WESTPORT — The Rev. Robert Lawrence has everything a longtime Titanic buff could want: a scale model of the doomed ocean liner, a piece of coal from the boiler room, replica life preservers, whistles, bells and yellowed newspaper clips.
Each item in his extensive collection paints a picture of the ship on its maiden and only voyage from England to America. But for the Westport resident and pastor emeritus of Fall River's First Congregational Church, a voyage of his own is about to make the picture much clearer.
Lawrence, 81, will help lead a remembrance service at the site where RMS Titanic sank at 2:20 a.m. April 15, 100 years to the minute after the vessel struck an iceberg and plunged into the dark, icy depths of the Atlantic Ocean, killing more than 1,000 people.
"I can't believe I have the chance to do this," Lawrence said at his Old Harbor Road home, Titanic memorabilia laid out on tables throughout the living room. "I feel just so privileged. It's like a hand in a glove — the perfect fit."
Lawrence, a cruise chaplain for four years, said he could not pass up the offer to participate in the Titanic Anniversary Cruise.
"I couldn't believe something like this was even possible," he said.
The cruise will leave New York on April 10 for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the bodies of many of the liner's unclaimed victims are buried. The ship then will forge through the Atlantic until April 14, when it is scheduled to reach the spot "400 miles east of Labrador, Canada," where Titanic met its end, Lawrence said.
Early the next morning, at the moment Titanic slipped beneath the waves, Lawrence will deliver the homily in an interfaith remembrance service while other passengers, including historians and descendants of survivors, solemnly watch. Three candles symbolizing faith, hope and love will be lit and a wreath will be cast into the ocean. The ceremony should last about 45 minutes, Lawrence said.
"We'll be there to honor the dead as we do when we go to a cemetery," he said. "The fact that so many people will be there is a testimony that life goes on, that the spirit of life continues. There's a need for people to feel empowered by that fact."
As Lawrence has learned from telling others about his upcoming journey, Titanic's tragic story still unnerves people a century later.
"They're either intrigued or they say, 'Are you kidding me? You're going to do that?'" Lawrence said with a laugh. "They get spooked that I'm going to honor the Titanic at the bottom of the sea."
Heralded as a sturdy, state-of-the-art passenger ship, Titanic departed Southampton, England, for its maiden voyage to New York City on April 10, 1912. Four days later, with 2,223 people from various social classes on board, the liner struck an iceberg. Water gushed into damaged compartments, pulling the 882-foot ship down by its bow. The pressure, according to eyewitness accounts, forced the ship to break in half before it plummeted 2½ miles to the ocean floor, where the wreck remains.
Many survivors escaped on lifeboats or were plucked from the bone-chilling water by rescuers. Of those who died, some went down with the ship or froze while floating helplessly in their life preservers under a moonless sky. The last survivor, who was 2 months old when the ship sank, died at 97 in 2009.
"What fascinates me about the Titanic is that it's so pervasive of everyone's interests," Lawrence said. "It's in the movies, books, games — everything."
Lawrence has plenty of examples at home, including a build-your-own Titanic kit for children, a pillbox and bank in the shape of the ship, piano sheet music for Titanic-themed songs, a replica mate's whistle and several authoritative books on the subject. His copy of Walter Lord's "A Night to Remember" is signed by survivor Marjorie Newell Robb, who lived her final years in Westport and Fall River before dying at 103 in 1992.
Lawrence said his favorite "gem" is an April 10, 1912, copy of The New York Tribune, which advertises Titanic's return trip to England, set for April 20 at noon.
Lawrence, who has traveled the world as a cruise chaplain, said no trip has excited him as much as the one he is about to take.
"It's been 100 years and the story never dies," he said. "It's important that we commemorate the lives lost."