Husbands and wives

Little bitty children lost their lives

It was sad when that great ship went down.

-- "The Ship Titanic"

Want a lump of Titanic coal in Lucite? A comfy cruise to the site where 1,500 drowned? Your own personal list of those who died?

Welcome to the world of RMS Titanic Inc., whirlwind merchandisers of tragic memory and tireless hucksters of disaster cachet.

In recent weeks thousands of residents of the nation's tonier Zip codes have received "URGENT" mailings offering "an invitation to personally witness the first-ever raising of a major part" of the fabled ocean liner that sank April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg on its maiden voyage.

Full-page newspaper ads here and elsewhere have trumpeted "the Titanic expedition cruise" later this month, when two ships will take some 2,200 passengers to the scene, 400 miles off Newfoundland, of what is often described as the most poignant civilian tragedy of the 20th century.

According to press kits and promotional material, those aboard will "socialize with many of the who's who of the world," including actor Burt Reynolds and Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin. Tickets for the Aug. 23-Sept. 1 cruise are priced at $1,800 to $6,950 per person, with shipboard entertainment including slot machines and casinos. More than 60 percent of the cabins have been sold, according to company spokeswoman Alexandra Foley.

The cruise is the latest in nearly a decade of Titanic exploitation efforts by George Tulloch, 52, a former Greenwich, Conn., car salesman who two years ago won temporary salvage rights to the world's most famous shipwreck. Tulloch was unavailable to comment for this article, said Foley, because he was "terribly busy" preparing to leave on the expedition.

Tulloch's often-controversial Titanic projects have been at least tacitly aided by scientists from the French oceanographic institute (IFREMER), who, still smarting from their rarely recognized role in the Titanic's discovery 11 years ago, charter him their undersea expertise and equipment to earn funds for other research. They will be additionally aided this month by the Discovery Channel television group, which will underwrite nearly $3 million of the $5.4 million expedition in order to get unrestricted filming access to the Titanic site.

"We are well aware of the baggage and reputation that comes with the RMS Titanic group," said Discovery spokesman Jim Boyle, adding that there was a "tremendous debate" in his office about the possible danger to Discovery's scientific credibility in joining what appears at times to be a nautical tent show. In the upcoming issue of United States Naval Institute Proceedings, for example, explorer Robert Ballard, who found the Titanic, denounces the current expedition as a "carnival" that "perpetuates the tragedy."

Boyle and Discovery vice president Bob Wise, however, said they decided that working with Tulloch was "worth the risk."

But they've already had problems. Last April in England, the Manchester Guardian ran a story headlined "TITANIC PEEPSHOW RILES LAST SURVIVORS," describing aged survivors and relatives of those lost in the sinking as horrified by Tulloch's plans to floodlight the wreckage to make an underwater television show for his luxury cruise passengers.

"My father's body may still be on that vessel -- and yet they are going to use it as a kind of entertainment," said Millvina Dean, who was 9 weeks old when the Titanic went down.

Dean told the Guardian that Tulloch had phoned her in March to say her photograph was in his expedition brochure and "I got the impression it was some sort of historic event for oceanographers." When she learned otherwise, she said, she wrote Tulloch withdrawing permission to use her name.

When he read the Guardian story, said the Discovery Channel's Wise, "we went through the roof. We told George to get his act together or we'd pull the plug on the expedition. His marketing materials leave a lot to be desired."

Dean is now listed in press kits as a "guest of honor" at Boston and New York receptions when the cruise ships return. "There may have been some misunderstanding, but she's actually very fond of George," Foley said breezily last week. "I talk with her by phone almost every day."

Yet Tulloch's promotion efforts continue to present something less than a complete picture.

For example, his advertisements and mailings speak of "a section of the hull that will be recovered" from the Titanic within view of the cruise passengers. If that suggests some sort of ship-like shape breaking the surface in front of the shutter-snapping tourists, think again. All that will be raised, expedition spokesmen acknowledge, will be a 33-foot piece of hull plating now lying loose on the ocean bottom.

Likewise, headlines in the ads speak of the wreck being "fully illuminated" for the first time. Heretofore, in the submarine darkness 2 1/2 miles deep where the Titanic lies, cameras have been able to take only piecemeal shots, wandering over the huge vessel myopically like beetles exploring an elephant.

In fact the Titanic lies in two immense pieces almost half a mile apart. The expedition will use four underwater towers and 26,000 watts of electric power to attempt floodlighting of the forward section of the wreck for the benefit of underwater cameras. Given the weather and equipment problems experienced by virtually every undersea expedition, no one can say if that can be done while the cruise ships are out there, even if the considerable logistical and technical challenges can be overcome. But the ads and letters don't say that.

RMS Titanic Inc. promotional materials picture Tulloch himself as a sort of nautical Errol Flynn: "As you may already know from news reports I have led the missions over the past nine years that have recovered many artifacts from the Titanic wreck which lies in a depth . . . where there is no light and where pressures are so great that you could not even explode a bomb . . ."

Cruise passengers, he said, "will get a chance to meet me."

In fact, though he built his Connecticut car agency into the biggest BMW dealership in the country, Tulloch has little recognizable scientific or nautical background. He has ridden the French submarine Nautile to the Titanic 13 times, but as president of RMS Titanic, he basically finds investors and coordinates expeditions where hired French experts do the salvage work. He volunteered that explanation of his role to The Post several years ago in an interview, explaining, "I just got bored with the car-selling business."

One of his expedition priorities, his press kits declare, will be to search for 12,000 bottles of Bass Ale that reportedly went down with the ship. Bass Ale is an official expedition sponsor.

At the time of its sinking, the Titanic was not only the most luxurious passenger liner on the transatlantic route but, at 882 feet in length and 66,000 tons displacement, the largest movable object ever made by man. It was widely spoken of as "unsinkable." Four days into its first trip from Southampton, England, to New York, it struck an iceberg that ripped a 300-foot gash in its starboard side. The ship remained afloat for three hours, ample time for the 2,200 passengers to board lifeboats on the mirror-calm sea. But there were lifeboats for less than half the passengers and only 705 did so. Everyone else went down with the ship.

When Ballard found the Titanic in 1985, he heeded wishes of still-living Titanic survivors that the ship and its artifacts be left undisturbed as a memorial to those who died. He mapped and filmed the wreck and its debris field in two successive expeditions, but left with only haunting pictures.

In 1987, however, with the help of French oceanographers who had worked with Ballard, Tulloch covertly pieced together a $6 million expedition to the Titanic, bankrolled by his old BMW customers in Connecticut, by Swiss watch heir Carlos Piaget and by Westgate Productions of Hollywood -- a television production company best known for having Geraldo Rivera open gangster Al Capone's safe on live TV and find it empty.

The expedition brought back more than 300 Titanic artifacts -- chamber pots, cookware, jewelry and the like. Actor Telly Savalas unveiled them on a much-ballyhooed live television special, during which he opened the assistant purser's safe and found that it, too, held little of interest.

Tulloch and company were widely denounced as nautical grave robbers in both the United States and Britain. Congress was outraged enough to pass special legislation forbidding any sale or profit-making display of Titanic artifacts in the United States. But the expedition's critically panned TV special was one of the highest rated of the year.

By bringing up articles from the wreck, Tulloch could lay claim under admiralty law to salvage rights on the Titanic, and has spent much of the 1990s in court fighting off competing claims from a film producer, a Memphis treasure hunter and a Texas oilman.

He has also had to contend with agreements with the French designed to keep him from profiteering in unseemly ways on the Titanic disaster. Last October RMS Titanic Inc. wound up a yearlong display of 4,000 salvaged Titanic artifacts at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. The exhibit drew more than 700,000 visitors and netted RMS Titanic Inc. some $824,000.

In its annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this year, Tulloch's company announced plans for a six-month exhibit in Memphis, for which the city would pay the company $750,000. A company spokesman said this week, however, that no final agreement has yet been reached.

In 1994 the company announced plans to exhibit the artifacts that year aboard the liner Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif. No such exhibit was ever held due to money problems, according to documents filed with the SEC.

Last May producer John A. Joslyn, Tulloch's onetime partner on the Savalas expedition, argued in federal court in Norfolk that the ex-car dealer had in effect abandoned the Titanic wreck since being awarded salvage rights two years ago. RMS Titanic Inc. was financially insolvent and thus incapable of mounting an expedition this month, Joslyn argued.

But a marketer retained by Tulloch testified that RMS Titanic Inc. could conceivably raise $2.4 million in profits from the upcoming cruise. The company has already made more than $250,000 by selling golf ball-size lumps of Titanic coal through the mail for $25 each plus $5 for postage and handling, testimony showed.

Yesterday, stock in RMS Titanic Inc. -- a publicly held company known until two years ago as First Response Medical Inc. -- was valued at 68 cents -- up from a 52-week low of 27 cents, for a one-year total return of minus 21.43 percent.

Though the cruise ships will leave later in the month -- the Island Breeze from New York and the Royal Majesty from Boston -- the actual salvage and filming vessels will be at sea most of August getting ready for them, Foley said. Much of the technology they will use on the site is similar to that being used to recover wreckage and bodies from the crash site of TWA Flight 800, another ocean grave of transatlantic passengers, just off Long Island. One of Tulloch's cruise ships -- the Island Breeze -- will pass that site, too, en route to the Titanic. CAPTION: Titanic entrepreneur George Tulloch in 1987. His latest project promises sightseers a look at the watery grave. CAPTION: Telly Savalas stands between two safes recovered from the Titanic and displayed in Paris in 1987. A few days later, Telly was on the telly, unveiling ship salvage in a live special.