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Another twist in the Titanic tale

New findings say the stern was probably at a 10? or 11? angle rather than 30? when it broke apart.

india Updated: Feb 24, 2006 11:44 IST

Titanic's traditionalimage is now being questioned by a naval architect in Maine who is featured in an upcoming documentary about the ship and how it sank in the north Atlantic.

New information from an expedition on the Titanic wreck site last summer suggests that the stern was probably at a 10- or 11-degree angle rather than 30 degrees or so when it broke apart, said Roger Long of Cape Elizabeth.

The traditional view of the ship-- the one depicted in the 1997 Oscar-winning film Titanic-- has the ship's stern rising high in the air shortly before it breaks in half and sinks.

Not everybody agrees, but the theory provides another twist in the ongoing mystery of what exactly happened when the "practically unsinkable" 883-foot (269 meters) ship sank on April 15, 1912, killing 1,500 people.

Long's theory will be put forth in a two-hour documentary, Titanic's Final Moments, to air on The History Channel on Sunday.

Long served as lead technical adviser on the film, which was produced by Lone Wolf Documentary Group in South Portland.

"I'm not claiming to have solved the puzzle of the Titanic," Long said. "I'm just saying the preponderance of the evidence points toward that low-level break. And it's a big preponderance."

The story of the Titanic has been debated for decades since it sank in waters 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) deep on its maiden voyage from England to New York.

But after last summer's research expedition that turned up new pieces of the ship's hull on the ocean bottom, Long became convinced that the ship's stern didn't rise nearly so far out of the water.

He also thinks that a design shortcoming in the ship's expansion joints-- gaps on the top of the sides of the ship to give it flexibility-- resulted in the ship's going down sooner than it otherwise would have.

Had the expansion joints held stronger, Long said, the ship would not have broken up until later and more lives might have been saved.

"Any amount of time might have been significant," he said.

Long's theory doesn't persuade Parks Stephenson of San Diego, a naval engineer and amateur Titanic historian who has worked with James Cameron, producer of the movie Titanic.

Stephenson said his view is in line with what he calls the "traditionalist approach" about how the ship went down.

The Titanic, he remains certain, was at a 30-degree angle or so when it broke apart from the weight of the unsupported stern. When the ship began breaking apart, it rolled slowly toward port and plunged downward in corkscrew fashion, he said.

"His interpretation of the evidence differs from mine," Stephenson said.

But Titanic historian David G Brown of Port Clinton, Ohio, thinks Long's interpretation is on the money. He previously thought the ship broke up at a steeper angle.

"I agreed with (the steep-angle theory) until I ran into Roger Long, who turned my head around on a number of things," Brown said.

No matter which theory turns out correct-- or if either can be proven beyond a doubt-- other evidence will probably emerge in future expeditions that fuel further debate.

The Titanic is the most documented shipwreck in history, and one of the most documented ships ever put to sea, Stephenson said.

Eyewitness accounts of the sinking differ sharply, he said, so it should be no surprise that there continue to be disagreements.

"We still don't know exactly what happened," he said. "And that's what drives people crazy. Every time we find new evidence, it contradicts evidence we knew before that."