Heavy weather and a shortage of fuel, time and food seemed to be carrying out the mummy's curse yesterday for a research ship struggling to photograph what may be the wreck of the Titanic about 12,000 feet down in the North Atlantic.
The 180-foot H.J.W. Fay was reported rolling 30 to 40 degrees in either direction with the waves and wind of a storm raging over the site 380 miles southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland. The "unsinkable" Titanic, at the time the biggest and costliest ship ever built, struck an iceberg and sank near there on April 15, 1912, killing 1,519 persons.
"There's a 50-50 chance this is the Titanic," said millionaire oilman Jack Grimm of Abilene, Tex., who financed the $1 million expedition to locate the wreck. "I thought we'd find it much sooner. Unless we get some supplies we're going to have to bring the ship back on Monday."
The Fay had been scheduled to come into Boston nine days ago and end the summer's effort when sophisticated sonar scanning equipment picked up what appeared to be the outline of the massive Titanic. Now the Fay is low on fuel and food and may have to postpone further effort until next summer, when good weather returns, Grimm said.
He complained that he had asked Mobil Oil Canada Ltd. in St. John's, Newfoundland, to lease him one of the six supply boats it uses for two oil drilling rigs that lie between the Fay and the coast, but Mobil had refused. "That was really tacky. I'm going to cancel my credit card," said Grimm.
Mobil Canada's east coast manager Steve Romansky, said the company's chartered boats were tied up supporting the drilling platforms, which each have 90 workers living aboard, and towing another one toward Dartmouth, N.S. "I'll be disappointed if they can't get to the Titanic, and if we get the blame it's unfortunate," Romansky said. "We'd like to help them but right now we can't."
The Fay's team of 23 scientists and engineers had been hoping to lower still and television cameras yesterday into the 20-mile-long canyon where the sonar tracings hit a big target. Project Leader Mike Harris said Friday it was "the right length, the right width and the right height," to be the 822-foot luxury liner.
Grimm said he had instructed the team to remove the sonar equipment and put on a drag bucket in hopes of bringing up some debris or artifacts from the ship yesterday. The crew also plans to leave a radio transponder at the site to make it easy to locate precisely in the future, he said. If it turns out to be the Titanic, the 51-foot Aluminant mini-submarine will be sent out next year for a closer look.
Grimm, 55, bankrolled the recent searches for Noah's Ark in Turkey, for the humanoid "Bigfoot" creature in the sub-Arctic and for the Loch Ness monster. "I guess I just hope the adventure of it excites the average man on the street so he can live vicariously some way," he said.
Finding the Titanic, he said, had interested him since hearing of it in his childhood. Although the wreck inspired 28 books and seven movies along with countless schemes to find and salvage the remains, Grimm's expedition is the first actually to tackle the icy depths of the North Atlantic.
Some hunters have spoken darkly of the famous mummy that was allegedly on board, saying it transferred the curse of all who disturbed its grave to the vessel's maiden voyage and to all search efforts.
The $10 million floating palace had been designed with 15 watertight compartments that could each be sealed off in the event of an accident, and its builders called it unsinkable. Bedecked with chandeliers, tapestries and opulent suites, it embarked on its maiden voyage from Southampton with some of the world's notables on board: magnate John Jacab Astor, artist Frank Millet and philanthropists Benjamin Guggenheim and George D. Widener, along with many others who would lose their lives.
The ship for some reason was steaming its full 21 knots through waters dotted with icebergs when it struck one at 11:40 p.m., but the jolt was so slight as to barely disturb the dancers and partygoers in the galleries. An arm of the iceberg had ripped a 300-foot gash in the side of the ship, however, flooding nine of its 15 watertight compartments. The remaining six were not enough to keep it afloat.
For two hours, the ships 2,224 passengers and crew struggled to lower the 20 lifeboats into the frigid sea, sending women and children first while the band played "Nearer My God, To Thee" on deck. The boilers blew and the huge ship "reared her self on end and brought rudder and propellers clear of the water, til, at last, she assumed an absolute perpendicular position . . ." and slowly dove to the bottom, according to Cmdr. Charles Lightoller's eyewitness account.
Only 705 persons survived, mostly women and children.
A subsequent Senate investigation found that the vessel had carried far two few lifeboats, that they were hard to lower and that the crew had been inadequately trained in lifesaving techniques. A distress signal had gone unread by a British ship, the Californian less than an hour away because its wireless operator had gone off duty just minutes before.
As a result of the sinking, the Coast Guard set up special iceberg patrols, lifesaving requirements were tightened and 24-hour radio communications were required.