NEW YORK -- The three-ton safe from the sunken liner Andrea Doria was pried open Thursday and a 28-year-old mystery unraveled as its murky waters yielded $20 bills, Italian lira, and bundles presumed to contain currency.
Anxious members of the expedition patted the safe's bottom with their hands, but the consignment of jewels or rare coins the rusty-safe was rumored to contain were not found.
'I feel what seems to be a rusted metal structure and all around there's bundles of what seems to be currency,' said one member of the $2 million diving expedition that dredged the safe from the sunken ship's watery grave three years ago.
U.S. Customs officials broke the seal they clasped on the safe after its recovery in 1981, and men with crow bars pried open the rust-covered 600-pound door with crowbars. The first grip did not hold and the door slammed shut again.
'Now don't expect to see anything right away,' warned author George Plimpton, host of a two-hour documentary on the opening. 'You won't see anything for a while because it's very murky.'
Among those waiting for a chemical solution to clear and bare the safe's contents were explorer Peter Gimbel, who along with his wife, Elga Andersen, headed the expedition to recover the safe.
In an interview with Plimpton, Miss Andersen said that if she had her wish the safe would never have been open, preserving its mystery.
The safe was presumed to contain water-logged currency, travelers checks and documents, but Gimbel said there were 'persistent although unsubstantiated' rumors the strongbox held precious stones.
Plimpton noted that anything heavy, like jewels or rare coins, would remain on the bottom of the safe until documents and currency that floated to the surface were removed.
Within a few minutes after the safe was opened, two packets containing about 50 $20 bills floated to the surface. Italian lira also was recovered from the water.
'We've already had quite a bonanza,' Plimpton said.
The explorers were reluctant to delve into the water quickly for fear they might destroy any objects that had become fragile from being submerged for 28 years.
Divers found the vault in the eerie wreckage of the Andrea Doria, which collided with the Swedish passenger ship Stockholm off the Massachusetts coast on July 26, 1956.
One minute later, the Coast Guard received an SOS from the crippled vessel's crew that the ship was sinking.
Fog had enshrouded the ocean so completely that the Coast Guard described visibility as 'nil.' Fifty-two of the 1,700 people aboard the luxury liner died in the accident. The rest were rescued by the the Stockholm and Coast Guard vessels.
The Andrea Doria capsized and went to the bottom hours later.
Elaborate preparations were made to open the mysterious vault. It was moved from the New York Aquarium's shark tank, where it was kept for security, to an acrylic box partially filled with cold water.
Gimbel hired top locksmith Sal Schillizzi, an English team from the company that made the safe and a squad of chemists to make sure all went smoothly when the crane hoisted the safe's 600-pound door.
The booty found inside the safe was to be shared with Gimbel's 12-member partnership, which financed the recovery.
The documentary was syndicated to more than 160 American television stations and was to be shown by satellite in 44 countries.