The Flint Journal - Flint, Michigan - Sunday, September 2, 2001

Into the deep: Flint-area couple travel to Titanic wreck by Marjory Raymer (Journal Staff Writer)

Davison Twp. - The choppy North Atlantic waters swallowed them up, plunging them into the very same darkness that buried 1,500 people on a legendary night nearly a century ago.

For Robert M. and Jill Williams of Davison Township, it was the beginning of a grand adventure to the ocean floor.

On their voyage, they would see the world's most famous shipwreck up-close-and-personal and join an elite group of mostly scientists who have hovered within an arm's reach of the mighty Titanic.

Only about 100 people have ever made the 10 1/2 hour trip 212 miles below the ocean's surface 368 miles southeast of Newfoundland.

For Robert Williams, it was the fulfillment of a lifetime fascination.

"It was a remarkable experience. I'll be reliving it on a daily basis," he said.

The mystery of the luxury liner first called to him from the pages of a book given to him by his grandmother when he was just a boy.

There he learned of the Titanic's technological marvels, its grandeur and opulence, its passengers' great suffering.

It took 2 1/2 hours for the ship to break in half and finally sink, crashing into the ocean floor at 30 miles an hour. Only 705 people out of more than 2,200 survived.

"It was the end of an era," Robert Williams said.

Those early readings sparked a passion.

He now collects Titanic artifacts and reads diligently on the subject. He even built a scale model complete with a string of Christmas lights illuminating the portholes.

And, on his 60th birthday in January, his wife presented him with the impossible: A ticket to the Titanic.

An adventure company, including some of the same people that sent an American tourist into space this year, in the late 1990s began offering sightseeing expeditions to the Titanic wreckage.

For $35,000 per person, and courtesy of a Russian research vessel, Robert Williams' dream suddenly became reality. "Anybody who could afford it, I would certainly recommend it," said Jill Williams, who was at first reluctant to explore the depths with her husband. "I wouldn't regret a dollar of it. It is probably going to be the most wonderful trip we'll ever have."

--The Williamses sailed from St. Johns, Newfoundland, July 16 aboard the Akademic Keldysh, a massive research vessel seven stories tall and stretching more than a football field in length.

Owned by a Russian oceanology institute, the ship is home to Mir I and Mir II - two of only five submersible vessels in the world used for deep-sea exploration, Robert Williams said.

It was not a luxurious vacation.

The Russian ship is struggling to stay afloat financially, just like its country's economy. The money paid by the Williamses and other tourists helps fund the ship's operations and keep it at sea.

"Russian experiments are being kept alive by their entrepreneurial ism," Robert Williams said. "Here is an example of capitalism at work."

The six Titanic tourists were treated with fine dining served on replica Titanic china and lectures by deep-sea explorers.

"I came back with a totally different idea on the importance of the ocean," Robert Williams said. "There is so much that we don't know here on our own planet."

For two days the crew sailed at a top speed of 12 knots - about half the speed the Titanic could muster.

Then a strange calmness came over the water and the Keldysh slowed. The waters were dark gray, forbidding.

Robert Williams was about to experience the most profound moment of the 11-day vacation.

The ship had reached its destination. This was where the Titanic lay, undiscovered until 1985.

"You are looking at the same spot that the liner went down, Seeing that spot and knowing that's where it was. That is where it happened, "Robert Williams said.

It had a somber feeling, like visiting a graveyard.

"You think of that night, what must have happened, what it was like for those people who knew for 2 1/2 hours that they were going to die," he said. "That was probably the most poignant moment for me."

It was just the beginning.

--The Williamses stepped down into Mir I two days later, on July 20. Their pilot was Anatoly Sagalevitch, leader of some of the most famous Titanic expeditions.

Called a submersible, Mir I is in fact a little, three-person, yellow submarine. Most of the footage of the Titanic has been filmed from it.

"The real moment of truth comes when they close that hatch because you know you are in for the duration," Robert Williams said.

Leaving first thing in the morning, they would resurface after dark, climb out of the cramped submersible and celebrate with a champagne toast.

Minutes into their dive, a shroud of blackness surrounded them.

As they sank deeper at just 1 mph, the coldness, too, began seeping in. The temperature hovered near 50 degrees and condensation from their breath dripped from the ceiling.

For 2 1/2 hours, they sank slowly closer to the Titanic. Only an occasional luminescent creature floated into view.

"It looks like a different world," Robert Williams said.

Then the floodlights came on. They looked out a hole no bigger than their heads, through glass seven inches thick.

They edged closer, until the gigantic stern came into view.

"It was the most massive ship I've ever seen," Jill Williams said. "It was just huge and it was beautiful even in its wrecked condition."

Rusticles - icicle-like formations caused a bacteria eating away at the ship's iron - hang from the ship. And it was snowing. At least it looked like it.

Small animals - some dead, some alive - constantly fell toward the ocean bottom. It looked like heavy lake-effect snowfall.

For 5 1/2 hours they explored the wreckage. They cruised through the debris field created when the ship broke in half, and both larger sections of the ship that remain intact.

They were so close they could almost reach out and touch it. Actually, they came a little too close once, bumping into the great liner. Before their eyes, history came to life and dreams came true.

"You could see flashbacks of the way it was," Robert Williams said.

They saw one of the fence-like barricades used to separate the classes aboard the Titanic. Some say as the ship sank, they became a death sentence for the masses.

A broken window, mostly intact was where Captain Edward J. Smith posed for one of the most famous photographs before the Titanic sailed.

Some things were in surprisingly good condition: a black trunk, sealed tight, with a perfectly intact glass basin perched on top.

"Don't you just wonder what is in there?" Robert Williams said.

Even the paint lines are still visible on the side of the ship.

And a careful eye could see beyond the artifacts.

There were shoes. Sometimes the shoes came in pairs, oddly side-by-side.

This is where the bodies were.

Only 300 Titanic victims were ever recovered. Most of the dead eventually came to rest here, where calcium-deficient waters quickly ate away human flesh and bone.

That is why the trip was more than a tour, more than a vacation, more than sight-seeing.

"It was so emotional," Jill Williams said. "It was sad so many people had to die, because they didn't have to. There were seven ice warnings."

---Robert Williams face is still etched with excitement as he talks about his trip.

"It was the highlight of my life," he said.

And, an unbelievably quick 10 1/2 hours, both Williamses said.

Robert Williams plans to give presentations on his trip at area schools, hoping to spark in some that same fascination he found as a boy.

The Titanic still enchants him.

"Is there an adventure that could top this? I don't think so," Robert Williams said. "It's opened up a magical world of more questions."

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