By MICHAEL WERNER
As co-founder and chairman of a $100 million manufacturing corporation, Bob Williams had all the answers. Now he has only questions, the biggest of which -- How did the Titanic sink? -- has consumed the past three years of his life.
His quest for answers has taken the 63-year-old Longboat Key resident 21/2 miles below the surface of the North Atlantic aboard a three-man submersible -- one of only five on the planet capable of descending to such depths.
Williams' obsession with the luxury liner began on his eighth birthday, when his grandmother gave him a book about the disaster. While reading about the Titanic as a child and building detailed replicas of it as a teen and as an adult, he would imagine standing on the ship's deck as it slipped into the icy water.
"You can't help but close your eyes and wonder 'How would I have reacted?'" said Williams, one of newest members of Mote Marine Laboratory's board of trustees.
More recently, Williams has purchased artifacts from the ship, including a whistle used by one of the crew, for which he paid $11,000, and various collectibles from the 1997 blockbuster movie.
"It's just a constant source of fascination," Williams said. "It's like getting a puzzle for Christmas and it's one of those puzzles for which there is no answer, but you continue to work on it, work on it, work on it until you get a few more pieces together.
"All my life I've been faced with a lot of challenges. And I guess this is one of those challenges that I can focus on," Williams said.
Most of Williams' adult life has been spent in the plumbing industry. His father, Robert F. Williams, became the first to substitute plastics for metal pipe and was recognized in the industry as "The Father of Plastic Plumbing."
In 1960, the elder Williams formed Genova Inc. to sell plastics to wholesalers. Five years later his son was put in charge of the company's new manufacturing division.
When the business encountered financial problems and union troubles in the early 1980s, the company turned to Bob Williams for answers. He eventually decided to lay off employees, move the manufacturing division outside his home state of Michigan and slash executive salaries. The moves helped the company survive and eventually thrive, becoming the world's largest manufacturer of plastic plumbing supplies.
"I've always been able
to solve all the problems that I have ever been faced with in my life,"
. . . " he said.
But the secrets of the Titanic have not come so easily.
To the bottom of the North Atlantic
In January 2001, for Williams' 60th birthday, his wife, Jill, surprised him with a $36,000 novelty: a trip to the wreck. A Seattle company called Zegrahm Deep Sea Voyages started offering such commercial expeditions to the Titanic in 1996.
Suddenly Williams' lifelong fantasy was about to become reality. "I had thought about this for so many years that when she told me about it I was speechless," he said.
To make the dive, Williams would have to board a Russian-made submersible capable of withstanding the 6,000 pounds-per-square-inch water pressure at that depth. Despite his initial excitement, fear of being stranded on the ocean bottom nearly kept Williams from making the dive.
"I spent a lot of sleepless nights just thinking about things and doing a lot of 'what ifs' -- what if I don't come back?" he said. "I thought, 'I've accomplished some big things in my life and I don't want to draw the curtain on it just yet.'
"So I told as many people as I could about it, knowing that I wouldn't risk facing the embarrassment of backing out," he said.
Six months later Williams stood on the deck of the Russian research vessel Keldysh and stared across the oily, black sea.
"The conditions were almost identical to what they were the night Titanic sunk," Williams said. "You look off the rail and know that 100 yards from where you stand it all happened. I started thinking I was back in time and I could hear the people and see them. It sent chills up my back."
The next day, Williams squeezed inside the submersible's closet-sized compartment alongside his wife and the craft's pilot. For nearly three hours they descended through blackness. When they reached bottom, Williams peered through the sub's pancake-sized porthole at the hulking wreck.
"The pictures don't do it justice," he said. "To see it makes your heart stop."
Before the dive, Williams spent months researching the Titanic and reading survivor accounts. From that, he developed a theory about its sinking: The ship did not sideswipe an iceberg, he claims, but rather ran aground on a piece of one.
"If it had sideswiped an iceberg, nobody would have slept through the collision like they did and there wouldn't be a piece of china left intact," he said.
"So far no one has told me I'm full of crap," Williams says of his theory.
Williams has spent the last three years painstakingly researching the Titanic in his quest for answers and proof of his theory. He also arranged for another expedition in July 2003.
"For most people a single dive to Titanic would be a once in a lifetime experience and that's it, but I didn't get all my questions answered," Williams said. "That's why I went back."
During the second dive Williams believes he spotted metal plates stripped from Titanic's hull when it grounded on the iceberg. The panels could provide the definitive proof for which he has been searching. However, he failed to photograph the evidence.
So Williams hopes to return once more in 2005 once the Russians have finished overhauling the aging submersible.
"It'll be interesting to see what they have done with it," Williams said. "The irony is when I see what has been accomplished or what hasn't, it's too late to turn back. I'm going."
Since Williams stepped down as chairman of Genova Products last fall, the Titanic has taken on an even greater role in his life.
"I needed something to fill that void left when I retired," he said. "Titanic has done that.
"There are some goals that are more difficult to accomplish. They're the reason you get up in the morning and you go to work each day. I guess that is the way it is with me and Titanic.
"I don't know that
I'll ever have all the answers or anybody will ever have all the answers, but
I'll spend the rest of my life searching and that gives me a reason to step
forward each day."