by David Sisler

It was the fastest three hours I think I have ever spent. I never looked at my watch.

Before Titanic was released last year, the talk from Hollywood was that the movie about the world's best-known disaster was a cinematic disaster. The price of production kept going up and up, with no end in sight. So expensive was the movie becoming that in a move rarely made in Tinsel Town, Paramount invested $65 million in the film, and Twentieth Century Fox had to pay that amount, plus pick up the tab when Titanic went at least $80 million over its $120 million budget.

The original release date was pushed back by some six months, while theater owners complained that the film's length would allow only two-thirds of the normal screenings.

All that, like the original White Star liner, is now history. In its initial release, and in only thirteen weeks, the movie passed the domestic box-office record of $461 million set by Star Wars (and Star Wars went through five re-releases to make that much money). With worldwide receipts in excess of $1.1 billion, analysts now expect Titanic to make a profit of more than $400 million.

When the Royal Mail Steamship Titanic sailed from the docks in Southampton on April 10, 1912, she was the largest moving object ever made by man. Five days later two-thirds of her passengers and crew would die when the great ship struck an iceberg and sank in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic. Within three hours the ship filled with 34,000 tons of water and plunged 2.5 miles to the ocean floor.

The initial theory for the sinking of the unsinkable ship was that the iceberg tore a 300 foot gash in the vessel's side. The designers believed that the ship could still float if five of the watertight compartments were opened to the sea. The ship sank, the theory goes, because six compartments were ripped open.

Following the discovery of Titanic in 1985 by oceanographer Robert Ballard, a theory was advanced which turned up, what appeared to be, a weakness in the hull plates. Some of the inch-thick steel plates seemed to have properties that made them relatively brittle in cold water. Subsequent analysis, though, suggested that 2,000 steel plates used in the hull varied in quality.

Tim Foecke believes he now knows the truth and it was nothing so large as an iceberg, or a failed hull plate it was the failure of her rivets that doomed Titanic. The total area open to the sea may have been no larger than a closet door.

Foecke is an expert in fracture mechanics and a student of structural failures in World War II Liberty ships at the federal government's National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Last September he released a report which states that the "microstructure" of the rivets, unknown to the turn-of-the-century Ulster shipbuilders, could be a key to the calamity.

During testing, one of the hull rivets was sliced down the middle with a diamond-tipped saw, and studied under a special microscope called an optical metallograph. The metallograph enabled Foecke to study the pattern of slag streaks running the length of the rivet and to measure the levels of slag.

Wrought iron must have some slag a byproduct in the iron-making process, usually about 2 percent to give it strength, he said. But too much makes it weak. The Titanic rivet, Foecke found, had a dangerously high slag content of about 9 percent.

In addition, the streaks of slag, which should run lengthwise along the rivet, showed another serious flaw which weakened the metal. The slag made a 90-degree turn at one end.

"This was really striking, because to have the slag turned around this way, this is a major area of weakness," he said.

Not an iceberg, not faulty hull plates, but something so small as the rivets, may have doomed the maiden voyage of the pride of the White Star Line.

"The little foxes spoil the grapes," the Bible says. Spiritual destruction starts with the small things. One sin here, one sin there and little by little the seeds of destruction are sown. You do not notice it at first, but when pressure comes against your life, its seams are exposed to the elements that would destroy you, and nothing human can be done to stop it.

Rose DeWitt Bukater, the female lead in the movie, played by Kate Winslet, said of Jack Dawson, the man with whom she fell in love, "He saved me. He saved me in every way a person can be saved."

Not quite every way, Rose.

That requires Jesus.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 3/21/98

Copyright 1998 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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