Saturday, September 10, 2005


Deep divers explore Titanic shipwreck


By Martin DeAngelis
September 06, 2005

USA -- Tom Maddox has gone exploring on hundreds of shipwrecks - or is it thousands? - in his decades as a scuba diver and teacher. But he'd never been more than 210 feet below the surface until a few weeks ago, after an old friend offered him the chance to see the world's most famous wreck with his own two eyes.

The only problem is that the Titanic is about 12,500 feet, or almost 2 1/2 miles, under the cold, crashing waters of the North Atlantic. But Maddox, an owner of East Coast Diving Supply here, had an expert guide taking him and another member of his expedition with him for the long trip down in a tiny, high-tech Russian submarine that's so used to alien environments, it's named Mir - just like the space station.

Still, 2 1/2 miles of water isn't just one problem, it's a world of problems. There's the water temperature, which was just 36 degrees at the Titanic's depth that August day, so cold that the temperature inside the sub dropped to about 50 degrees as the frigid water pressed on the walls after they were down there a while.

And they were down there a long while, because Maddox was part of a documentary team put together by David Concannon, a lawyer who splits his time between Ocean City and Wayne, Pa. The expedition mission was to film a History Channel special on previously unexplored parts of the wreck site from the ship's April 15, 1912, sinking. It takes a Mir 21/2 hours to drop down to the ocean floor and the about the same to climb back up, so to get any meaningful time at the bottom doing his job - Maddox was there to scout out and shoot television-quality video - he ended up being in the sub for 12 hours.

There are two Mir submersibles, approximately 26 feet long and whale-shaped, with a three-passenger compartment that's about 5 feet in diameter. These twin vessels are built for lots of things, like safety, utility and research, so they're outfitted with plenty of battery power, high-intensity lights - the ocean floor near the Titanic is "as black as space," Maddox says -computers and, on this trip, high-definition cameras. What they're definitely not built for is luxury.
"I spent 12 hours in a fetal position," Maddox says.

Maddox and Concannon have known each other for 20 years, ever since Concannon came to Maddox's shop for diving lessons and got Maddox as his teacher. Now Concannon is Maddox's corporate lawyer - Maddox bought out a dive business and equipment supplier in Pennsauken a few years ago, and MAR-VEL International has since won a series of U.S. government contracts for underwater equipment, particularly military gear. These days, Tom mainly runs MAR-VEL, and his wife and partner, Joan, is in charge of East Coast Diving. The Maddoxes live in Estell Manor.

Concannon has helped put together several expeditions to the Titanic and has also represented James Cameron - the man who made the blockbuster movie about the doomed ship a few years ago. Last month's project was Concannon's fourth time diving down to the Titanic himself, but his first time as the leader of the expedition, and he says he wanted Maddox along because he knew he could count on his underwater experience and his overall temperament.

"One of the problems on the Titanic is that it's really hard to know what you're looking at," Concannon says. "You have to have real expertise eyeballing shipwrecks, and Tom does. You don't want somebody in the submersible who has no idea what they're looking at down there, especially when you're exploring new areas of the wreck site."

Maddox took hours of video, and his boss on the project, Concannon, calls what he got "the best footage shot" - including the work of professional videographers. So Concannon is sure some of Maddox's stuff will make it into the History Channel special when it airs in January. He doesn't know the title yet but says it features John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, the stars of the network's "Deep Sea Detectives" series and subjects of last year's hit book, "Shadow Divers."

Maddox says he was interested in but not obsessed with the Titanic before he started the expedition. He'd seen the movie and watched some television programs about it, but mainly, he says, "I'm an equipment kind of guy."

So he can go on and on about the wonders of the Mir - "There are only three subs in the world that can go this deep, and these are two of them." And after all his years of scuba diving, with its emphasis on the pressure that the underwater environment exerts on human bodies and the slow returns to the surface it requires to avoid those bodies getting the divers' disease called the bends, he's amazed at the flexibility these completely pressurized vessels offer.

"The pressure on the bottom is 6,000 (pounds per square inch)," he marvels, "but in the sub, you have no idea of the pressure."

Still, when he got down there, and saw the wreck, and saw evidence of the human costs of the Titanic - simple items, like womens' shoes - "It becomes a very personal thing. You realize you're in a place where 1,500 souls were lost, in a hell-fire and brimstone kind of way."

To avoid being the next lost souls, the Mir captain keeps a bit of distance between his craft and the wreck. If it gets caught on something, the only hope for saving the sub is if its twin, which always dives with it, can come along and free it. The day before Maddox's dive, he says a strong current pushed one of the vessels into the wreck and hung it up briefly, but the captain got it out of the jam and back to the surface safely.

And just a few weeks before his expedition, the world - and the Maddox family - watched while foreign crews rushed in to free a Russian submarine that got hung up on the bottom of the sea. And that sub was in 600 feet of water, not 12,500.

Maddox went down and made it back fine, though, and he knows everybody else on his expedition did the same. But now that he's back to work and everyday life, Maddox also knows something else.

By seeing the bones of the Titanic in their own environment, 2 1/2 miles down, Tom Maddox has just become part of a very exclusive club. In the 93 years since the ship sunk, and the 20 years since explorers finally found it 400 miles south of Newfoundland, Concannon says fewer than 150 people have ever taken that deep, deep dive down to where its remains - metal, human and otherwise - came to rest after its tragic first, and last, voyage.


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