A Titanic Dream

Bretton Hunchak ’09, president of RMS Titanic, Inc. (RMST), posing in front of the submarine used by Victor Vescovo for his Five Deeps Expedition, in which Vescovo became the first person to visit the deepest points in every ocean.

Bretton Hunchak ’09 oversees stewardship of the world’s most famous shipwreck.

Nobody knows how long the ship will remain intact. As [film director] James Cameron says, ‘The Titanic is melting like a candle, from the top down.

— Bretton Hunchak ’09

Maybe it all started for Bretton Hunchak ’09 with a shoebox diorama he made in third grade. Inside that shoebox, the young Hunchak of Ellington, Connecticut, re-created part of the interior of the RMS Titanic, the ill-fated British passenger liner that sank on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York in 1912.

"It was by far the coolest diorama in the whole class," Hunchak said, with a laugh. "I’d grown up around boats, so the Titanic fascinated me even back then."

Flash forward to the present, when Hunchak is planning an actual expedition to the site of the world’s most famous shipwreck — located 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, and more than two miles below the ocean’s surface. On a date yet to be scheduled due to the pandemic, Hunchak will be there in his capacity as president of RMS Titanic, Inc. (RMST), the sole salvor in possession of the Titanic’s wreck site.

Hunchak’s company’s mission, according to an RMST press release, is to serve as the exclusive steward of the RMS Titanic. "Since 1987, RMST has honorably conducted eight research expeditions to the wreck of RMS Titanic exclusively recovering and conserving more than 5,500 artifacts. Utilizing these recovered objects in concert with scientific data and historical research, RMST brings to the general public the celebrated and moving experience Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," which has recently been on display in Las Vegas, Orlando, Fla., and in Arizona.

Thanks to an RMST company partner, Magellan GPS, the Titanic wreck site can now be found easily, and Hunchak and an international crew of 60 maritime experts plan to "encamp" there for six weeks once current travel and health risks abate.

Their top priority is to retrieve the radio equipment from inside the bow section of the wreckage. (The Titanic split in two before sinking on April 15, 1912, with the stern heading straight to the bottom, about a third of a mile away from where the bow eventually settled).

Photogrammetric survey of the Titanic’s bow section.

"Why is that radio so important?" Hunchak asked, anticipating the question. "The Marconi wireless telegraph machine is the only reason 700 people survived. It was the iPhone 12 of its day and was so new that the instructions said that if it broke down to bring it back to the manufacturer."

And, of course, two days into Titanic’s maiden voyage, the Marconi machine broke down. Rather than leave it alone, though, two engineers on board the ship took it apart to see if they could fix it.

"These two guys broke the rules for the greater good and got it working again," said Hunchak. "And because of that, they were able to radio for help in those few minutes between when the ship hit the iceberg and when it sank."

All previous exploration of the wreckage has been of its exterior, and was conducted via 2- or 3-person submersibles, which required more than two hours to get down to the wreck site and then another two hours to return to the ocean surface.

"This is not like renting a sailboat for the weekend, in other words," Hunchak said.

Retrieving the radio equipment has taken far more intricate planning than previous expeditions. It will require an unmanned submersible to enter through a skylight or, failing that, to cut into the deck’s corroded roof. A suction dredge will remove loose silt, while the sub’s manipulator arms will cut any remaining electrical cords.

"We aren’t going down there to pull up a million artifacts," said Hunchak. "We will mostly be documenting with cameras what’s left, in order to make photometric models of the ship for later study. This will eternalize the Titanic for future generations."

The legendary undersea explorer Victor Vescovo saw the radio equipment on his last visit to the wreck site in August 2019.

"The room where the radio is housed is collapsing in on itself and what’s left is in danger," said Hunchak. "The wall on which the radio was originally mounted has disintegrated, and it’s now attached only by the cable, so that, according to Vescovo, it looks like it’s floating."

If Hunchak’s expedition finds and secures the equipment, it will be brought to the surface and stabilized in a solution of salt water. Because the equipment is made of multiple materials (wood, metal, wires, glass), it may require anywhere from six to 24 months to restore.

"Nobody knows how long the ship will remain intact," said Hunchak. "As [film director] James Cameron says, ‘The Titanic is melting like a candle, from the top down."

Since the Titanic’s wreck site was discovered by undersea explorer Robert Ballard in 1985, any visit to it has been fraught with controversy. The overriding concern is that the site remain a burial ground for the 1,500 people who lost their lives, and be accorded the same respect that any cemetery receives. When the ship split in two after hitting the iceberg, its back half spun around as it slowly sank, spewing debris across several miles of the ocean floor. Prior expeditions have only salvaged artifacts from these debris fields scattered in the vicinity of the wreckage, never from inside the ship.

The main wreck site itself has been off limits, and people have fought for years in admiralty court in the U.S. to gain access to it. Hunchak and his legal team spent a year in maritime law litigation in order to get that elusive clearance.

Originally scheduled for summer 2021, the expedition is now indefinitely delayed, yet Hunchak remains optimistic. He has even squeezed inside a submersible to learn what that feels like.

"We went down to 1,000 meters," he recalled. "It was intense. I am a tall guy, and you are in this sphere-shaped titanium shell that only two or three people can fit inside. When it goes under, the condensation on the inside drips a little. The joke for first-timers is for the captain to look up at the dripping water and say, ‘Oh no!’ And of course my heart was in my throat."

Though he has been president of RMS Titanic, Inc. for only two years, Hunchak is well aware of the debate over whether the site should be visited at all.

"I agree that the site is a memorial and I would not allow anything abrasive or abusive to occur to the remains. This site visit will be done entirely by unmanned vessels, which are as accurate as robot surgeons. There really are only about 50 people in the world who would have the know-how and tools to explore the Titanic wreck site in this way, and we all know each other. Most people have decent enough moral compass not to desecrate the site."

How did a good catholic boy from Connecticut get from that shoebox diorama to the real deal? Well, that voyage — or, at least, the educational component — may have begun before he was even born. The name bestowed upon him came from a Jesuit priest, named Fr. Bretton, who was close to his mother’s family when she was a girl.

Hunchak attended East Catholic High School in Manchester, Conn. The sole guidance counselor there was a Fairfield University alumnus, and advised Hunchak to visit the campus.

"I looked at Fordham and some schools out West, but after I visited Fairfield’s campus and met Milo Peck, assistant professor of accounting and an attorney, I was convinced it was the place for me. The finance business track [that] Fairfield provided, and the presence of Professor Peck made me want to go there. He taught accounting classes and showed me that it was not just a bunch of numbers, that it got right to the heart of how a business works or doesn’t work."

A black silk Edwardian period top hat,a common fashion accessory in 1912

King of Clubs from a deck of Steamboat playing cards, most likely used for playing poker while onboard

A 14-carat gold Fox Head lapel or scarf pin with glass eyes, thought to have belonged to one of the men traveling in First Class

After "scrambling a bit" upon graduation, Hunchak was hired by Deutsche Bank at their New York office on Wall Street. From there, he moved to a start-up hedge fund.

"I learned how to spot failing businesses, and how to right their ships," he said.

A little more than two years ago, Hunchak came across Premier Exhibitions, the company that owned the RMS Titanic, which was in bankruptcy. He took the company private, made some financial adjustments and reemerged as RMS Titanic, Inc., part of E/M Group (Experiential Media Group, LLC). He is now the de facto head of both RMS Titanic, Inc. and E/M Group, and Fairfield alumna Katrina Young ’09 is his executive assistant.

In addition to his focus on all things Titanic, Hunchak also oversees an extensive educational outreach program related to this work.

"Part of the Jesuit ethic that has instilled in me is that if I have a platform, I should do some good with it," he said. "We have recently been collaborating with James Cameron," – director of the 1997 film, Titanic – " who’s really ‘Mister Titanic,’ to create a program for Los Angeles City Public Schools, where his wife is a teacher."

E/M Group designed a five-week course related to the Titanic and underwater exploration that meets STEM curriculum standards. It includes components like question-and-answer sessions with actual divers who’ve been to the Titanic site, and with James Cameron.

"We’ve tested it in inner city schools of New York and Atlanta and the feedback has been incredible," he said. "We have put our heart and soul into this education program. The students have loved it."

E/M Group offers traveling exhibitions of varying sizes, too. "If the space is large enough, we can build a replica of the grand staircase on the Titanic to give a real sense of what it was like, the grandeur," said Hunchak. "Or in a smaller space, we can do a virtual walk- through of the ship. People have enjoyed that during this long Covid pandemic."

1073 North Benson Road
Fairfield, Connecticut 06824
(203) 254-4000