MAYS LANDING — While many books, articles and scholarly papers have been written in an attempt to explain the sinking of the Titanic, Tom Maddox can pretty much distill the tragedy down to a few words.
“Here’s my Reader’s Digest condensed version: Big ship. Lots of people. Big cube of ice. Ship hits ice. A lot of people die,” Maddox said. “I kind of jokingly say the ship sunk, that’s all we need to know.”
Maddox certainly isn’t trying to trivialize the 1912 disaster that claimed the lives of more than 1,500 people on board the supposedly “unsinkable” luxury liner. He, after all, has seen where they died.
Maddox, a scuba expert who lives in Estell Manor, is one of the few people who have descended to the Titanic’s final resting place, 2.5 miles below the surface of the North Atlantic. He was part of a 2005 History Channel expedition that used a deep-sea sub to explore the shipwreck in hopes of unlocking the mysteries of the most famous of all maritime disasters.
“I feel like I’m in a privileged class to go down and see her in her resting place,” Maddox said while describing his adventure to the Atlantic County Historical Society on March 12.
Over the years, historians and scholars have debated theory after theory to explain Titanic’s demise. Was it a reckless captain who ignored iceberg warnings? Did faulty construction or brittle steel doom the ship? Was there a huge rip in the side or the bottom of the ship that allowed the sea water to rush in so quickly?
Maddox said we may never know for sure. However, he tends to agree with the most popular theory — that a gash in the hull allowed water to breach the watertight compartments and pulled the Titanic down by the bow on April 15, 1912.
During the 2005 expedition, the History Channel examined the possibility that a gigantic hole was torn in the Titanic’s keel, causing massive flooding along the bottom of the ship. But a search for the so-called “ribbons of steel” to support that theory proved elusive.
No longer debated is whether the Titanic broke into two pieces while in its death throes. It did. The bow and stern lie on the bottom about a half-mile apart. A vast debris field was created when the ship’s contents came spilling out and littered the sea bed.
“She spewed her guts,” Maddox said matter-of-factly.
Some of the debris reflected the Titanic’s posh reputation. Bottles of fine wine are stacked up, their corks still in them, as though they are ready to be opened for dinner. The eerie scene also includes an array of porcelain artifacts — cups, pitchers, dishes, bathtubs and toilets — almost aglow in their ghostly white color.
“It’s a sea of brown with specks of white porcelain all over the place. It leaves an impression,” Maddox said.
At that extreme depth, the bottom of the ocean resembles the “dark side of the moon,” he said. Then, the pitch-black water gives way to reveal the Titanic’s towering skeleton.
“All of a sudden, you see the bottom of the hull, where the sand meets it,” Maddox said. “You peer up and see nothing but steel structure straight up. Then it comes out of the clouds and there’s the shipwreck. It’s really a sight to see.”
Maddox surveyed the wreck site in a Russian-built minisub capable of plunging to great depths. The 63-year-old Maddox has been diving since he was a young boy and now owns American Diving Supply of Egg Harbor Township. His longstanding friendship with corporate lawyer David Concannon led to him taking part in the making of the History Channel documentary.
Concannon helped to organize several expeditions to the Titanic over the years. He also has represented movie producer and director James Cameron, whose blockbuster “Titanic” film in 1997 brought the disaster alive for a new generation of shipwreck buffs.
Among those sitting in the audience during Maddox’s remarks to the Atlantic County Historical Society was 8-year-old Savannah Forbes, a second-grader at the George L. Hess Educational Complex in Mays Landing. Even at such a young age, Forbes is captivated by the tale of the legendary liner.
“I thought it was fascinating because some survived and some didn’t,” she said. “It happened a hundred years ago. That’s why it’s fascinating.”
Forbes’ 69-year-old grandmother, Lois Campbell, of Mays Landing, doesn’t consider herself a Titanic aficionado, but she, too, finds herself mesmerized by the story. She hopes that history will never forget the victims.
“It’s about keeping the memory of those people alive,” Campbell said
While memories of the Titanic victims may endure, the ship itself could disappear. It is a mangled mass of metal that has collapsed upon itself. Huge streaks of rust coat the wreck and are eating away at the exposed metal, threatening the ship altogether. Maddox said it is anyone’s guess how long it will be before the Titanic vanishes.
“Right now, the scientists really don’t have an idea,” he said. “It could be 50 years, it could be hundreds of years.”
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