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Titanic's finder: `I'm an explorer'

Robert Ballard's enthusiasm for his Titanic adventure has not dimmed at all in the year since his last visit to the ship, he tells a Monitor interviewer. Dr. Ballard, tenured senior scientist in the Department of Ocean Engineering and head of the Deep Submergence Laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, describes the peak of excitement in the search as follows:

``On Sept. 1, 1985 when we first picked up the picture of the Titanic boiler - that was the most exciting moment.

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``My initial sense was joy and relief, and then sadness - because I was there. All this time the Titanic had been a very abstract thing, a legend somewhere out there. But when you find something that rivets you to a spot and you know exactly where you are and the boiler is there beneath you ... you know that all around you 1,500 people perished in the water, all looking for a boat. And here we are in a perfect boat that could have taken them all to safety. But we are 73 years too late now. It was that sense of being on the scene.''

Dr. Ballard looks off into the distance. ``The only think I can liken it to is the first time I ever went to the battlefields at Gettysburg with my two boys. We came to a little sign that said, `This was the high water mark of the Confederacy, where Pickett's charge was stopped.' I started crying. I wasn't prepared to cry; I had no idea that would happen to me. I was just extremely sad at Americans killing Americans in incredible numbers. And I was standing right where they did it.

``That was the same feeling I had at the Titanic: I was there. All of a sudden it wasn't abstract anymore. I was aware of the iceberg, the people in the water; I could feel it all.''

But Ballard says the Titanic had no special meaning to him. ``I'm an explorer, and 65 percent of the Earth has never been seen. My love is to go and look at something nobody has ever seen. So the Titanic needed to be found. We know more about the topography of Mars than we do about the bottom of the sea.''

What exploration is next for Ballard?

``I want to go to the Mediterranean. It gets as deep as 16,000 feet. In the Tyrrhenhian Sea, between Italy, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, and Tunisia - where Carthage was - in that basin, from four centuries before Christ to four centuries after, we have documented that approximately 10,000 ships of antiquity have gone down in deep water. The Punic Wars were fought there; all the trade routes from Greece went through there. I want to take the robot and explore those trade routes. There have got to be tremendous capsules of history down there.''

Ballard believes the Titanic should be left alone. ``There is a law to protect it now. It is a marine memorial, and Americans are not supposed to go back and salvage it. ''

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There have been rumors that a Texas oilman with the backing of the French government plans to go back soon to bring up some of the everyday artifacts and to look for treasures in safes.

``I hope not,'' says Ballard. ``We have all we need from her. There will be videos in shops, books about her. We took 75,000 color pictures and 100,000 hours of video. The purser's safes were opened and the contents given to the passengers, so the safes don't hold treasures. Why don't they leave the Titanic alone!

``Our expedition put it to bed. To me, the ship is now home-ported. All the lost souls have been found. We've gone down and put a beautiful brass plaque right on the deck where people jumped off the stern: `In memory of those who perished aboard this ship.'''

Ballard has taken no souvenirs, although there were plenty of cups and chamber pots and such items there for the taking.

``I'm not a treasure hunter,'' he says. ``It would defeat my concept of telepresence if I had a souvenir up on my mantel. I would be yielding to the tactile aspects. Things belong smack dab where they are. It's the totality of it. Remove something from its natural habitat, and you have spoiled the totality of the experience.

``A rifle from Gettysburg means nothing. But a rifle on the ground where it fell next to a soldier has meaning.

``I have the Titanic inside my head; so I can always go back.''

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