TAMPA — The Titanic was docked across from the Hooters.
Its passengers drove hybrid cars and SUVs through the bustling Saturday night Channelside district, past guys wearing Van Halen T-shirts, past women in short shorts and heels, into the cruise line's parking lot, where they emerged in period costumes somewhere between Edwardian and Kardashian.
They had come to ride the Yacht StarShip's three-hour Titanic tribute cruise. It was 100 years to the day a ship called unsinkable hit an iceberg and buckled, when 1,514 screaming people drowned, got crushed or clung to debris as hypothermia killed them.
The tickets were $79 on LivingSocial. They included open bar and a souvenir photo.
• • •
The Titanic's anniversary brought a fresh swell of commemorative ephemera.
Fans filled theaters to watch James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster Titanic in 3-D. In England, people paid thousands to ride the MS Balmoral Titanic memorial cruise retracing the exact journey of Titanic. In gaudy hotbeds Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Branson, Mo., museum guests held onto tilted deck railings and felt the sensation of falling into the sea.
Grim situations have always been ripe for hobbyists. There are Jack the Ripper tours and Civil War re-enactments and murder mystery parties. But Titanic might trump other disasters in its sheer marketability. People don't take Hindenburg airship tours or Marshall University plane rides. Nor do they sail replicas of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff (where more than 9,000 died) or the RMS Lusitania (which helped usher America into World War I).
"Some people don't exactly know what it is about the story that attracts them," said Michael Acord, an actor from Titanic the Experience in Orlando, where adults pay $21.95 to see artifacts and tour Titanic's rooms. "I think what attracts most people, even if they can't articulate it, is the romance of the idea. The maiden voyage that never finished. It's the unfulfilled promise."
• • •
Twenty-nine minutes after departure in Tampa, Dante DiSabatino stood on the bow lookout and spread his arms. So did everyone else. A ship employee shooed everyone away. It was too dangerous.
It was inevitable for someone like Dante, who watched Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio do the same when he was 5. Dante got obsessed, drawing pictures of the grand staircase in notebooks and watching A Night to Remember. He wrote a middle school history project about the Titanic from memory.
His grandmother thought Dante was a lost Titanic soul, reincarnated.
"It was just such a great disaster," he said. "All of the people were so excited. For it to go to the bottom of the ocean . . ."
Dante, now 20, just beat testicular cancer. He wanted to take the cruise out of England but couldn't afford the tickets. Then he saw the LivingSocial deal. He borrowed a tuxedo jacket, bought a vest and tie from Bib 'N Tux, made a cane from an old piece of a piano and duct tape.
Dante's college friends thought it was weird, so he took his co-worker, 52-year-old Joanne Oinal. Together they nibbled asparagus salad, vintage life jackets draped on their chairs.
"It's really a bittersweet night, being here," he said. "I think people forget how sad this was."
A nearby plaque told a story of the Titanic's elderly couple who chose to die together, sitting in deck chairs holding hands until a wave swept them away.
• • •
The boat passed Derek Jeter's house. Some people booed.
"We've just received a message from the Baltic," Capt. Troy Manthey narrated over a loudspeaker. "It reads, 'Have moderate variable winds, clear, fine weather since leaving.' Greek steamer Athenia reports passing icebergs and large quantities of ice today . . ."
It was time for the costume contest.
Rob Steinfeld and Dean Hanson hurried to the promenade deck, dressed in bathrobes and life jackets. Most people would have been sleeping when the ship hit the iceberg, they said. Their pajamas were more accurate. They stood between a bundle of top hats and feather plumes.
Rob and Dean lost to Tia Lipscomb, who rented a navy blue sailor dress from an Orlando costume shop and drove to Tampa with her boyfriend.
Her prize was two tickets on a Yacht StarShip cruise.
• • •
James Cameron pitched 1997's Titanic as "Romeo and Juliet on a boat."
Gaggles of middle school girls and lovers on dates flocked to watch a first-class passenger fall in love with a third-class passenger. It was big and glamorous, with ornate gowns and sexy class war set to a tragic backdrop. It earned $1.8 billion.
A Titanic exhibition at the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg drew 830,000 people the same year. Dan Mlotkowski, 51, was a volunteer docent. Now, he's selling his Titanic collection on craigslist — five pieces of Titanic coal, newspaper articles, an unopened poster, DVDs, lapel pins.
The lust for Titanic was intense, he said, but most people were sincere. Dan can tell. He makes a living fixing up houses in the nude as NakeDan the Handyman.
"I understand cheesy," he said. "People would look at me and say, 'He's cheesy.' But I think the idea is to re-create, which is something we always try to do. Many people go back now to look at the cross-section of people that were there and how they behaved and say, 'Here's the nobility of man in the face of obvious death.' "
Given the chance, would everyone act the same today?
• • •
"On Sunday, April 14, we had received five iceberg warnings, but I was not overly concerned," Randall E. Lindberg, a retired merchant marine captain playing Titanic Capt. E.J. Smith, read from prepared notes. "That evening, the night was uncommonly clear and dark, motionless and moonless."
Glasses clinked at the bar.
"Shhhhhhhhh," came from the crowd.
"The sea was calm and flat. Almost like glass."
When flares fired over the ship, Dante closed his eyes. A dinner cruise employee sang Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On. She wore a blue "Heart of the Ocean" pendant from the movie, which sells for a few dollars on eBay.
Some people cried.
Some sipped drinks.
Some started to kiss.
The DJ played Wonderful Tonight and Brown Eyed Girl and the Cupid Shuffle. He finished with the Black Eyed Peas reassuring everyone that tonight was going to be a good, good night.
The guests grabbed souvenir pictures and filed onto dry land, past a little boy in a newsboy cap who handed them a New York Times front page. TITANIC SINKS FOUR HOURS AFTER HITTING ICEBERG. It listed survivors. MR. HARRY ANDERSON. MRS. ED W. APPLETON. MRS. ROSE ABBOTT . . .
They tucked the news into their handbags and drove away.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.