Titanic’s Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler….Brad Matsen

Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler

I remember all too well the night I pulled an all-nighter reading Walter Lord’s classic A Night to Remember, a chilling, moment-by-moment description of the doomed voyage and sinking of the RMS Titanic in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. This was way before Leonardo was ‘king of the world’, and was actually before Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor in 1985 (I’m dating myself here). I didn’t mean to pull an all-nighter; I just could not stop reading. I was horrified and yet fascinated by the story, my heart pounding as the inevitable tragedy unfolded and so many lost their lives in the freezing waters, and angered by the stupidity and greed of the designers who did not put enough lifeboats on board for everyone to escape, feeling there was no need for safety measures on an ‘unsinkable’ ship.

Ask anyone nine years old or older why the Titanic sank, and most everyone’s quickie answer would be “an iceberg”. Thanks to research, deep sea submersibles, and good old science, we’re finding out now that the iceberg was only part of the reason Titanic met its demise. In 1991, research divers Richie Kohler and John Chatterton made history when they discovered the wreck of a German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. After a friend reported some interesting and unfamiliar debris surrounding the wreck of Titanic on the ocean floor, Kohler and Chatterton teamed up again to visit the site of the sinking in the famed Russian Mir submersibles. What they found there during three dives in the Mir crafts wasn’t the “Heart of the Ocean”, but pieces of the hull and keel of the ship, never before seen or photographed. Warping and damage visualized along these keel and hull pieces were the first crucial pieces of evidence for a new (and even more horrifying) hypothesis for the ship’s sinking. Further research on land with Harland and Wolff’s (the shipyards that built Titanic and her sister ships, Olympic and Britannic) archives, as well as a visit to the wreck of Britannic, supported even more strongly the idea that not only was Titanic not “unsinkable” after all, but may in fact have been doomed from the start, with her construction flaws well-known to H&W’s builders and executives before she sailed.

Underwater picture of damage to Titanic's hull. The Chatterton/Richie expedition discovered two very large pieces of the doomed ship's hull.

Like anyone, I love a good conspiracy theory. I began this book with a pretty closed mind, thinking there was nothing new that could be gleaned from the wreck, since so many people (including even director James Cameron) have been down there in the deep sea subs taking a look at things. I was pleasantly surprised by all the new findings, and it really turned what I thought I knew about the Titanic on end. Along with Chatterton and Richie, many engineers, scientists, and historians were involved in the data analysis, and the scenario that best fit their findings were in good agreement with many of the eyewitness accounts given by survivors and crew at the Senate hearings following the disaster. Although slightly skeptical that a cover-up of that magnitude could ever have been successful, I’m not surprised by much anymore in the internet age. The book provides great photos of the people involved and of both wrecks.

We’ll never know what really took place on that awful April night, but this book gave me hope that scientists are inching ever closer to finding the real truth about one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. This book just goes to show that you can never close the book on a case like this, because as science and technology advance, more and more of the secrets of Titanic’s fatal night will be revealed. I can’t wait to see what we’ll discover in the next few years.

Grade: A-


Too Far From Home: A Story of Life and Death in Space….Chris Jones

Expedition Six's astronauts aboard the International Space Station: Nikolai Budarin, Don Pettit and Ken Bowersox.

As a child, I was fascinated by astronaut Sally Ride’s book To Space and Back, a book she wrote for kids about what it was like to be an astronaut and live in space. Her accounts of the day-to-day challenges of making something as simple as a sandwich in zero gravity and the amazing pictures that showed astronaut toilets and spheres of floating orange juice captivated me. It is this book I thought of when I began to read Chris Jones’ interesting (and at times, nerve-wracking!) book Too Far From Home, which details what life was like for three astronauts during a nearly five-month stretch aboard the International Space Station.

Ken Bowersox, Don Pettit and Russian cosmonaut Nikolai Budarin’s stint on the ISS was to be just a routine few weeks living in space and monitoring the ongoing scientific experiments on the ISS. That all changed on January 16, 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart during landing, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Left with their grief and horror in the insulation of space, the astronauts would quickly come to realize that the Columbia disaster also affected them in a more practical way. The  Space Shuttle was responsible for bringing up the replacement crew to the ISS team after the current team’s stay was complete, and also provided the current crew’s way home. NASA’s grounding of the shuttle fleet following the tragedy put the ISS astronauts’ return to Earth on permanent hold while their cohorts on the ground tried to figure out how best to get them back safely. They would later hitch a heart-stopping ride back to Earth aboard a small, Russian capsule called Soyuz, surviving 8g’s during a steep ballistic reentry (later found to be due to faulty software) and landing miles from their target destination. The Russians lost track of them during reentry and for several hours had no idea if the astronauts were alive or dead.

The International Space Station

Amazingly, the three astronauts were in no hurry to get back to Earth. Jones’ story details the minutia of orbital life, and his descriptions of the isolation and leisurely pace of life in space, compared to our hectic lives on Earth, were really eye-opening. I could definitely understand the attraction of the ISS for these men and why they were reluctant to leave. Jones’ descriptions of how the astronauts strapped themselves down to a dinner table in order to eat in a quasi-traditional way, and how tasteless food can become for astronauts due to stuffed nasal passages were hilarious. I loved how astronauts would use packets of taco sauce as collateral on board, sprinkling it even onto Rice Krispies just so they could taste something. His detailing of the Columbia disaster and its aftermath, as well as the dangers inherent in space travel and space walking were very vivid. I appreciated how brave astronauts have to be to help us learn more about how we can live and travel in space.

I really enjoyed this book overall. It wasn’t too technical and gave a great overview of what it would be like to be an astronaut and live in space. Even after their traumatic trip home, Don Pettit has returned to space twice more and is currently residing again on the ISS.

Grade: A

Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper….Geoffrey Gray

FBI composite sketch of hijacker Dan Cooper

November 24, 1971. A tall, dark haired man in a suit boards Northwest Airlines Flight 305, bound for Seattle WA, on a stormy night. He sits in the middle seat of the last row on the right. Orders a bourbon and Seven Up. He seemed like no one in particular, until he handed one of the flight attendants a note just as the plane was taking off, informing her that he had a bomb and would like her to sit by him.

What follows is the epic, slightly kooky story of the hunt to find the man who called himself Dan Cooper, chronicled in Geoffrey Gray’s book Skyjack. Using a parachute and the aftstairs on on the 727, Cooper parachuted out of the plane with the $200,000 he demanded from Northwest and disappeared into thin air and folklore. As of today he is the only airline hijacker never to be caught or identified. Cooper became a cult hero at a time in our history when Americans were pretty down on America (pre-Watergate and during the Vietnam War), and his hijacking was seen as Everyman taking on the Establishmen– and winning.

Like any sensational event, the Cooper hijacking elicited a media firestorm, and conspiracy theories abounded. Suddenly every whack job in the country was the lost hijacker, or married to him. Every unexplained photograph, prolonged absence, personality disorder, or interest in flying was enough to bring possible candidates for Cooper out of the woodwork. Families became torn apart by the case, as relatives became obsessed with finding the hijacker or the money, or proving that their husband/son/brother was Cooper. Gray himself becomes a bit obsessed by the end of the book, struggling in vain to find even one piece of evidence that would crack the case.

It was interesting to see the slice of Americana that became involved in the case. No one seemed really “normal”, but to become interested in solving what many agents at the time called “the perfect crime”, you would have to be a bit off kilter. This book for me was more of a testament to what happens when someone starts to dig under the surface of any crime, or into anyone’s life, for that matter. What you find isn’t always pretty, desirable or understandable, and you don’t always get all the questions answered.

This was not my favorite book, but it was engaging enough to finish, and like the Cooper case itself, left you hanging at the end. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a real story as I read. It does seem unbelievable in some parts. Gray describes his wacky cast of characters well, and did a good job helping the reader get inside their heads. I wondered what the real Dan Cooper would have thought of the people who tried to claim his name and his deed. I think he would have had a good laugh. Almost 40 years later, he has still not been found.

Grade: B+

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon….David Grann

Percy Harrison Fawcett, Amazon explorer

Warning: Do not read this book while you are eating, or if you are squeamish.

You will thank me later.

The year was 1925. A British explorer named Percy Harrison Fawcett, accompanied only by his oldest son Jack and his son’s best friend Raleigh Rimell, trekked into the Amazon in an attempt to find the ruins of a legendary city. They would search amidst the threat of savage wild animals, angry indigenous Indians, near-starvation and exhaustion, and some of the nastiest-sounding insects in the history of mankind in their quest to find the “City of Z”, which Fawcett had researched and read about for years. Thanks to wireless and the print media, this journey was an international sensation, making Fawcett and the two boys media superstars, and millions hung on every scrap of information which came from the expedition.

Unfortunately, in a mystery that has endured almost 100 years, Fawcett, his son and friend disappeared into the jungle, never to be heard from or seen again. Many would venture into the Amazon in an attempt to discover their whereabouts, only to disappear themselves. At last count, 100 people have died or disappeared in their quest to find Fawcett. And no one has been successful. David Grann, like many before him, also became obsessed with Fawcett and the legendary City of Z, and his book, The Lost City of Z, chronicles both Fawcett’s story as well as Grann’s own research and subsequent trek into the jungle to find out what happened.

 In 1830, Great Britain formed the Royal Geographical Society. Its mission was to fill in the large blank spaces that existed on maps at the time. Back before airplanes, GPS systems and Google Earth, much of the world was still unexplored and unseen. Maps would label these places as “unknown” or even use pictures of mythological sea creatures to fill up the awkward blank spots. With support from the RGS, Fawcett was one of the first to venture into the Amazon, attempting to catalogue the flora and fauna there, as well as mapping rivers and settlements. Fearless and seemingly invincible, Fawcett drove his men hard, allowing very little sleep and nearly starving them, and as a consequence many of the men who accompanied him died. As other explorers began to break into the Amazon, Fawcett became slightly paranoid, and refused to talk about his expeditions and the paths he intended to take, leaving behind cryptic keys and misleading information to put his competitors on the wrong track. Unfortunately, Fawcett’s paranoia would later backfire on him, since the lack of information he left behind prevented anyone from rescuing the lost explorers.

Old map complete with mermaids and whales capsizing ships. Thank God for Google Earth.

With access to Fawcett’s personal papers and maps left behind, Grann attempted to figure out what happened to the Fawcetts and Rimell. When he meets up with an American anthropologist who has been living with natives in the wilds for several years, part of the mystery of the Legend of Z is solved.

I liked this book, but, being a bit squeamish, nearly threw up in some of the parts of the book. This book is not for the faint of heart or stomach. Reading about insects that burrow into the skin and crawl over you while you sleep was more information than I ever needed. Who would ever have gone to that place on purpose? I guess if someone out there didn’t think exploring was at least somewhat rewarding, we’d all still be British subjects. What was most interesting to me was that the Age of Exploration didn’t end with Columbus. Even as late as the turn of the twentieth century, we were still to some extent exploring our world. At the end of this book, I have nothing but respect for the people who leave their families and the comforts of home to seek out the unknown. I just know I’m not cut out for it.

Grade: B

PS: Brad Pitt will be starring as Percy Fawcett in an upcoming movie version of The Lost City of Z, so don’t miss that! Check out this link for more info.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster…Jon Krakauer

“I’d always known that climbing mountains was a high-risk pursuit. I accepted that danger was an essential component of the game–without it, climbing would be little different from a hundred other trifling diversions. It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.”

Mount Everest

Mount Everest is the world’s tallest mountain, and perhaps its most famous. It is located on the border of Nepal and Tibet, and its iconic triangular peak pierces the sky at an amazing 29,028 feet, just slightly lower than commercial aircraft routinely fly. Snow blankets the summit year round, and high-altitude winds blow the snow away from the peak in a plume. Its amazing beauty and dangerous heights have attracted thrill-seeking climbers for decades, despite the grim statistics stating that one in four Everest climbers may lose their lives in their quest. Those who want to climb Everest contend not only with pricey climbing fees and difficult technical climbing challenges, but also face the more serious possible dangers of judgement-impairing hypoxia from the thin atmosphere, frostbite, cerebral or pulmonary edema from ascending or descending too fast, and visibility limiting blizzards that pummel the summit. Amazingly, most say it is harder to get down from Everest than it is to get to the top.

In 1996, Jon Krakauer was hired by Outside Magazine to do a piece on the commercialization of Everest. Since Sir Edmund Hillary’s conquest of Everest in 1953, climbing expedition companies had sprung up worldwide, offering to bring anyone who was reasonably fit and wanted to climb Everest to the top… for a price. Between the expensive climbing permits required by Nepal and Tibet and the companies’ guiding fees, these days it costs about $65,000 a person to climb Everest…and this is not even a guarantee that you’ll get to the top. Doug Hanson, one of the climbers in Krakauer’s group, was making his third attempt to get to the top of Everest. Many people worried that these guiding companies would put profit before safety by allowing sub-par climbers to join their groups to bring in revenue or by pushing to get climbers to the top even in adverse circumstances to pump up their summiting statistics for prospective future clients. They felt that both of these situations might not only endanger inexperienced climbers, but might also endanger more experienced climbers who would have to rescue or assist them. Outside originally only wanted Krakauer to go as far as Base Camp, located at 17,700 feet. However, Krakauer was an experienced climber who had always dreamed of climbing Everest, and he convinced the magazine to allow him to join one of the expeditions to climb Everest himself. Into Thin Air was born when Krakauer realized he could not contain the full experience of his harrowing Everest climb in a single magazine article.

Map of camps located along Everest ascent

Most climbing expeditions allot about eight weeks to climb Everest. Above Base Camp, there are four camps located at different points along the route to the summit.  Adventure Consultants, the group Krakauer climbed with, employed a gradual acclimatization program to  help climbers adjust to atmospheric changes as they ascended the mountain. The group would climb to one camp, spend a day or so, and then go back down to a lower camp, and then several days later, ascend to a higher camp, and repeat the process, allowing climbers to become comfortable with the technical aspects of the climb and allowing their bodies to adjust to the increasingly thinner atmosphere. Rob Hall, the leader of the Adventure Consultants group, was strict about not allowing members of his group to climb ahead of the others, but Scott Fischer, the leader of the Mountain Madness group (another group climbing Everest at the same time), encouraged and allowed his group members to go up or down the mountain as they felt comfortable and acclimatize themselves. At Camp Four, the last camp before the summit, all climbers were given oxygen.

The Hillary Step

The difficulties began on May 10, 1996. Several groups that were attempting to summit Everest arrived near the top at the same time, causing a bottleneck at one of the more famous and challenging parts of the mountain, called the Hillary Step. A long line of climbers waited to climb the one rope to reach the summit. Many of the climbers, such as Doug Hanson and Scott Fischer, were arriving at the top in sub-par condition, battling various ailments. As Krakauer looked down from the summit, weak from lack of sleep and food, woozy from lack of oxygen, and exhausted from the climb, he noticed thick clouds brewing just below them, and was lucky to get back down to Camp Four before the worst of the storm hit. The storm escalated quickly to a blizzard, limiting visibility and trapping the climbers who were either at the summit or just below it. As the climbers struggled to aid each other, several exhausted themselves and ended up needing aid themselves, and those who were already ‘safe’ were too weak and exhausted to help . Those who were able to help were heroic and superhuman by any standards, risking their own lives by searching for survivors in the storm. By the time the storm ended, four of the eight climbers in Krakauer’s group were dead, and one more was seriously injured. Of the 14 expeditions on Everest that day, a total of 12 climbers died.

Jon Krakauer

As Krakauer struggles with the guilt he feels as one of the survivors, and as a climber who was too incapacitated at the time to help his teammates, he wraps the book up with a discussion of the possible causes of the disaster and what can be learned from them, which I felt was the most moving part of the book. He notes that Hall, a hard-core expedition leader who had set a safety deadline for climbers to reach the top or be turned back, inexpicably bent his own rule and allowed Doug Hanson to take several extra hours to make it to the top, knowing that Doug had failed on two previous attempts. This decision may have been the reason both lost their lives. Sandy Hill Pittman, a socialite climber in Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness group, struggled physically during the climb, and at the end was ‘short-roped’ (basically tied to another climber and dragged to the summit) so that she would make it to the top, since Fischer knew he would get positive publicity if she made it. Krakauer felt that prohibiting future climbers from using oxygen might prevent mass casualties, as fewer inexperienced climbers would be able to attempt a summit without oxygen and would be less likely to push themselves into life threatening situations–although he notes that plenty of experienced climbers (such as Hall and Fischer, both Everest experts who died on the mountain that May) had also perished. He realizes that there is very little chance of governmental regulation from Nepal and Tibet, since both countries are extremely poor and need the income climbing permits bring. In the end, there will always be people who will want to climb Everest, regardless of the money, risk and peril it entails, and those who attempt it will have to accept those risks.

I hate to say I enjoyed Krakauer’s book, because it was so tragic and scary and sad…but I did. It reminded me of reading A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. Everyone knows how the story ends, as Krakauer gives us the death toll on page five. Like Lord’s description of the sinking of the Titanic, the drive of Krakauer’s narrative is the compelling moment-by-moment unfolding of the tragedy on Everest. As I read, I occasionally shook my head with incredulity that anyone in their right mind would ever attempt something so dangerous and…well…stupid. But then again, I’m not a climber, and could never understand the madness and enjoyment that climbers can get “brushing up against the enigma of mortality”. The slopes of Everest are littered with the bodies of dead climbers who lost their lives in pursuit of a dream and a goal–the IMAX expedition that was on Everest at the same time as Krakauer literally stepped over the dead body of Rob Hall to reach the summit. To endure the multiple miseries of ascending into thin air, there has to be something so compelling about climbing that in spite of the multiple dangers to life and limb, people not only do this once, but over and over again.

This was a thrilling and horrifying read, but was fascinating nonetheless. I have purchased the IMAX movie Everest, shot during the same few days in May that Krakauer’s group was on Everest, and should be receiving it later this week. I can’t wait to see it. I’ll post a review on that as well.

Grade: A-