Federal Judge OKs Expedition to Retrieve Titanic Telegraph

The planned expedition is tentatively set for this summer, 108 years after the famous ship sank on its way from England to New York.

The Titanic leaves Southampton, England, on her maiden voyage on April 10, 1912. (AP Photo/File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — A federal judge has cleared the way for salvagers to recover the Marconi wireless telegraph machine that broadcast distress calls from the Titanic before the doomed ocean liner plunged to the bottom of the Atlantic over a hundred years ago, leaving more than 1,500 dead in icy waters.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith said Monday the undertaking by the firm R.M.S. Titanic is a unique opportunity to retrieve an artifact that will “contribute to the legacy left by the indelible loss of the Titanic.”

The company plans to make the dive this summer using an unmanned submersible to cut through the heavily corroded roof to surface the equipment that crewmen used to frantically send out distress signals before the vessel lay to rest on the ocean floor over 108 years ago. Only about 700 of the 2,208 passengers and crew aboard the Titanic in 1912 survived when the famous ship struck an iceberg and sank on a voyage from England to New York.

Artifacts recovered from the Titanic sit on shelves at a storage facility in Atlanta on Feb. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Angie Wang, File)

The court must still approve the R.M.S. Titanic funding plan, a hurdle that could lead to delays with proceedings in federal courts across the country slowed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The firm, after recently emerging from bankruptcy, is under new ownership, but could face further legal challenges from archaeological and preservation experts before launching the expedition.

“If recovered, it is conceivable that it could be restored to operable condition,” the firm stated in a court filing. “Titanic’s radio — Titanic’s voice — could once again be heard, now and forever.”

As the court recognized steward of the shipwreck’s artifacts, R.M.S. Titanic submitted a 60-page plan to retrieve the telegraph, outlining the expectation that the historic machine still sits in a deck house near the vessel’s grand staircase.

But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration strongly opposes the expedition, arguing to the court that the sought-after telegraph is likely surrounded “by the mortal remains of more than 1,500 people” that should be left undisturbed.

But the salvagers argued that they plan to make public the sinking ship’s telegraphs as a means of sharing the stories of the men who bravely tapped out distress calls “until seawater was literally lapping at their feet.”

“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,” R.M.S. Titanic wrote in court filings.

A NOAA spokesperson said the agency is reviewing the Monday ruling by Judge Smith and declined to comment. The government has argued the descent nearly 2.5 miles to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean for the telegraph is prohibited under federal law and an international agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom.

Smith recognized NOAA’s arguments, but said in her ruling that the only matter before the court was a past order issued by the judge who previously oversaw Titanic salvage matters from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. 

The judge also noted that the agency is not a formal party in the case, and said her ruling does not address the constitutionality of NOAA’s “claimed authority to wield approval power and control over salvage operations.”

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