NORFOLK, Va. - On a bitterly cold night in 1912, lookout Frederick Fleet was perched in the crow's nest of RMS Titanic when he saw - too late - an iceberg dead ahead. For several crucial minutes he had missed the massive berg because the sea was calm, producing no tell-tale waves, and there was no moonlight.
Fleet banged the crow's nest bell three times, then frantically called the bridge. "Are you there?" he cried.
"Yes, what did you see?" a voice calmly replied.
"Iceberg right ahead," Fleet reported.
"Thank you," came the courteous reply.
Three hours later, the world's largest manmade moving object crashed onto the ocean floor. It remained there, undisturbed for 73 years, until explorer Robert Ballard found it in 1985.
The discovery triggered a bitter debate among historians, archaeologists and Titanic buffs: What should be done with the doomed luxury liner? Should it be salvaged or left as a silent memorial to the dead?
Today, the debate is moot. While Titanic fans still argue the merits of salvage, a New York company simply did it. Starting in 1987, divers began pulling up everything they could lift off the ocean floor, 2 1/2 miles down.
Now, R.M.S. Titanic Inc. has the crow's nest bell that Frederick Fleet rang that fateful night in 1912. It was discovered on the company's first expedition in 1987.
The company also has an astonishing collection of 6,000 other artifacts collected during six expeditions from 1987 to 2000: Titanic's whistle, a cherub statue from the ship's grand staircase, silverware and luggage, perfumes and papers, jewelry and clothing, and the biggest prize of all, a 20-ton slab of Titanic's hull.
Now it's time for the endgame debate: What should be done with all this Titanic-abilia?
The company that salvaged it all - now based in Atlanta - is slowly going broke. Two years ago, at the height of Titanic mania, the company made $4 million in profits, mainly from ticket sales to traveling exhibitions and selling television rights to its deep-sea dives. Nine million people have visited the Titanic shows.
But last year the company started losing money, and the losses continue this year.
The company had $3 million cash in hand two years ago, but has only $600,000 today.
Company stock went from $4 a share in late 1999 to 68 cents a share today.
In September, company president Arnie Geller appeared in federal court in Norfolk, Va., to present a plan to sell all or part of the 6,000 artifacts to a nonprofit foundation. The judges say they could not pass judgment until Geller gives them a specific plan, along with assurances that the artifacts will be treated properly and respectfully.
"This is a very historic vessel," said U.S. District Judge J. Calvitt Clarke Jr. "It has a right to be treated that way."
Clarke and his colleague, Judge Rebecca Beach Smith, are now in a unique position to determine what happens to the remains of the world's most famous shipwreck. It was Clarke who awarded Geller's company sole salvage rights in 1994, and Clarke and Smith have overseen the ship's salvage since.
How much are Titanic's remnants worth? And where will they go? A lot hinges on the federal court in Norfolk.
Want a piece of the Titanic? Open your wallet wide.
A few weeks ago, a Titanic deck chair sold for $43,000. And it wasn't anything fancy - plain wood, battered and scratched, found floating in the ocean after the ship went down.
"It's an investment," the new owner told the British press. "It's a hell of a lot of money, but I'm satisfied with the price."
So how much would a Titanic dinner plate be worth? How much would a museum pay for the crow's nest bell? The ship's compass? A passageway lamp? The ship's wheel pedestal?
All are part of the Titanic artifact collection. All are, literally, priceless. Nobody knows how much a seller would pay for them.
"What it's worth is literally and profoundly immeasurable," said John Hightower, president of The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va.
"Like great works of art, these artifacts elude the marketplace. It depends on the particular moment in time and how much fever and interest there is in the artifact.
"Presumably the Titanic fascination will go on for decades, but perhaps 100 years from now it won't be perceived as the calamity it was."
For accounting purposes, R.M.S. Titanic values the artifacts at $12.7 million. But that's only the cost of salvage. It has nothing to do with market value.
To help sell the artifacts, Geller - the salvage company president - has formed a nonprofit foundation.
It will solicit donations from the public, corporations and other foundations to buy Titanic's relics from his for-profit salvage company and preserve them.
So far, the foundation has no money or bank account. It is waiting for the Internal Revenue Service to rule on its tax-exempt status. And before the foundation can buy the artifacts - before anyone can buy the artifacts - Norfolk's judges must pass on the deal.
There are few details to the foundation plan. In court, Geller said it would require "a tremendous amount of money," perhaps "more than the foundation could raise in a reasonable period of time."
He offered no specific figures, and the judges expressed skepticism over the proposal.
In any event, R.M.S. Titanic will not build a permanent home for the artifacts.
That was considered early on, Geller testified, but the company could never raise enough money.
"That would be absolutely wonderful if it could be done," Geller said.
For now, about 1,500 of the artifacts - a quarter of the collection - are in traveling exhibitions. Three are open now in Baltimore, Seattle and Santiago, Chile.
The rest of the artifacts are being treated by conservators in France and Michigan.
Money aside, there is a huge stumbling block to any museum buying the Titanic collection: peer pressure.
Museum professionals consider the plunder of shipwrecks a mortal sin, and they try hard to discourage it.
The Council of American Maritime Museums forbids members from exhibiting anything that was obtained improperly from a shipwreck.
The ban has kept looters from plundering many wreck sites, said Hightower, the Mariners' Museum president.
Ironically, it also has made shipwreck artifacts like R.M.S. Titanic's more precious by driving collectors and salvors underground.
"They have done exactly the opposite of what they intended to do," Hightower said.
And yet, some museums - even some very big name museums - are willing to flout the ban to snatch Titanic.
One of the earliest Titanic artifact exhibits was at the National Maritime Museum in London, among the biggest and most respected in the field.
The show drew record crowds, but also universal condemnation from museum professionals.
Expect the same to happen when - if - the Titanic artifacts go on sale.
Museums and galleries in Northern Ireland, where Titanic was built, have sought to buy the Titanic artifacts.
Geller also has suggested a permanent exhibit on Ellis Island, the New York immigration station where many Titanic steerage passengers were bound.
And then there are private collectors.
With the salvage company desperate for cash, Geller has suggested his company might want to sell part of its collection to keep the business alive.
"Many people around the world would like to be able to acquire" the artifacts, Geller told the judges.
One collector recently paid $24,480 for a pin cushion. Another paid $4,000 for a piece of cork from a life jacket.
"Collectors would pay a lot of money" for a piece of the Titanic, Geller testified.
Whether Norfolk's federal judges allow it remains to be seen.