`Titanic' fans make trek to the ship's birthplace

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April 14, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

Ninety-five years ago, the world awoke to almost unimaginable news.

The giant ocean liner Titanic, on its maiden voyage to New York, had collided with an iceberg off the Grand Banks in the Atlantic and sunk, killing 1,500 passengers.

The intervening years have not dimmed interest in the Titanic, which has been the subject of many books, including former Baltimorean Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, first published in 1955 and never out of print. It was also the subject of director James Cameron's 1998 blockbuster film.

Last weekend in Belfast, Northern Ireland, former Towson native David S. Custy, director of the Belfast Titanic Convention Co., saw a year's worth of work come together when people from all over the world gathered for three days to attend the first Titanic Nomadic Convention.

Custy's organization joined with the Nomadic Preservation Society in staging what they hope will become not just an annual event but one that will draw visitors year-round to the city's sites associated with the building of the ill-fated ship.

"We had about 100 people, which we felt was pretty good for the first time. People came from England, of course, France, Germany, Norway, Canada, and the U.S. We had a couple of people from California," said Custy in a telephone interview from Belfast the other day.

"Titanic is the biggest brand name in the world, and it was built nowhere else but Belfast," Custy said. "The city has original buildings and artifacts associated with the ship."

A major destination for visitors was the Titanic Quarter, a former 185-acre industrial area that had been known as Queen's Island, once home to Harland & Wolff, the Belfast shipyard where the trio of sister Olympic-class liners -- Olympic, Titanic and Britannic -- were built and launched.

The Nomadic, a passenger tender and the last White Star Line vessel afloat, was also built in the historic yard.

After its launch in 1911, the 233-foot-long Nomadic was sent to Cherbourg, France, and on April 10, 1912, transported 142 first-class New York-bound passengers to the waiting Titanic.

The vessel managed to survive World War II, conversion to a floating restaurant on the Seine in Paris that later failed, and kicking around for the past four years in the backwaters of Le Havre while awaiting an uncertain future.

Last summer, the Nomadic finally returned for restoration to the outfitting wharf at Harland & Wolff, for the first time since leaving there in 1911.

"Visitors were able to go aboard the Nomadic in Belfast Harbour and visit the drawing rooms at Harland & Wolff where Thomas Andrews had drawn the plans for the Titanic," Custy said. "It was the yard's main drawing room where in addition to the Titanic, 1,700 other ships had been designed before Harland & Wolff left the site."

Custy first visited the drawing room five years ago before it was restored. It was then a scene of peeling paint and faded elegance.

"When I first entered that room and thought of the Titanic having been designed there, I got the chills," he said.

Visitors were able to stand on the top of Slipway 3, where workers toiled building the Titanic, and touch the keel blocks of the dock where the vessel's keel had rested while it was outfitted.

Also included in the tour was the 100-year-old Thompson pumphouse, whose giant pumps could drain the dock in 100 minutes; and Dunallen, the home of Thomas Andrews, who died in the disaster.

Even McHugh's, the oldest public house in Belfast, where shipyard workers slaked their thirst after a day's work, greeted the Titanic pilgrims.

"We had retired shipyard workers talking about their experiences working at Harland & Wolff. They were very proud of having worked there," Custy said. "It's funny, when speaking of the Titanic, they say, `She was all right when she left here.'"

Custy, 51, who was born in Baltimore and grew up on Brook Road in Towson, graduated in 1974 from Calvert Hall College High School. He earned a bachelor's degree in English and fine arts from Loyola College in 1978.

He has had a diverse career that included working as an off-Broadway stage manager and chief night auditor at the Barbizon Hotel in New York City.

He was business manager of the Baltimore Theater Project from 1984 to 1989 before becoming a self-employed tax preparer in the early 1990s.

He was a disc jockey at WNAV in Annapolis in the mid-1990s, and in 2003 moved to Belfast when he was named administrator of Red Lead Arts, an arts organization.

Custy, who married Carol Moore, an actress, five years ago, sees many parallels in the redevelopment of Belfast's old industrial waterfront and what happened in Baltimore three decades ago.

He is at work on the international celebration that will celebrate the Titanic's birth in 2012.

"Belfast is no longer about kids throwing rocks. Peace has broken out here," Custy said. And he notes: "The Titanic is still very much here."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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