US aims to block expedition to recover Titanic's radio

It regards the wreck as a grave site and intends to preserve it that way, asserting who can recover artifacts.
Ameya Paleja
Titanic wreck
Titanic wreck

Wikimedia Commons  

The US government has approached the District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, to block a proposed expedition to the Titanic wreck site planned for May next year, The New York Times reported. The expedition, planned by a Georgia-based firm, aims to recover the Marconi telegraph wireless machine that sent out the distress signals on the fateful night in 1912.

Back in 1985, when the wreck of the ocean liner was first spotted, the US Congress called for a global accord to formalize norms for access to the wreck, which became a grave site for more than 1,500 people. Along with the US, the UK, France, and Canada deliberated on the terms of the accord.

More than three decades later, the countries have not come to an agreement. Only the US and the UK ended up in an agreement that prohibited anybody from carrying out research, exploration, salvage, or any other activity that would disturb the wreck site (which lies in international waters) without permission from the US Secretary of Commerce.

US aims to block expedition to recover Titanic's radio
Representation of telegraph machine

Deviation from the norm

The accord between the two nations goes against the norm of maritime law, where finders of the wreck normally salvage all the cargo. Interestingly, in the case of the Titanic, the French-American company that discovered the wreck did not want salvage rights. This presented an opportunity for others to move in and Georgia-based RMS Titanic Inc. gained exclusive salvage rights in 1994.

Since then, the company has recovered thousands of artifacts that have been seen by millions around the globe. In May 2020, the company secured court permission to salvage the Marconi wireless telegraph machine on the grounds that it was "historically and culturally important," AP News reported. Recovering it from the wreck site would prevent it from decay and contribute to the legacy of the sunken ship.

The US opposition

The government had then opposed the expedition, which never took place due to resulting complications from the coronavirus pandemic. Now, as the company plans another expedition to recover the machine from the radio room, the US government has filed its opposition in the court again.

On its part, the company states that it works to "preserve the memory and legacy of the Titanic" and has a clear plan to recover the device without damaging it. An uncrewed submersible will enter the ship through the broken skylight or cut through the roof, which is already corroded.

The radio is located in the deckhouse near the grand staircase. The company then plans to use a suction dredge to remove the silt and manipulator arms will cut the electrical cords, facilitating recovery. It also wants to exhibit the radio alongside stories of people who sent out the distress calls.

RMS Titanic states that it will work in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees the wreck, but the government is adamant that it needs a permit to proceed and approached the Norfolk court to enforce one.

Not only does the government believe that the recovery will physically alter the wreckage, but the company's refusal to comply also hurts the US reputation in implementing a "global" accord.

RMS Titanic has not filed its reply in court yet, but experts believe a legal battle could last many years.

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