A spokesman for a controversial French-based expedition to the wreck of RMS Titanic announced plans in Paris Thursday to raise one of the historic liner's fabled safes and open it Oct. 28 on a worldwide television spectacular from Monte Carlo.
At the same time, from New York, the expedition chairman disclosed that he will go on the offensive with an Aug. 25 news conference in the United States in an effort to beat back international criticism of the expedition goals.
The spokesman, Daniel Puget of Taurus International, technical consultants for the $2.5 million salvage effort, told reporters in Paris that the expedition's small submarine located the safe in the debris field surrounding the broken liner at the wreck site 350 miles southwest of Newfoundland. He said they planned to raise it in several days, but will wait until the October television event to discover whether it holds the millions in jewels legend says went down with the ship, or, as historians believe, is empty.
Reaction to the announced plan was immediate and vociferous.
"Reports of a proposed safecracking spectacular in Monte Carlo only confirm that our worst fears about this expedition are being realized," said Rep. Walter Jones, D-N.C., chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. "The French have ignored our government's requests to negotiate an agreement governing exploration of the wreck, and likewise have ignored the heartfelt feelings of those few remaining survivors of the tragedy. Why they have taken this approach is an unanswered question, but one that will follow this expedition for a long time to come."
At Woods Hole Oceanographic Institutionin Massachusetts, Dr. Robert Ballard, who led the joint U.S.-French expedition that discovered the Titanic two years ago, was at sea and unavailable for comment. "Officially, we're all trying to stay out of this because we respect the French scientists," said a Woods Hole spokesman. "But speaking for myself, I can't think of anything tackier."
The Titanic's won't be the first safe opened on television. In 1984, the safe from the sunken liner Andrea Doria was cracked before the cameras. It contained mostly mud. Last year, TV journalist Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone's vault to much the same result.
More than 1,500 passengers and crew died with the supposedly unsinkable Titanic when the mammoth ship struck an iceberg and sank April 15, 1912, in waters 2 1/2 miles deep. Organizations of the survivors and their descendants have urged that the site remain a memorial to those lost with the ship.
"It's a shame the French had to come up with backers who would put on a circus like this," said John Hollis of the Titanic Memorial Association in Indian Orchard, Mass.
Robert Chappaz, chairman and managing director of Taurus International, said Thursday final plans for the safe opening remain a bit vague, and are largely in the hands of Westgate Productions of Los Angeles, which is producing the television special, and Lexington Broadcasting System, which he said has purchased broadcast rights to the program in the United States.
"But if it is to be in Monte Carlo, why should people be upset? There is a museum of oceanography there ... started by Jacques Cousteau," he said. "Monte Carlo is more than just casinos."
Chappaz was reached in the New York area where he said he is, among other things, arranging for the news conference that will formally announce plans for the display and disposition of Titanic artifacts, as well as for the two-hour television broadcast of the expedition's films.
"Up to now, the press has been very bad," he said, "and I suppose it is our own fault. We have been very busy putting this expedition together and have not explained ourselves enough ... We want people to see there is no monkey business, no greedy vultures."
While crockery and silver has been brought up, he said, he had no list or even approximation of the number of artifacts recovered so far. (Diving Thursday was halted, he said, due to hurricane-force winds and 40-foot waves at the wreck site.) But he emphasized that nothing will be sold. "In fact, if someone comes up and says this or that belongs to my grandfather and can prove it, we may very well let them have it," he said.
Chappaz acknowledged that many people believe the Titanic should be left where it is, but said, "I believe we preserve it better by bringing these things up and putting them in museums for the public." While many museum people "have made strong statements" against receiving any Titanic artifacts, he said, "there are some others just waiting to get them."
He refused to confirm or deny Hollis' assertions that the expedition plans a U.S. tour for the artifacts and that actor Telly Savalas will narrate the Titanic special. "That is in the hands of the media people," he said. "It is not my department."
The Senate earlier this month passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Lowell Weicker, R-Conn., prohibiting the importation of Titanic artifacts, which Chappaz suggested may be one reason for his U.S. visit.
"Your country and mine are known for freedom," he said. "Shouldn't the people have a choice of whether to buy a ticket to see these things or not?