Kiwanis Club of Issaquah hosts Titanic expert to commemorate tragedy’s 100th anniversary

April 10, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

Don Lynch, author of ‘Titanic: An Illustrated History,’ stands on the Grand Staircase set for the 1997 film ‘Titanic.’ Contributed

In the icy deep, more than 12,500 feet beneath the surface, a steel wall emerges, alien and foreboding, from the North Atlantic seabed.

Don Lynch peers through a porthole in a small submersible, as bulbous as a whale and built to endure the extreme cold and intense pressure at such depths. The other occupants in the craft include filmmaker James Cameron.

“We pulled up to the side of it and Jim was like, ‘There’s the Titanic for you,’” Lynch recalled in a recent interview. “In the movies, you always come up to the bow and the prow’s sticking up and rising above you, but it was just this flat wall out in front of us.”

Lynch, a historian considered among the foremost Titanic experts on the planet, descended to the wreck in August and September 2001. The noted author also served as a consultant on Cameron’s 1997 film about the doomed ocean liner.

In order to commemorate 100 years since the Titanic struck a fateful iceberg and slipped into the North Atlantic, the Kiwanis Club of Issaquah plans to host Lynch at a June discussion about the tragedy. The discussion — a fundraiser for the service organization — is open to the public.

April 15 marks 100 years since the Titanic tragedy unfolded about 400 miles from Newfoundland.

If you go

Kiwanis Club of Issaquah hosts Titanic historian Don Lynch

Even a century after the Titanic departed the surface, the disaster — 1,514 passengers and crewmembers perished in the sinking — continues to capture imaginations. Only about 700 people survived the catastrophe.

“It’s one of those fascinating stories where truth is stranger than fiction,” Lynch said in a recent interview from Los Angeles. “You’ve got the largest ship in the world and it’s on its maiden voyage. It’s loaded with all these important people and the wealthiest people in the world. It’s also from an era when there’s a lot more glamour to wealth, I think, than there is today.”

(Lynch’s cousin is Issaquah resident Michele Forkner, a Kiwanis member and the city code compliance officer.)

The collision between Gilded Age glamour and hubris is another bottomless source for historians, filmmakers and authors.

“It’s supposed to be unsinkable. It’s its maiden voyage, it hits an iceberg and sinks — but it sinks so slowly that all this drama is acted out,” Lynch said.

Drama unfolds as ship sinks

The liner struck the iceberg just before midnight April 14 and slipped beneath the surface at about 2:20 a.m. April 15.

“Really, it is unique among shipwrecks in that it sank on an even keel,” Lynch said. “You did have time to launch almost all the lifeboats and things to act out without the ship heeling over to one side or going down too quickly.”

In the mid-1990s, as Cameron prepared for a film about the Titanic’s last hours, the “Aliens” and “The Terminator” director turned to Lynch’s “Titanic: An Illustrated History” as a reference.

The book, a collaboration between Lynch and artist Ken Marschall, depicts the ship from construction in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to the North Atlantic shipwreck.

Marschall reached out to the film production team not long after hearing about the Titanic film — so early the script remain unfinished.

“They were like, ‘We’ve been trying to find you. We want to get you involved,’” Lynch recalled.

Marschall and Lynch soon met the legendary filmmaker to discuss historical accuracy in the planned film.

“He had some Italian immigrants and I said, ‘You don’t have Italians on the Titanic because they come from an oceanfront country, so they have no reason to go to England to emigrate to America. They just sail out of their own ports,’” Lynch recalled.

So, Cameron checked the passenger lists and changed the script to reflect the suggestion. The crew relied on Lynch at other points during production to maintain the almost-microscopic attention to detail in the film.

“I’d get calls in the middle of the night with questions about something while they were filming a scene,” he said. “One night it was, ‘OK, the second officer. He’s wearing a sweater. Was it a turtleneck?’”

Lynch, outfitted in a period costume, appeared in a nonspeaking role as Titanic survivor Frederic Spedden.

A local connection to Titanic

Though no Titanic survivors settled in the Issaquah area, the Issaquah History Museums uncovered a local link to the shipwreck during a comprehensive oral-history project.

Eleanor Wicklund Hope grew up in High Point and her family was Swedish. In the oral history project, she described how her mother, Maria Erickson Wicklund, and her grandparents, returned to Sweden from the United States.

Hope said her mother “went the eight grades just in nothing flat, and then went back to Sweden — her parents went back. I guess she could stay so long here in the country, you know, five years, and then you have to go back and decide what you’re going to do. You have to go back home at some time.

“And that was kind of an interesting time, too. Because she went back with her mother and father, and at that time, the Titanic was built, in 1912. And they had decided that after it had made its maiden trip to the United States and come back, maybe they would come back to the United States on it.

“Of course, it never got to the United States in the first place! So that changed their plans there.”

So, how did the family return to the United States?

“They came on another boat,” Hope said.

Descending to Titanic’s grave

Cameron allowed Lynch to roam the gigantic film set constructed along the oceanfront in Mexico. The lifelong Titanic buff climbed atop the funnels and the crow’s nest, and peered inside cabins and dining rooms.

Soon after “Titanic” shattered box-office records, Cameron started to put together a 3-D documentary film, titled “Ghosts of the Abyss,” about the shipwreck.

Lynch and other “Ghosts of the Abyss” crewmembers boarded the research vessel Akademik Mstislav Keldysh — the same ship used in “Titanic” — for the trip to the bottom in camera-laden submersibles.

“I said to one of the guys who was involved in the expedition, ‘I’ve never been claustrophobic, but what happens if you get to the bottom of the ocean and you have a panic attack?’” he said. “He seriously said, ‘Well, the Russians keep a really big wrench down there just in case.’ So they could club me over the head if I started to go crazy.”

Inside the sphere for the dive, he instead felt calm. “Titanic” actor Bill Paxton joined the expedition, too.

Lynch descended into the inky blackness Aug. 27, 2001, and Sept. 11, 2001 — in a strange connection between the defining tragedies of the early 20th and 21st centuries.

“I was supposedly one of the nine most remote people in the world that day,” he said. “It was all over when I came back. It had all happened and been done. There was no watching it unfold.”

Beneath the surface, the shipwreck — discovered by oceanographer Robert Ballard in 1985 — retained glimmers of majesty from 1912.

“It surprisingly is in good condition,” Lynch said. “The deeper inside you go, the more it is. Obviously, the deck railings were gone and things like that, but it wasn’t the perfect thing that we thought it would be.”

“Bill Paxton called it ‘the ultimate haunted house,’” he added.

The shipwreck also contained chilling, and sometimes surreal, reminders about the lives lost as Titanic eased into a North Atlantic grave.

“People had taken a drink of water, set the glass down, walked out of the room,” Lynch said. “And 100 years later, that glass is still sitting there — even after the ship pointed almost straight down on its way to the bottom.”

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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