We read about it in a novel and watched the drama unfold on the big screen, but before now the raising of the Titanic was merely fiction. Yesterday, it began for real.
Using precise measurements and with the gentlest of touches, salvage divers eased a giant section of the famous wreck away from the sea floor where it has lain for the past 84 years.
The 15-tonne section of the liner's steel hull was slowly raised out of the inky blackness two-and-a-half miles down and carried up towards the waves on the surface of the ocean.
The hi-tech expedition to raise the Titanic used flotation bags filled with diesel fuel, which is lighter than water and can withstand the high pressure found at such depths.
Over the past few days, six of the "lift bags" were attached to the section of hull with specially constructed cables.
The bags were held down by tonnes of chains which are designed to be jettisoned by remote control. But when the switches were thrown on Tuesday, only four of the six lift bags released their chains, according to an expedition spokeswoman, not giving them enough uplift to shift the chunk of hull.
Following a further unsuccessful attempt, the Nautile - a submersible owned by the French government and equip-ped with mechanical arms - was brought into action. To add further excitement to the proceedings, its two-person crew was joined by a special passenger - former astronaut, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin.
The Nautile's crew succeeded in finally freeing the huge piece of the liner and it was lifted more than two miles from the seabed by flotation balloons.
To the delight of all those who have worked on the $5m (pounds 3.3m) project to raise the wreck, the balloons broke the surface around midday yesterday, but the hull section remained suspended about 390 feet below.
A captive audience of 1,700 people aboard two nearby cruise ships (who had paid up to US$6,000 (pounds 4,000) for the privilege) watched the delicate salvage operation unfold on giant video screens. The two ships were floating directly above the spot 420 miles south east of Newfoundland, where the Titanic went down on the night of April 14, 1912 with the loss of 1,493 of its 2,200 passengers.
The liner had been on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York when the tragedy happened. It struck an iceberg just before midnight and sank two hours later, disappearing beneath the waves at 2am.
It had been speeding through the ice field, hoping to win the Blue Ribband award for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. It remains to this day the most famous of nautical disasters. The Titanic, at the time of the accident was the biggest ocean liner in the world and was thought to be unsinkable.
It later emerged that the ship did not carry enough lifeboats to cope with a full evacuation.
A handful of passengers disembarked at Southampton minutes before the Titanic sailed, saying they had peculiar premonitions and bad feelings about the cruise.
Some historians have condemned the expedition to raise the ship as nothing short of grave-robbing.
They have argued that, instead, the wreck should be left on the sea bed as a memorial to those who lost their lives, and a reminder.
RMS Titanic Inc., which owns salvage rights to the wreck, says it is simply trying to preserve a piece of history.
The wreckage is to be shipped to Boston tomorrow and then exhibited by the organizers of the expedition, the Discovery Channel television network and RMS Titanic Inc.
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