ELLSWORTH, Maine — Thanks to a series of grainy photographs taken the year before, the three men huddled inside a small research submarine in July 1986 had a general sense of what to expect as they slowly descended 12,000 feet to the stern of the Titanic.
But what Ellsworth resident John Salzig witnessed that day as the sub finally reached the shipwreck is still vivid in his mind 26 years later.
“There were portholes intact. It was kind of eerie,” Salzig said. “The lights would reflect off of them … and you would almost expect to see someone looking out.”
Salzig was one of a small group of submarine pilots who accompanied explorer Robert Ballard to the bottom of the ocean in the Alvin, a submersible operated by Salzig’s employer, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the U.S. Navy.
One year earlier, Ballard had discovered the location of the ship that sank on April 15, 1912, claiming more than 1,500 lives. He teamed up with Woods Hole and the Navy to fully explore the shipwreck in the Alvin, a 23-foot-long submersible capable of diving more than 14,000 feet below the surface.
Salzig was part of the fourth manned dive on the wreck during the July 1986 mission. But Salzig’s dive team that day — himself, Ballard and one other pilot — was the first to see the stern of the enormous ship since it sank 74 years earlier and to explore part of the huge debris field.
Then a 20-some-year-old mechanical engineer, Salzig was struck by the condition of the items scattered along the ocean floor around and between the two ship sections: a large silver punch bowl still glistening in the lights of the submersible and its remote-controlled camera, brass pots, dinnerware emblazoned with the “Red Star” emblem of the ship’s owner and racks of champagne bottles still corked.
“One of the things that struck me when we approached one of the boilers, which was probably 23 feet tall … was a tea cup resting perfectly on top of it,” Salzig said Friday morning while seated in an Ellsworth coffee house.
And then there was the ship itself, resting in two pieces on the ocean floor.
“That was another thing that made an impression on me: how devastating of a wreck it was and how it broke up,” he recalled. “There were hull plates that were just twisted and torn.”
Salzig said he was glad that there were no human remains left to be seen.
Teams typically spent eight hours in the Alvin: four hours around the shipwreck plus four hours commuting to and from the surface. It was a tight squeeze, with Salzig comparing the interior space to that of a 2-door Honda Civic.
It also was potentially dangerous work because shipwrecks such as the Titanic’s are littered with cables, pipes and other items that can snag a submarine. So Woods Hole and the Alvin crew experimented with a much smaller, remote-controlled vehicle — known as Jason Jr. — to take pictures of the ship and its interior. Some of the pictures of debris taken by Salzig were later published in National Geographic’s series on the 1986 mission.
Salzig worked for 15 years off and on at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts in various capacities before moving to Maine, his wife’s home state. He now works as a carpenter, a lifelong interest of his.
While involved in a few other wreck-related projects, the vast majority of Salzig’s work and that of the institution focused on scientific research of the ocean. And oceanic science remains Salzig’s primary interest, although he acknowledges that it was exciting to be part of such an historic mission.
“It was eerie because of the intact portholes and seeing something that no one had seen for over 70 years,” he said. “Here was this mythical ship that I learned about when I was 8 years old.”