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Feds Oppose Summer 2020 Salvage Mission at Titanic Wreck Site

As a salvage crew prepares to retrieve the Titanic’s wireless telegraph machine, the U.S. government formally objected in court, saying the private expedition could violate an international agreement not to disturb the site of the iconic shipwreck.

NORFOLK, Va. (CN) — As a salvage crew prepares to retrieve the Titanic’s wireless telegraph machine, the U.S. government formally objected in court, saying the private expedition could violate an international agreement not to disturb the site of the iconic shipwreck.

U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach had green-lit the salvage job last month, finding that recovery of the equipment that crewmen used to frantically send distress signals before the ship sank in 1912 would “contribute to the legacy left by the indelible loss of the Titanic.”

In her ruling, Smith noted that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was challenging the mission but that the constitutional question was not ripe since the agency had not yet entered a formal appearance in the proceedings.

Court documents juxtapose a 2002 voyage to the Titanic wreck site against an illustration of what the Marconi wireless telegraph equipment looked like in 1912. (Courthouse News)

R.M.S. Titanic Inc., the successor to Titanic Ventures, has enjoyed exclusive salvage rights to the wreckage since 1994, pursuant to admiralty litigation in the Eastern District of Virginia over which Judge Smith has long presided.

The Atlanta firm first began taking stock of the Titanic's remains in 1987, two years after its discovery by a joint U.S.-French expedition 2.5 miles below the ocean surface and 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

In seeking permission to cut into the corroded roof of the Titanic’s deck house so it can retrieve the telegraph machine with the use of an unmanned submersible, RMST promises minimal damage to either the remains of the 1,500 who perished in the sinking or the wreckage itself.

Though RMST failed to get the court's permission to cut into the wreck back in 2000, Smith's latest ruling focuses on evidence from RMST’s engineers that the Titanic wreckage is rapidly deteriorating and on the verge of a full collapse. RMST’s engineers also highlighted the favorable location of the Titanic’s Marconi room beneath an open skylight.

Joseph Mortati, professor of info technology and analytics at American University, told Courthouse News that the room’s placement on the top deck does make recovering the telegraph machine a more manageable feat than the salvage of other iconic artifacts, such as the ship’s grand staircase. 

It is also unlikely that human remains would be found near the machine, Mortati added, since operator Jack Phillips was seen leaving the Marconi room before the ship sank.

Mortati published a 2013 book called "Collision Course — How Good Business Decisions Sank the Titanic and Why.”

“The stories of the two Marconi wireless operators — Jack Phillips and Harold McBride — are well-documented, due in no small part because McBride survived the sinking,” the professor said in an email. “While I think the machine itself has great historical value, I don't see how it better tells this story.”

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