Washington D.C., June 24, 2008
Thank God I didn’t have to re-live another shipwreck, like the Andrea Doria, tofeel a close connection with the 1997 movie, Titanic. As a guest at the AmericanSociety of Naval Engineers (ASNE) dinner, Titanic’s Academy Award winning director sat one seat away from me. James Cameron was about to present histalk, ‘Undersea Exploration of the DKM Bismarck.’
I was introduced to the tall, stately looking gentleman by my friend WilliamGarzke1, one of Cameron’s chief consultants for his presentation on the Bismarck.
“This is Pierette Simpson. She is a survivor of the Andrea Doria and has recently written an excellent book on the loss of this ship.”
The silver-haired gentleman extended his hand to me and graciously exclaimed, “You must have been very young.”
I clumsily replied, “Probably not as young as you many think…but thank you forthe compliment.” Shaking hands, I immediately felt a warm connection to the film giant.
Bill Garzke continued to explain: “I reviewed Pierette’s book for the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. We also collaborated on a report called’The Loss of the Andrea Doria’, which we presented in New York last week.”3
I felt great pride being accepted by these legendary shipwreck experts.Immodestly, I added that Bill was my mentor and in collaboration we hadbecome authorities on the Andrea Doria tragedy. Then, quickly, before someoneelse could intervene on what seemed to be a magical moment, I introduced Cameron to my companion, Richard Haskin. I was impressed that the specialguest walked over to Richard to shake his hand; he could have more efficientlyextended his hand across a few people. Immediately, Cameron became theconsummate gentleman and scholar in my mind. These precious moments setthe tone to what would turn out to be a night to remember.
My friend Bill had helped to organize the evening’s event for the AmericanSociety of Naval Engineers (ASNE). Little did I know that Richard and I would sit at the ‘Reserved’ table, front and center, with Cameron and his three mainconsultants for the Bismarck presentation. After meeting all the distinguishedscientists, I had a feeling that maybe I shouldn’t be drinking wine, for fear of loosing coherence. I took a small sip anyway, hoping to put me more at ease.
The chairperson for the evening began her introduction of ASNE’s covetedguest:
…He studied physics and English at California State University. Later, he discontinued his studies and worked several jobs such as machinist and truckdriver and wrote when he had time. Mr. Cameron taught himself special effects … After seeing the film Star Wars in 1977, Cameron quit his job as a truck driver to enter the film industry. When Cameron read the book Screenplay, it occurred to him that integrating science and art were possible and he wrote a ten minute science fiction script with two friends, entitled Xenogenesis. They raised money and rented a camera, lenses, the film stocks, studio and shot it in 35mm. To understand how to operate the camera, they dismantled it and spentthe first half-day of the shoot trying to figure out how to get it running.4
How admirable, I thought—and a genius too! After the chairperson enumerated his successful movies: The Terminator and Terminator 2, Rambo, Abyss, Alien, True Lies, she emphasized his most grandiose accomplishment, Titanic.
“He wrote and directed the film Titanic, which earned 11 Academy Awards and grossed over $1.8 billion worldwide. To date, his directorial efforts have grossed approximately $3 billion.”
And now he is striving for a repeat performance with the upcoming Bismarck.As with Titanic,Cameron will rely only partially on his consultants for information.He has already explored the wreck at 15,000 feet below the water surface in asubmersible and brought back priceless data of the World War II battleshipsunk by British forces. Moreover, on the 2002 expedition he brought along twosurvivors of the German battleship who survived the carnage, but wanted to make piece with the tragedy.
The audience sat mesmerized while viewing a 40-minute video of Cameron’s photographic examination of the Bismarck. He discussed the results of hisextensive survey which resulted in scientific conclusions about the battlebetween the British and the Germans, the damage which sank the German battleship, the damaging drop on a mountainous sea floor, and the conditionof the current wreck. In his signature Cameron style, he emphasized the relationship between humanity and technology. As we viewed the last clipsof this rare footage, Cameron explained:
“Although I have a fascination with geeky technology and exploration, I’m showing you the boots, the leather bags, and personal articles so that we never forget what this disaster is about: the human tragedy… I have an 18-year-old son who is older than some of the young men who perished … this tragedy brings the message close to home …” The fluid, engaging speaker explained that he obtained some of the filmfootage with his trusted robotic camera (ROV), fondly named Elwood, and that he has personally logged 3,000 hours as a shipwreck diver. It is no wonder that he has made outstanding contributions to marine science and maritime archeology as part of his film making. As he finished his talk, theaudience swiftly stood up to applaud his work and brilliant documentation.
The presentation was followed by a question and answer segment. Cameron answered each question thoroughly, as if each one mattered. Bill Garzke, his right-hand man on the Bismarck research, joined him on stage to answer questions about Titanic and Bismarck survivors. Bill has spent decades interviewing Bismarck survivors and analyzing the testimony of Titanic survivors; he believes that by using eyewitness accounts in conjunction with scientific findings, the public will have a better understanding of shipwreck events.
Another partial standing ovation followed. James Cameron and Bill Garzke returned to our table. People followed them, hoping for a quick chat or to give praise. I offered Cameron my compliments for his interesting talk:
“I never thought I could be so fascinated by a sunken battleship story. It was a great presentation.”
I know how valuable it is to receive feedback after my speaking engagements on the Andrea Doria. Cameron seemed to relish in everyone’s positive comments as if he had heard these words for the first time. It was another way to share the message that he appreciated our interest in his work. People continued to flock at his side. I took this opportunity to chat with a couple of distinguished marine engineers. One had been to the Andrea Doria ‘grave site’ on July 26, 1956. He explained almost apologetically that with other Coast Guard cadets, he was ordered to shoot holes into the lifeboats that were still afloat. “We used them for target practice,” he quipped. “They were considered a danger to navigation.”
I peeked over to what had become an autograph session. A gentleman saw that I was anxious to offer my book to the famous film maker. He gave me his place in line and I actually dared to take a seat facing James Cameron. I handed him my book, Alive on the Andrea Doria! The Greatest Sea Rescue in History.5 Inside I had written a lengthy dedication. Cameron looked at the cover with great interest as I told him that I would love the opportunity to see this shipwreck on the sea floor for myself; that it would allow me the chance to make peace with the cadavre that was once a luxury liner.
“Do you think Elwood would like to explore the Andrea Doria?” I boldly asked.
Cameron, the explorer-humanitarian understood my need, having offered this kind of therapy to the Bismarck survivors.
“Since the wreck is only at 250 feet, I think it’s feasible. I would let you navigate him from the surface…but I need to know that there is scientific value for using this approach, as opposed to what is already being done.”
I heartily assured him that I would do my research on that.
The evening offered precious moments in my life as a shipwreck survivor and author. Moreover, speaking to James Cameron felt like I had climbed a mountain top, even though we were discussing the bottom of the planet.
Speaking of planets, Cameron is a member of the NASA Advisory Council and is working on the project to get cameras on the pending manned Mars mission. I hope the marine world doesn’t lose one of its most ardent researchers to another part of the universe.
N.B. Bill Garzke told with me later that Cameron shared his delight for receiving an honorary induction into ASNE. As the two men descended the stage, the outstanding film maker beamed,
“My Dad will be very proud of me.”
Cameron’s father is an engineer.