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The Andrea Doria treasure hunt

Peter Gimbel and Elga Andersen refuse to allow the Andrea Doria to rest in peace until she surrenders all her secrets and treasures. The $30 million Italian liner sank in the North Atlantic 50 miles south of Nantucket on July 26, 1956, taking 52 people with her to the bottom. The cause of this sinking of a supposedly sinkproof supermodern liner has never been determined, although there have been constant rumors that a certain strategic bulkhead had allegedly or had never actually been built.

Producers Gimbel and Andersen joined forces in 1976 to make a film about the ship which aired on CBS: "The Mystery of the Andrea Doria." However, despite dangerous dives to the wreck, the mystery was never solved and the Andrea Doria still lies at the bottom of the Atlantic, more than 200 feet below the surface.

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Now Peter Gimbel (of the department-store Gimbels) and Elga Andersen, a German-born actress-filmmaker, are at it again. Elga says she has been interested in the Andrea Doria ever since, as a schoolgirl in Germany, she was assigned to translate a newspaper story about the ship. "I even remember the fact that Peter Gimbel dived there the day after it sank," she told me five years ago when I interviewed them at the time of their last documentary, which is now in syndication on TV.

As I read a clipping of the story I wrote then, I see that Mr. Gimbel said to me: "Now, for our expedition, the clock has run out." They had planned to make fiction films in Italy, which Miss Andersen felt were much easier to make than documentaries.

My final line in the story, which ran in the Monitor on March 22, 1976, was "As they prepare for their voyage to Italy one wonders if the clock has really run out yet."

Once again they are filming a TV movie about diving to the sunken decks of the Andrea Doria. But this time they are also after a supposed treasure of more than $1 million stashed away in two safes, one in the bank on board ship and the other the purser's safe for first-class passengers. According to their press representative (they now have a publicist who is doing a marvelous job (they now have a adventures) they plan to open the safes on camera during a follow-up TV documentary to be called "Andrea Doria: The Final Chapter."

I got in contact with the two filmmaker-adventurers at sea through the high seas operator, who put out a call for their ship, the Sea Level 11.

"Mr. Gimbel is on the line," the operator said after an open signal had been sent out, requesting the ship to make contact -- and in a few minutes I was interviewing Peter Gimbel, just five years after our original interview. This time he was in the captain's quarters of the supply vessel, whereas last time it has been in the living room of his swank East Side New York City townhouse.

Last time we talked, Peter Gimbel told me that making money was not the prime objective of the expedition -- both he and Elga simply wanted to find an answer to the mystery of the sinking without sensationalizing the story.

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But isn't this business of opening the safe on camera a bit exploitive?

Through the crackling radio signal I could envision the blush on the face of the modest Mr. Gimbel. "Yes, perhaps it is a bit exploitative. But, you know, we have to stir up interest in the show in order to make some sort of deal."

Five years ago, Mr. Gimbel had said that he felt the Andrea Doria had somehow turned hostile. Was that the case now?

"Yes. She's definitely keeping us at arm's lenght. We went down to the ship at first and the conditions were beautiful -- fine visibility down there. Our spirits were buoyed up, but the old lady had a trick up her sleeve because for the next four days the visibility was never more than 10 feet, and the last few days, five feet. And she has more nets than ever over her superstructure. "It's strange and there is not much logic to it but she seems to become more hostile with every passing day."

Might it be because Mr. Gimbel is coming closer to solving her secrets?

"Well, there is no further evidence that the bulkhead door which would have avoided the sinking was not closed. But the rumor still persists and never seems to die.

"As to the safes -- we have removed two of the doors on the port side of the foyer deck and the safes are located on the starboard side. We have to remove two more doors and then we will have a large opening through which we can pass the underwater vacuum cleaners. There's a tremendous amount of debris to clear away. We'll be clearing the starboard from now on. . . ." (According to later news reports, the divers found the bank safe on the port side of the 29,000-ton vessel.)

Mr. Gimbel says that the new film will be ready for airing some time in December. There has been no network sale yet, but if all the publicity keeps up , it is a certainty that one of the networks will bite the bait.

Mr. Gimbel reports that the Sea Level 11 is a typical oil- supply vessel. Both he and Elga Andersen are experienced divers, and Mr. Gimbel is doing some of the diving on this expedition.But, says Mr. Gimbel, "Much of the time we use a diving bell. Elga does not do diving which requires dives to 60 or 70 feet."

Have there been any frightening moments due to the sea life around them? Any killer sharks?

Mr. Gimbel laughs. "You've been seeing to many deep- sea documentaries," he says. "We've got a lot of marine life out here. There are whales around the ship and sharks. Looking out the window now I just saw a large fish jump out of the water. It is not a dolphin. But not a shark, either. No, don't expect any phony battles with attacking sea monsters in this documentary. We want this to be an honest film with no easy thrills. . . ."

Will "Andrea Doria: The Final Chapter" be the final chapter about the ship for Elga and Peter? Is the clock really running out now for them?

Peter laughed and there was a hesitant "yes." Then, he added: "But we said the clock had run out for us in regard to the Andrea Doria last time, didn't we?"

So, I find I must repeat the ending of my last interview with Peter Gimbel and Elga Anderson: "One wonders if the clock has really run out yet."

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