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Copyright © 1987 The New York Times Company
The New York TimesJune 15, 1987, Monday, Late City Final Edition
SECTION: Section B; Page 2, Column 1; Metropolitan Desk
LENGTH: 565 words
HEADLINE: CREW BEGINS QUEST FOR SUNKEN VESSEL'S TREASURE
BYLINE: By ESTHER IVEREM
On Jan. 23, 1909, at 5:30 A.M., a 600-foot luxury liner, the Republic, collided with the smaller Florida in the fog-hidden waters south of Nantucket, Mass. Until three years later, when the Titanic sank near Newfoundland, the Republic would retain the distinction as the largest ship to capsize and sink.
Yesterday, a crew of 35 set sail from New York City for a three-month expedition to recover what is thought to be from $400 million to $1.6 billion worth of American Eagle gold coins still on board.
At noon, four hours before they departed from Pier 90 near 50th Street in Manhattan, the project director, Martin Bayerle, stood on the deck of the crew's ship, the Inspector, holding shards of china he salvaged from the wreck of the Republic in 1985.
Vessel Discovered in '81
''There's a little treasure hunter in all of us,'' Mr. Bayerle said to reporters as the murky Hudson River coursed behind him.
Mr. Bayerle, a resident of Brooklyn, is vice president of Sub-Ocean Salvors Inc., the Tampa, Fla.-based salvage company undertaking the diving expedition. In 1981 he discovered the sunken vessel and has since researched her history. The president of the company, Robert L. Stevens, is a naval architect who, since 1983, has painstakingly reconstructed original blueprints of the Republic so that divers can more easily proceed with the search.
Mr. Stevens said the Republic's collision and sinking was ''like taking a 60-story building, shaking it violently and throwing it on its side.'' He said that the 20 divers face a ''dangerous and complicated'' task of finding the coins, located in ''an area the size of a broom closet.''
One of the divers, Davis Prokipchuk of Toronto, said it would be cold and ''nighttime all the time'' at the site of the ship, 260 feet below the surface, 55 miles south of Nantucket. He said the expedition ''is just a job'' and that the crew has taken needed safety precautions.
Rare Books and Silverware
In addition to gold, divers might find valuable artifacts, such as more china, silverware, wine lockers and several rare books that were a part of the ship's extensive library. The Northeast Documentation Center in Andover, Mass., which preserves rare paper documents, has expressed an interest in the books.
The Republic, part of The White Star Shipping Company owned by J. P. Morgan, departed New York City two days before the crash with 484 passengers and about 450 crew members for a two-month cruise of the Mediterranean. The Florida held about 650 immigrants traveling from Europe.
''The Republic is rapidly sinking,'' said the first radio message dispatched within minutes after the tragedy. ''It is doubtful that she will remain afloat much longer.''
Four crew members and two passengers of the Republic died in the collision, but more than 1,500 others were saved in what still is the largest sea rescue in history.
Historians say the rescue was so successful because the collision marked the first use of a wireless distress signal at sea. Jack Binns, the Republic's radio operator, became an international hero and was awarded a medal by France for heroism.
The first rescue ships arrived 12 hours after the collision and those on the Republic and the Florida filled 83 boatloads before they were all transferred to safety.
By the next day, the ship's crew had given up the ship, and she sank, stern first.
CORRECTION-DATE: June 16, 1987, Tuesday, Late City Final Edition
A map yesterday with an article about the search for treasure aboard the sunken ship Republic off the New England coast mislabeled two islands near the wreck. The names, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, were reversed.
GRAPHIC: Map shows site of ship; photograph of Martin Bayerle and Dr. Robert Polakwich (NYT/Marilynn K. Yee)