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Last updated October 9, 2008 9:55 a.m. PT

Troubling new evidence leads local author to rewrite Titanic's final chapter

By LISA ALBERS
SPECIAL TO THE P-I

Somebody had better call James Cameron and tell him his movie needs to be revised. The big finish in "Titanic" -- in which characters Rose and Jack cling to the stern of the ship before it slips into the sea -- is wrong.

The 1997 film depicted the prevailing theory at the time to explain Titanic's sinking. After striking an iceberg, the ship sank bow-first, the stern bobbing up at a 45-degree angle and the ship breaking in half under the pressure.

What really happened was less visually dramatic but far more tragic. The ship broke on the surface at a low, 9- to 11-degree angle, because Titanic's structure was weak.

So says a new nonfiction book by local author Brad Matsen, "Titanic's Last Secrets" (Twelve, 276 pages, $27.99). His story chronicles the most important development in the Titanic mystery since the discovery of the wreckage in 1985.

"It's an adventurous attempt to solve a mystery by brave contemporaries that stumble across a corporate cover-up that happened a hundred years ago," said Matsen on the phone from his Vashon Island home.

 cover

He follows "shadow divers" John Chatterton and Richie Kohler as they attempt to answer a question that has plagued Titanic investigators for 96 years: Why did the world's largest, most luxurious ocean liner sink so quickly?

It's an important question. The ship sank in two hours, 40 forty minutes; it had been believed the ship could stay afloat much longer, acting as its own life raft long enough for help to intercede. By the time the first rescue vessel arrived, it was too late to save anyone but those few passengers who'd made it into lifeboats.

The answer left Matsen, Chatterton, and Kohler furious, and it most likely will affect readers the same way. The divers uncovered evidence that Titanic's hull and superstructure ripped apart before the vessel sank. Both had been constructed with smaller rivets and thinner steel than the designer deemed safe. The expansion joints between the hull and superstructure also were weakly designed. Remnants of Titanic's bottom section found on the sea floor show the steel damaged from compression and tension.

"We'd get on the phone and scream at each other," Matsen said of himself and the divers as the discovery and its meaning were slowly pieced together and confirmed. More than 1,500 people died, most of them freezing to death in the icy North Atlantic a mere hour and 10 minutes before the rescue ship got there.

"There was nothing I could do about it but write the book," said Matsen.

The discovery was verified by a team of researchers culled from the ranks of the "Titaniacs," the ship's own cult following. Then it was released to the media. The announcement in the papers prompted an ex-archivist for the company that built Titanic to come forward with more disturbing news: Shipbuilding executives knew of the weaknesses. They also covered up what they knew, revealing none of it to the American and British inquiries into the disaster.

 author
 ZoomJonas Bendiksen / Magnum
 Brad Matsen, author of "Titanic's Last Secrets."

"I had to moderate my emotions in order to tell the story," said Matsen.

As with the movie's characterization of Titanic owner Bruce Ismay, it would be too easy to paint a one-dimensional villain in such a dark and true tale.

"My job was to focus on the people who built the ship," he said. "I wanted to tell a complicated story that mattered."

What results is deft handling of the characters who have been both lionized and demonized since the disaster. Matsen refrains from either extreme, drawing upon the remnants of the ship company archives for details that reveal their humanity.

"The governing motif for the historical section of the book is to point to the path that these people walked to get to where they compromised to kill 1,500 people," said Matsen.

But what Matsen learned on this project is that the men responsible weren't necessarily evil.

"They're just like us," he said. "The capacity for good and evil is in every one of us."

Freelance writer Lisa Albers can be reached at lisaalbers@comcast.net.
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