The Bay City Times - Bay City, Michigan - Friday, September 13, 2002

The Titanic Experience - Businessman recounts visit to sunken ocean liner
By Jason Morisette, Times Writer

It was a titanic evening for a small group of people reliving one of the greatest ship
wrecks in history.

Robert M. Williams, one of fewer than 100 people to have viewed the wreck of the ocean liner Titanic, spoke about his experience at the Bay City Country Club on Thursday.

He and his wife, Jill, boarded a Russian submersible last year to see the Titanic where it rests more than seven miles below the surface, off the coast of Newfoundland.

The vacation was a birthday present from his wife for his 60th birthday. The cost: $35,000 per ticket.

Those who attended Williams' presentation were treated to a special meal: The exact dishes served on Titanic's final night. That last meal included filet mignon, poached salmon and roast pork.

Even the floral arrangements were recreations of those on the ship: daisies and pink roses.

Children from the Bay City Players, dressed as crew members, added to the atmosphere.

Heather Leser, a Bay City resident who attended the event, has a collection of almost 40 books on the Titanic.

"I love the Titanic," Leser said. "I am very jealous, I can't imagine actually going down and seeing it. It takes your breath away."

Williams, chairman of Genova Products in Davison, became obsessed with the Titanic tale at a young age.

"My grandmother gave me a book when I was 8 years old," he said. The book was "The Sinking of the Titanic and other great sea disasters," by Logan Marshall.

"It was the mystery of the ship," Williams said. "I collected everything I could. It was so unique, a period of time that will never live again. When (the Titanic) was discovered, I had to see it."

In 2000, Williams' wife saw a segment on Good Morning America in which passengers went down to visit the Titanic. She immediately set about getting her husband the same opportunity.

On his next birthday, Williams got the surprise of his life.

"It was the best thing that every happened to me," he said.

But Williams had six months before the dive. Six months to develop second thoughts on going 12,500 feet below the surface, where the water pressure is three tons per square inch.

Williams began telling everyone he know, and even some people he didn't, about his trip.

"I knew the more people I told, the more difficult it would be to back out," he said.

In July, Williams and his wife boarded the Akademik Keldysh, the largest research vessel in the world.

The crew launched off the coast of New Finland and traveled 400 miles out to the site of the disaster, where they boarded one of two Russian submersibles. Director James Cameron featured the underwater vehicles and the Keldysh in his film "Titanic."

Jill Williams had only come along for moral support, but once they were out on the ocean, her husband convinced her to join him in the depths for the 10-and-half-hour dive.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. "Everyone has dreams, but they don't always come true. For me, they came true."

It took two and a half hours to reach the floor of the ocean.

On the bottom, they viewed the two halves fo the ship, which broke apart as it sank.

Halfway through the tour, the submersible landed on the bow for lunch.

"We actually got to have an apple and a sandwich on the deck of the Titanic," Williams told his audience.

He said part of the appeal of the Titanic is that once all the life boats were filled, all of the passengers left on board were equals.

"Right from the super rich to the super poor, for an hour and a half, everyone was equal. You knew you were going to die," he said.

Many attendees arrived in period costumes. Mickey Loiacano of Saginaw wore a delicate pink laced dress reminiscent of the turn of the century.

"It makes me feel into it," she said.

And Williams is more than happy to share his experiences.

"The more I talk about it, the less chance I have of forgetting about it," he said.

Since the dive, he has traveled all over the country to recount his trip. He frequently speaks at schools and Genova plants. His company produces building products.

"It's given me another vocation," Williams joked of his speaking schedule. "I don't know how I'll be able to continue my occupation."

But his thirst for the Titanic isn't quenched yet. He's hoping to return to the ship next July and take more pictures. On his first trip, he didn't know much about deep sea photography.

"The second time I'll get it right," Williams said.

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