The search will go on and on

The quest to bring up the treasures on the Titanic has been marked by corporate infighting and an entertainment-based approach.

June 25, 2000|By Marc Davis

DEEP IN THE Atlantic Ocean, amidst spooky, rusty wreckage, there is a jewel-covered book worth millions of dollars.

It must be there, somewhere - the legendary Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It is the most prized treasure of that most prized shipwreck, the Titanic.

It is there, probably, along with a shiny, new 1912 Renault automobile. At least, it was shiny in 1912, before it sank.

Maybe they are locked in the big ship's cargo hold.

Arnie Geller and Mike Harris want these treasures and more.

They want them so badly that they are willing to cut into the world's most famous shipwreck to find them.

Willing to stage a coup at the Titanic's salvage company.

Willing to toss overboard George Tulloch, the man who has become a fixture at Norfolk's federal courthouse, defending claims to the Titanic for the past eight years.

Willing to mutiny.

Two years ago, James Cameron won an Oscar for his make-believe Titanic and declared himself king of the world. That year, Tulloch pulled a 21-ton chunk of the real thing out of the ocean, on live TV.

Now, he's out of work.

On Thanksgiving weekend, while Tulloch shared turkey with kin in Atlanta, stockholders of R.M.S. Titanic Inc. tossed him out. They said Tulloch wasn't moving fast enough, wasn't pulling up enough Titanic artifacts to satisfy public demand, wasn't making enough profit.

The firing was abrupt and unexpected. To ensure that Tulloch never came back, they changed the locks on his downtown Manhattan office in a landmark skyscraper overlooking the Statue of Liberty.

Tulloch remains bitter.

"I don't think it's necessary to torture you with the ugliness of it all," he says.

But then he does.

This is the story of a shareholder revolt that has shaken the governments of England, France, Canada and the United States, which want to protect the Titanic as an international memorial.

It is the story of new leaders who want to cut into Titanic's hull in search of greater treasures and shareholder profits.

It is the story of investors and show business and the dreams that drive men into little, dangerous submarines.

"We want the first-class mail. We want the first-class baggage. We want the safes and the purser's bags," said stockholder Joe Marsh of Akron, Ohio. "We know exactly where everything is. We can hit it like a target."

This is the story of the real Titanic, 88 years later.

A Titanic joke: George Tulloch had a little 13-foot motorboat. He used it to putter around the creek off Long Island Sound, near his Connecticut home.

He called it the Gigantic.

Ha-ha. Friends got it. For 13 years, Tulloch devoted his life to hauling stuff from that other ship, the big one that lies 2.5 miles under the ocean's surface.

And what a collection it is - a huge, incredible stash of letters, coins, teacups, wine bottles, statues, bells, suitcases, anything that could be plucked off the ocean floor.

How much is it all worth? It's hard to say.

Maybe $100 million, maybe $500 million.

Remember the grand staircase, where Rose joins Jack at the end of the movie and all the passengers applaud? Picture the big, bronze cherub statue at the foot of that staircase.

R.M.S. Titanic owns that.

Picture the chandeliers over the staircase. It has those, too.

And the Gigantic? It was a cute diversion that didn't last. Tulloch was so busy chasing Titanic, he gave up the smaller boat.

Now he has neither. That's the punch line.

Seven months ago, Tulloch ruled the wreck from a second-floor office in the 100-year-old Whitehall Building in New York. The place reeks of history. It held Titanic's freight office 88 years ago. The 31st floor held John Jacob Astor's Whitehall Club - the same filthy-rich Astor who died so famously on the Titanic.

Until a few months ago, that's the building you got if you dialed 1-800-TITANIC. In 1998, after the movie, the phone rang incessantly. It drove the employees nuts.

"All these kids would call and ask for Rose," said Tulloch's secretary, Michelle Rollman.

Dial the number now and you get an office 1,000 miles away, in Clearwater, Fla. That's R.M.S. Titanic's new headquarters.

Tulloch, 55, has been exiled to a weather-worn red house in quaint, downtown Fairfield, Conn.

Here, the man with the boyish face and wind-blown bangs plays with boat designs and mulls his future.

There is no mistaking Tulloch's passion. Look around. The place is packed with memorabilia.

A Titanic life preserver. A plastic Titanic model made by a 12-year-old fan. Titanic books. A Titanic jigsaw puzzle. Titanic survivor photos.

Titanic posters, including one from Sweden and one from France.

And on the far wall, Leonardo DiCaprio is nuzzling Kate Winslet's neck on the ship's bow.

Tulloch is on the cell phone, talking to a friend.

"Unbelievable!" he blurts out. "National Geographic is going out with these knuckleheads this summer."

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