The Detroit News - Detroit, Michigan - Friday, April 11, 2003

The Detroit News Features

Davison man's obsession leads him to dive in submersible - by Neal Rubin

Bob Williams says the story we all know is wrong.

The Titanic didn't sideswipe an iceberg, but rather ran aground on a piece of one, tearing plates off the bottom of the hull as it scraped across a frozen shelf.

Come July, he'll go looking for more facts to support his theory -- 2 1/2 miles beneath the surface of the Atlantic.

As far as he knows, there's a space available on the excursion. All you have to do is be willing to spend 11 1/2 hours folded into a 3-passenger mini-sub, peering through a 5-inch diameter, 7-inch thick porthole while condensation drips onto your head and you pray to Neptune that you don't need to use the bathroom.

Also, it helps if you and your dad built a family plumbing business into a $100 million manufacturing company, the way he and his father Robert did. The tab for the trip runs $36,000.

Williams, 62, is the chairman of Genova Products in Davison. He's been fascinated with the Titanic since age 8, when his grandmother gave him a book about the ship.

In January 2001, his wife threw him a 60th birthday party, and he detected a doomed-luxury-liner theme as gifts piled up. Finally, she gave him a Titanic sweat shirt.

Ah, he said. It's perfect for morning walks. Not exactly, Jill said: "You're going to need that where you're going."

Williams made his dive six months later, traveling to the site of the collision on a Russian research ship.

The last passenger in his cabin had been James Cameron, whose IMAX movie about the wreck, "Ghosts of the Abyss," opens today at Henry Ford Museum.

Only five submersibles on the planet can withstand the 6,000-pounds-per-square-inch water pressure where the bow of the Titanic plowed more than 60 feet into the ocean floor. The research ship, operated by a Seattle company called Zegrahm Deep Sea Voyages, held two of them.

The Russian-made Mir I and Mir II are a little more than 24 feet long and 10 feet wide. The pilot and two passengers occupy a sphere 6 1/2 feet in diameter. If all goes well on the trip, you're cold, cramped and wet. If the shell leaks, it collapses, and you're fish food.

Once you reach the wreck, Williams says, none of that matters. It's daunting, devastating, fascinating, life-changing and dozens more "ing" words there isn't space to list.

The base of the bow remains buried, making it hard to prove the fairly recent theory about the point of impact that Williams embraces. Had an iceberg slashed the Titanic's side, he says, the ship would have recoiled in the opposite direction. Passengers and drinks would have tumbled. Ergo, the survivor's accounts suggest a grounding.

Williams contacted me after I saw the Titanic artifact exhibit and its cheesy souvenirs at the New Detroit Science Center and called them ghoulish. At 12,000 feet below sea level, he countered, you realize that the shipwreck is a monument, and that the exhibit gives its 1,523 victims a measure of immortality.

While everyone knows about the Titanic, he says, few know its story in depth. He's taking it upon himself to correct that, one classroom and Kiwanis Club at a time, and it can be rough sailing.

Speaking at Holly Middle School, he once asked the students how many had heard of the Titanic. "There was just a sea of hands." So he decided to try a harder question: "Does anybody know how long Titanic was?"

A few hands went up, Williams gave a nod, and a young man offered an answer:

"Two videotapes."



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