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Titanic relics take anchor at Astoria history group

Were you ever curious about that home on 11th Street in Long Island City festooned with memorabilia from the doomed ocean liner Titanic? The opportunity to see it there has passed, but the collection of memorabilia, once curated by lifelong Long Island City resident Joe Colletti, is now in the hands of the Greater Astoria Historical Society.

After 55 years in that home on 11th Street, Colletti has tired of the neighborhood and moved to an apartment in Sunnyside. But he was at the historical society’s offices Monday cataloging the photographs, drawings, letters and other items related to the famed White Star liner that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and sank April 15, 1912.

“I didn’t realize how much stuff I’d collected over the years,” Colletti said. “It took over three hours to catalog everything.”

Bob Singleton, vice president of the historical society, said three floors worth of artifacts required three van trips to collect from the home.

“It’s a rare privilege to encounter somebody who is a history enthusiast and to be able to partner with them on making their passion really come alive,” he said, noting his group is considering ways to publicly display the collection. “This is a phenomenal thing that he’s done in terms of taking it upon himself, his time and his money to put something like this together.”

Colletti’s fascination with the ship took off in 1984 when he began attending gatherings of the Titanic Historical Society. Shortly afterward he met survivor Eva Hart, who was 7 when her family embarked on the fateful voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City.

Gradually he met eight other survivors and heard some of their stories about the disaster, which claimed the lives of 1,517 of the 2,223 souls aboard when the ship collided with an iceberg 400 miles south of Newfoundland. The vessel’s designers had only included enough lifeboats for one-third of its 3,547-person capacity.

“For four days they said they were in heaven to enjoy the beauty of the ship,” Colletti said. “And then that night, Sunday night ... it was just a switch from a dream to a nightmare.”

Hart also alerted Colletti to the fact that while statues and major monuments exist in Belfast, Liverpool and Washington, D.C., New York City has a small lighthouse and a small park on the Upper East Side, but no major memorial to the disaster. Colletti began decorating his home with souvenirs from the ship that he found at antique shops.

“I did it as a tribute to her and the other eight people that I knew,” he said. “I never knew it was going to take off the way it did.”

But then, more than a decade later, film director James Cameron released a film with proportions titanic enough to rival the great ship itself and fans began to flock to the ivy-covered home.

“I was swamped, especially with school kids,” he said. “They would come and say, ‘Oh, that’s Capt. Smith and that’s the Unsinkable Molly Brown. It was really something.”

But while popular fascination with the ship has cooled somewhat since 1997, Colletti said several residents were still alarmed when his collection disappeared.

“Somebody put a bouquet of flowers in front of the Titanic display,” he said.

Two weeks ago, a woman called Colletti after not having walked past the house for a while.

“All of a sudden it was gone. She thought something happened to me,” he said, noting he moved from the neighborhood because he dislikes the ways the Hunters Point section of Long Island City is changing.

But while Colletti said he was not terribly sad to let the collection go, he does miss his survivor friends, the last of whom died last year.

“It was just their life, their time,” he said. “They went through the wars and they went through the Depression and everything. It was such an experience to hear how they managed. It’s a generation lost.”

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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