Safecracking Leads to TV's Biggest Opening: the Safe of the Andrea Doria

updated 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/20/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

I have a friend, a vague one, who had a short career as a safecracker until he was I caught and spent a short time in the pen. Whenever we meet he inevitably suggests (I never know quite how seriously) that he would be willing to "come out of retirement" to show me, a participatory journalist, what it is like to crack a safe. "It's very exciting," he tells me. "We could do a small safe, just to give you an idea."

His offer has been on my mind recently because I have agreed to be master of ceremonies at easily the most publicized and widely viewed safecracking in history—the televised opening of the safe that Peter Gimbel's expedition winkled out of the innards of the Andrea Doria three years ago. The Andrea Doria has been lying on the ocean floor off Nantucket since 1956, when she collided with the Stockholm and sank, leaving about 50 people dead. Her safe, upon being salvaged, was sealed by U.S. Customs and placed under bond for $2 million; it has been on public display in a tank at the New York Aquarium at Coney Island ever since. On the evening of August 16, in a moment of revelation to be seen on syndicated TV and carried by satellite to 42 foreign countries, the safe will be opened. At intervals during a remarkable film Peter Gimbel and his wife, Elga Andersen-Gimbel, have made about the salvaging, there will be ongoing live coverage of the final stages of the safecracking, ending with the disclosure of its contents.

No one has any idea exactly what is inside. No manifest exists.

The safe is what is called in the trade a "money safe"—28 inches wide and nearly five feet tall. It has a squarish door with a combination lock and in addition a lock that requires two keys. Only three such safes, manufactured by an Italian company, Lips Vago, were ever made.

There are a number of mysteries about the Andrea Doria safe. One is the broken key in the lock, snapped off when the safe was hoisted aboard the salvage craft. Peter Gimbel has a theory that someone was working late in the ship's bank on that tragic July night in 1956 (the Andrea Doria was to dock the next morning in New York) when, at 11:10 p.m., the bow of the Stockholm crashed into the side of the Andrea Doria only 40 feet from the bank. Within five minutes the ship had heeled to a 23-degree list, and anyone working below decks that night near the crash could hardly be blamed for hightailing it out of there. Meanwhile the heeling, with the safe on the down side, would have slammed the 650-pound door inexorably shut.

The safe spent its first months ashore in the shark tank of the New York Aquarium, a colorful site—the safe lay on coral with sharks circling overhead. But it turned out to be an ill-chosen place. Every five to 10 minutes a jet of bubbles would emerge from a corner of the safe and stream up past the sharks. At first no one took this to be anything more than the escape of trapped air. But Elga kept mentioning how curious this phenomenon was—there could only be so much air in the safe—and after two months the director of the aquarium, Dr. George Ruggieri, trapped some of the bubbles in a beaker for analysis. Three weeks later the diagnosis came back from Georgetown University: methane and carbon dioxide, commonly known as swamp gas, which is exuded by bacteria chomping on organic matter.

"But what could they be eating?" I had asked. "Could there be a salami sandwich in there?"

"Not too likely," Gimbel replied. "But the specialists know the bacteria are feeding on something, perhaps paper fibers. If a fortune in paper money is in the safe, it is being consumed."

After the scientist's report, the safe was quickly moved from the warm shark tank to a holding tank of near-freezing water. The stream of bubbles stopped almost instantly.

The safe was first prepared for its final public opening by one of the world's great safecrackers—Sal Schillizzi of Howard Beach, Queens. Sal works on the side of the angels, naturally, out of his own company, All-Over Locksmiths. Sal started on the Doria's safe on July 24, and he cannot remember working under stranger conditions. The safe lies on its back. The water level has been lowered so that the door is four inches above the water; to drain the water completely would allow the bacteria in the safe to stir again and begin feeding. So, wearing waders, Sal leaned across the safe's surface, fiddling.

"It's a tough job," Sal said two weeks ago. "By far the toughest for me. It's the rust, the corrosion. The door is fused to the frame."

I asked how long it would take him to open the safe if it had not spent 20-odd years in the sea.

"Perhaps five hours," he said. "Two hours plus on the combination lock, which has four wheels with a hundred numbers on each wheel—literally millions of combinations—and then two hours plus on the key lock, which is an excellent lock with 14 tumblers in it.

"But I will tell you something interesting. I think the safe is already open. The dial spins to the left, not to the right. That means that the four-number combination has already been dialed. It also takes two keys to open the safe. There is one broken in the keyhole, and I think it is key No. 2."

"Doesn't the key turn?"

"It's giving me great trouble. I never use force. If I can loosen the door I will have done my job. If I don't succeed the Italians who made the safe will drill holes in the side and punch in the bolts. That's not easy either. There are 10 of those bolts. It's a helluva safe."

I asked Sal if he could describe the most valuable cache he had ever unlocked. Oh yes, he said, that had been five large safes belonging to a chiropractor, who had died without leaving any of the combinations. Each safe that Sal opened, on behalf of the estate and very likely the government, was packed with money, such an enormous hoard that he was not allowed to leave the house until an armored car had pulled up at the door. That was a bit ironic. "What is in the safe is of little interest to me," he said, grinning. "It is the opening of the safe that is important. Every one you open, it's just like your first." He said he had opened Thomas Edison's safe 50 years after the inventor's death, on the instruction of U.S. government officials who were looking for missing patents.

"Well, what was inside?"

"Not a thing," he said. "It was completely empty. So everyone was disappointed, except me."

"So you won't be disappointed if there's nothing in the Doria's safe?"

"Not at all."

As it turned out, Lips Vago's product proved to be the "helluva safe" Sal said it was: He couldn't get it open because the door, as he guessed, was unlocked already but held tight by the corroded bolts. Lips Vago decided to call on specialists from the Chubb lock company in England, who were flown in two weeks ago. It took them three days to free the bolts so that the door will swing open once Customs' maximum security seal and chain are removed. Gimbel has developed an ingenious method for removing the contents, however decimated by bacteria at that point. It involves injecting into the safe a chemical fluid called Fomblin, made in Italy and costing about $635 a gallon, which has great specific gravity; it will form a layer under any bank notes, paper money or whatever and float them to the surface. As soon as they are skimmed off they will be examined by a lineup of experts with microscopes, who will be able to tell us at least what was in the safe.

I asked Peter, "Do you think there'll be anything recognizable—a stack of lire, a bag of pound notes...?"

"It's possible," he said, though he shakes his head in anguish at the thought of the 100 days during which the bacteria were producing those streams of miniburps. "After all, mail-bags were brought up from the Lusitania, which was on the ocean floor 40 years longer, with letters that were absolutely legible."

"But then again, it could be that all that we have brought up is goo."

"Goo?"

I was pondering how to describe goo to an international television audience when Gimbel said, "Of course this extrication method will lift paper to the surface but leave behind the heavy stuff, if there is any down there—bags of diamonds, gold coins or other mind-boggling examples of what insurance companies call 'unaccompanied consignments.' "

So that will be the last drama of Thursday evening—to shine a light down into the darkness of the Doria's safe and see what is left.

And suppose, like Edison's safe, there is nothing? It won't matter to the Gimbels, who achieved what they set out to do—make an extraordinary movie—or to Sal Schillizzi, who has attempted to perform his greatest "crack." There is only the master of ceremonies to worry about—staring bleakly out at his audience with an empty safe behind him. What does he say in a situation like that? Any suggestions?

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