A salvage company has been given the go-ahead to disturb the wreck of the Titanic in hopes of retrieving its Marconi device, the specialized telegraph that conveyed the last messages from the doomed ship’s crew before it sank in 1912.
A U.S. District Court judge ruled on Monday that R.M.S. Titanic Inc., the company that has held salvage rights to the wreck since the 1980s, will be allowed to cut into the ship’s hull in order to rescue the telegraph before it disintegrates. The salvagers plan to send an unmanned submersible into the wreck this summer to retrieve the device, despite outcry from many others who want the site to remain undisturbed.
“The Marconi device has significant historical, educational, scientific and cultural value as the device used to make distress calls while the Titanic was sinking,” Judge Rebecca Beach Smith, of the U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Va., wrote in her ruling. She added that the salvage company will be allowed to “minimally cut into the wreck” in order to reach the ship’s telegraph room.
The judge handed down the ruling amid fierce opposition from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which argued in the public’s interest that the Titanic should be left alone as a mass grave site.
NOAA pointed out in court that the shipwreck is still the final resting place for the “mortal remains of more than 1,500 people,” and it should not be disturbed.
The famous Titanic ocean liner was the largest ship ever built (at the time), but it sank on its maiden voyage from the U.K. to New York City after hitting an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland. More than 1,500 passengers and crew died in the disaster, while about 700 survived.
The ship broke into two pieces after it sank, and the two halves have remained untouched as a memorial to the dead ever since.
According to the salvage crew’s proposal, its robotic sub will first try to enter the telegraph room through an open skylight, and will only cut into the hull if absolutely necessary.
David Concannon, a lawyer for the salvage company, says the telegraph “tells an important story,” and it needs to be saved before deep-sea decay destroys it forever.
“It tells of the heroism of the operators that saved the lives of 705 people,” he told the New York Times. “They worked until water was lapping at their feet.”
The Marconi device was featured in a scene that was eventually deleted from James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic.
Judge Smith’s decision modified a 2000 court order that prevented the company from detaching any part of the Titanic. The firm had proposed to go poking through the Titanic‘s wreckage in search of diamonds at the time.
R.M.S. Titanic Inc. has said it will exhibit the telegraph along with stories of the crew members who sent the ship’s final messages.
“The brief transmissions sent among those ships’ wireless operators, staccato bursts of information and emotion, tell the story of Titanic’s desperate fate that night: the confusion, chaos, panic, futility and fear,” the company wrote in court filings. It also floated the possibility of restoring the device to some form of working order.
“Titanic’s radio — Titanic’s voice — could once again be heard, now and forever,” the firm said in its filings.
The ship’s docking bridge telegraph was recovered decades ago.
The salvage company has already recovered thousands of artifacts from the wreck, and many of them are on display at a paid museum in Las Vegas. The company also used to run a touring expedition of the artifacts, and would sell cruises to the site of the wreck.
It has since changed ownership, and is no longer run by “dishonest hooligans,” according to Concannon.
“They are being judged by the sins of the past, and they have nothing to do with it at all,” he said of the current owners. “The new people want to do this right.”
NOAA says the expedition is prohibited under U.S. federal law and an international agreement between the United States and the U.K., which was established after the 2000 court order.
Smith acknowledged NOAA’s argument in her ruling but said she was only addressing the 2000 court order, and was not addressing the agency’s “claimed authority to wield approval power and control over salvage operations.”
R.M.S. Titanic Inc. still needs to get a funding plan approved by the court before it can proceed. It might also face further legal challenges before it can send an expedition down to the wreck and retrieve the telegraph.
The site remains a prickly topic for many different groups, according to maritime archeologist James Delgado, who visited the ship on a mapping expedition in 2010.
“For some, it’s a memorial, for some it’s a historical site, for some it’s where a family member died,” he told The Washington Post. “For others, it’s an ultimate tourist destination, and for others, it’s a business opportunity. How you balance all of that is very difficult.”
—With files from The Associated Press
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