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Wreck Explorer: Titanic's Captivating Heroes, Villains

The bow railing of RMS Titanic, illuminated by the Mir 1 submersible. Read more about the wreck in <a href="http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/04/titanic/sides-text">a <em>National Geographic</em> report</a>.
Emory Kristof
National Geographic Stock
The bow railing of RMS Titanic, illuminated by the Mir 1 submersible. Read more about the wreck in a National Geographic report.

On April 10, 1912, the Titanic set sail for New York City from Southampton in England. Four days later, the ship struck an iceberg and sank in the frigid waters of the Atlantic.

The rest of the story has been the subject of countless books, shows and films about the thousands of people who traveled on the ship's maiden voyage, the dramatic events of the final few hours, and the legend of the "unsinkable" Titanic.

Bob Ballard, the explorer who discovered the Titanic wreckage, tells NPR's Neal Conan that Titanic's dramatic end is why her legend endures. The Lusitania sank rapidly just a few years later, but the Titanic took longer, sinking into the ocean over three hours on a clear night. With that kind of time, "I think everyone wonders what would they have done, and they all put themselves on the Titanic, and they're not quite sure which role they would play," says Ballard.

The people onboard really made the story. "You had heroes and villains," says Ballard. "You had the owner of the Titanic sneaking into a lifeboat on the starboard side. You had a young man who had turned 18 the day before who, when offered a seat in the lifeboat, said, 'No, I'm a man now. I'll stand with the rest,' and perished."

And then there's the story of the Strauses, who owned Macy's department store. Ida Straus got in the lifeboat, and then her husband, Isidor, tried to follow her in. "The officer stops him and says, 'I'm sorry, sir, women and children only.' She says, 'where he goes, I go.' [So] she gets out and goes down with the ship," says Ballard.

On shore, in New York City, a young man named David Sarnoff received the ship's first distress calls. "I think it was just this slow news day in the world," says Ballard. "It was an age of innocence. ... The stars of the time were wealthy, and they went down on the ship," he says. In so many ways, the story was "straight out of central casting."

Ballard has done 130 expeditions, but it was his 70th — Titanic — that changed everything. On other explorations, his teams made incredible discoveries, from hydrothermal vents to new life forms. But he never got letters from children for those voyages.

"After I found the Titanic, I was inundated," he says. He channeled their interest into a nonprofit organization, The JASON Project, which works to get kids excited about science. "And if the Titanic helps me do that," he says, "then I want to thank the memory of the Titanic for all the impact it's had on young kids in a positive way."

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