Safe-crackers come and go on television, but this week Channel 9 serves up what promises to be one of prime time's more intriguing vault jobs.
The safe in question was aboard the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria, lost in the Atlantic Ocean 28 years ago this summer after it collided with the Stockholm, a Swedish passenger ship. Fifty-two people were lost.
Film of the safe's recovery and the opening of the vault on live television are the subjects of "Andrea Doria: The Final Chapter," a two- hour coproduction by film-maker Peter Gimbel and former actress Elga Andersen.
Backed by 10 silent partners, they headed a 35-day, $1.75-million expedition, recovering the safe from the hulk in 240 feet of water. No one's sure what's in the box -- it was the ship's bank's safe and probably contains cash -- and the legal question of who gets to keep what is both murky and complicated; it seems to boil down to finders-keepers.
"Nobody has title to the contents," said Gimbel. "The rule is that the salvor keeps most of what he salvages. The tougher the job, the more that the rule applies. Chances are our limited partnership would be awarded most of the contents."
Lying a fathom or two below the film expedition and safe-cracking production is the story of Gimbel's obsession, a tale that might be called "Romancing the Doria -- and Elga Too."
Gimbel dived to the Doria the day after she sank. The photographs he took appeared in Life magazine. He's been to the wreck dozens of times since.
During his underwater work, he also became fascinated with sharks and produced the theatrical feature "Blue Water, White Death." And it was while pounding the promotion trail to push the movie that he was introduced to an actress who was also plying the promotional path on behalf of her new film, "Le Mans," in which she played opposite Steve McQueen.
"Press agents kept saying, 'You two should meet,'" Andersen recalled. "We had a blind date at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 1971. I lived in Paris at the time, had my own television series -- I was a working actress. I have done 18 movies in Europe. I moved to the U.S. In a way, I gave up my acting career. Since then we've formed our own production company."
Gimbel ("He admits to being 56," says Elga) and Andersen ("I don't admit to anything") were married in 1978. In 1980 Gimbel read a newspaper story about a newly published book alleging that faulty construction of the Doria by the Italian Line contributed to her sinking. "He said, 'Elga, if the old lady can still make headlines in The New York Times, there's still interest in her . . . '
"We fought about (mounting an expedition) for four or five months," said Andersen. "When I found I could do nothing to dissuade him, I joined the club. I went along to try to keep things safe. I was the only woman among 30 men."
Doria fever, it turned out, was contagious. Andersen dove to the hulk and found her fascination nearly matching Gimbel's.
"We always speak of the ship as 'she.' There is constant mystery and allure about her," said Andersen. "She's so big and dark and has so many hidden places . . .It's the darkness, the cold. She has nets that entangle you. She frightens me. I made Peter promise that this would be the last time he would go to the Doria. That's why the program is called 'The Final Chapter.'>"
But there is an epilogue. The Doria carried another vault, the purser's safe. It's the one in which travelers would store things. "We know from survivors that there were announcements to the passengers to get their valuables out of safe deposit because the ship was to dock the next morning," said Andersen. "We don't know whether they did or not . . .
"We walked away from the second safe. After five weeks our crew was getting sick -- there were ear infections and fevers. Topside, we had had a hurricane, Dennis. We decided that was enough. We decided not to get greedy." The day after they left the Doria site, a stronger gale swept through. It was Hurricane Emily. "That one," said Andersen, "would have wiped us out."