentially in two pieces about 650 yards apart with a large artifact field in between.

Recent scholarship has theorized that faulty rivets, whose heads popped off when the hull was struck by the 300,000-ton iceberg, may have contributed to the speed at which the ship sank.

Gracie would remember that there was an unearthly “gulp” as the ocean closed over the Titanic.

“The agonizing cries of death from over a thousand throats, the wails and groans of the suffering, the shrieks of the terror-stricken, and the awful gaspings for breath of those in the last throes of drowning, none of us will ever forget to our dying day.”

For him, that would not be far off.

The Washingtonians

Gracie had gone to bed early that Sunday night. He had attended church in a ship’s dining room during the day, worked out in the gym, and had scheduled another workout for Monday morning.

He was the son of a Confederate Civil War general who had been killed in the fighting around Petersburg when Gracie was 6 years old. He arrived in Washington with his family in 1905, moving into a stately brick house on 16th Street NW.

Gracie, who had just finished a book about a battle in which his father had fought, had gone to London to rest and to research a new book on the War of 1812.

The other notable Washington men on the ship were Clarence Bloomfield Moore, a well-to-do businessman who lived in a new mansion on Massachusetts Avenue, Army Maj. Archibald Willingham Butt, a confidant of the president’s, and the bohemian American artist Frank D. Millet, who lived with Butt in a big house at 20th and G streets NW.

Butt had gone abroad at Millet’s urging, because he was exhausted by the pressure of serving in the Taft White House and in the administration of Theodore Roosevelt before that.

Millet had lived a remarkable life, first as a drummer boy in the Civil War, later as a war correspondent during the Russian-Turkish war of 1877 and 1878, and then as a painter.

In addition to painting Butt’s portrait, Millet had also done portraits of his close friend Mark Twain and the historian Charles Francis Adams Jr. He was a charter member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.

He had a studio in Georgetown, and he and Butt were described as inseparable in Washington. Titanic historian Hugh Brewster has speculated about the relationship between the two men.

Millet was married and had children, but he and his wife lived apart, and he’d had at least one romance with a male friend in his younger days.

Butt and Millet would both perish in the sinking.

Moore, 47, a successful financier, was traveling with his British servant, Charles Henry Harrington.

Moore was a noted horseman and former master of the hounds at the Chevy Chase Club. He had purchased 100 foxhounds while in Britain. The animals apparently were not on board.

Moore and Harrington would also lose their lives.

Also aboard was the Washington feminist and interior decorator Helen Churchill Candee, 53, who was returning from Paris, where her son had been in an airplane accident. She would survive in one of the lifeboats but with a broken ankle to show for it.

Gracie remembered that he had been asleep for several hours when he was awakened by the collision. Startled, he got up, dressed and went out on deck.

It was a moonless night, illuminated by stars, and the temperature was in the upper 20s. The deck was virtually deserted, and Gracie saw no sign of whatever had struck the ship.

Gradually, more passengers appeared and word spread that the Titanic had hit an iceberg.

In a book he researched and wrote in the months immediately after the disaster, Gracie recounted the harrowing hours before the ship went down.

At one point, he encountered Moore, Butt and Millet sitting together at a table in an otherwise deserted smoking room, feigning nonchalance. “This was the last I ever saw of any of them,” he wrote.

He went back outside and worked to help load women and children into the lifeboats — the ship carried lifeboats for only about half the number of passengers.

Gradually, the Titanic sank lower and lower and then began its final descent, taking Gracie with it.

“I was in a whirlpool of water, swirling round and round . . . as the ship plunged to the depths below,” he recalled. He broke free and headed for the surface, terrified that the ship’s boilers might explode and send up a rush of scalding water.

As he swam up, Gracie could see the water brighten from the starlight above and noticed debris floating up with him from the sinking liner. Finally, he broke through to the surface and grabbed on to a wooden crate to stay afloat.

He looked around. The scene reminded him of descriptions in Dante’s “Inferno.” The wreckage. The cries of the victims. And the vanished Titanic: “The sea had swallowed her up with all her precious belongings.”

The things they carried

One of the belongings that sank with the giant ship that night was a black alligator purse that belonged to Marian O. Meanwell, who was traveling in third class.

She was a 63-year-old hatmaker from England, headed for the United States to join a daughter. Inside the purse were pieces of her jewelry and a letter from a landlord stating that she had been a good tenant, “prompt in the payment of her rent,” according to the RMS Titanic Web site.

Meanwell’s body was never recovered, but her purse was 88 years later, in 2000. Titanic textile curator David Galusha worked on the purse and scores of other items retrieved from the wreckage — silk scarves, silk ties, socks, work shirts, dress shirts, long johns, bowler hats, and top hats.

“These are personal effects,” he said, “different than, say, a plate, or . . . a piece of metal. Sometimes I’m thinking: ‘What was this person like? What was the station in life of this person?’ ”

Such things survived because “they were 2 1/2 miles down,” Galusha said in a recent telephone interview. “There is very little oxygen. There’s no light . . . and in a leather trunk or a leather suitcase . . . it’s a little micro chamber.”

All 5,500 recovered Titanic artifacts — hundreds of which are on exhibit around the country — were recently put on the auction block.

“It will be somewhat of a bittersweet moment for this company . . . but the ultimate goal is to do the right thing by the collection,” said Chris Davino, the president of RMS Titanic, which has been retrieving artifacts from outside the two major portions of the wreckage since 1987.

The board of the company’s parent firm, Premier Exhibitions, will select the winner in consultation with the court, Davino said. Brian Wainger, a Premier spokesman, said the winner will be announced Wednesday on board the aircraft carrier Intrepid in New York City.

Gracie’s final days

Once he surfaced, Gracie swam to an overturned lifeboat and clambered on top. There, he and about 30 other men waited all night, cold and wet, until they were saved by the rescue ship, Carpathia, shortly after dawn.

Gracie was the only one of the group of Washington men to survive.

Moore and Butt were never found. Millet’s body was recovered several days later and identified by a pocket watch that bore his initials.

Gracie began interviewing survivors as soon as he reached the Carpathia. Back home, he corresponded with survivors and the families of the dead and pored over the testimony of the British and American investigative bodies. He went to New York to study the layout of the Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic.

By late October, he had five chapters finished. In late November, during a talk about the sinking at the University Club, he admitted he was tormented by the Titanic.

He paused in mid-speech to compose himself. He told the audience the event had broken him. “I have never been the same man since,” he said. “I cannot get the tragic scene out of my mind.”

He worried that the Titanic was going to kill him. About a week later, it did.

His book was going to be published, and in early December he was staying in a New York hotel. He fell into a kind of delirium, according to his obituaries.

He kept muttering, “We’ve got to get them all into the boats . . . We’ve got to get them into the boats.”

Suffering from diabetes and stress, he died Dec. 4. Two days later, he was buried in New York, clad, according to his wishes, in the clothes he wore the night the ship sank.

Many years later, his wife commissioned a nine-foot marble statue of him and gave it to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian displayed it prominently at first, but as time passed and the memory of Gracie faded, the statue was hidden behind a wall in the Arts and Industries Building.

It was eventually removed. When asked about it last month, the Smithsonian said it has been crated up and kept in storage for the past 50 years.