NORFOLK, Va. –
The US government is trying to stop a planned expedition to recover historical artifacts from the sunken Titanic, citing federal law and an international treaty that treats the shipwreck as a sacred burial site.
The expedition is organized by RMS Titanic Inc., the Georgia-based company that owns the salvage rights to the world's most famous shipwreck. The company is exhibiting artifacts recovered from the wreck site at the bottom of the North Atlantic, from silver cutlery to part of Titanic's hull.
The government's challenge comes more than two months after the submersible Titan imploded near the sunken ocean liner, killing five people. However, this lawsuit has nothing to do with the June tragedy, which involved a different company and an unconventionally designed ship.
The dispute in the US District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, which has jurisdiction over Titanic's salvage, instead hinges on federal law and a pact with Britain to treat the sunken Titanic as a memorial to the more than 1,500 who died. The ship hit an iceberg in 1912 and sank.
The US argues that entering Titanic's severed hull – or physically altering or disturbing the wreck – is governed by federal law and its agreement with the UK. Government concerns include the possible destruction of artifacts and human remains that may still exist.
“RMST is not at liberty to violate this federal statute as it is enacted, but that is its stated intention,” US attorneys argued in court documents filed Friday. They added that the shipwreck “is being stripped of the protections afforded to it by Congress.”
According to a report filed with the court in June, RMST's expedition is likely scheduled for May 2024.
The company said it plans to take pictures of the entire wreck. This includes the inside of the wreck, where the decay has created enough chasms to allow a remote-controlled vehicle to enter the hull without affecting the current structure.
RMST said it will recover artifacts from the debris field and “possibly recover freestanding objects in the wreck”. This could include “items from the Marconi space, but only if such items are not attached to the wreck itself.”
The Marconi Room houses the ship's radio – a wireless Marconi telegraph device – which broadcast Titanic's increasingly frantic distress signals after the ocean liner struck an iceberg. Written in Morse code, the messages were received by other ships and receiving stations ashore and helped save the lives of about 700 people who had escaped in lifeboats. There were 2,208 passengers and crew on Titanic's maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York.
“At this time the company has no intention of cutting into the wreck or severing any part of the wreck,” RMST said.
The company said it will work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US agency representing the public interest in the wreck. However, RMST said it has no intention of seeking a permit.
US government attorneys said the company could not proceed without such a process, arguing that RMST requires approval from the US Secretary of Commerce, which oversees NOAA.
The company has not filed a statement of defense in court. But in previous cases it has challenged the constitutionality of US efforts to “violate” its salvage rights to a wreck in international waters. The firm has argued that only the Norfolk court has jurisdiction, citing centuries of precedent in maritime law.
RMST reiterated that stance in a statement to The Associated Press on Tuesday, noting that the court granted its salvage rights three decades ago. Since then, the company says it has recovered and preserved thousands of Titanic artifacts that have been seen by millions.
“The company will continue its work and respectfully preserve the memory and legacy of Titanic, its passengers and crew for future generations,” RMST said.
In 2020, the US government and RMST engaged in a near-identical legal battle over a planned expedition that could have led to the wreck. However, the procedure was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic and was never fully carried out.
The company's plan at the time was to retrieve the radio, which was located in a deckhouse near the grand staircase. An unscrewed sub was supposed to slip through a skylight or cut through the badly corroded roof. A “suction dredger” would remove loose mud while manipulator arms could cut power cables.
The company said it will be displaying the radio along with stories about the men listening to 911 calls “until the seawater literally sloshed at their feet.”
In May 2020, US District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith granted RMST permission, writing that the radio was historically and culturally important and may soon fall into disrepair. Smith wrote that the restoration of the telegraph would “add to the legacy left by the indelible loss of Titanic, those who survived and those who lost their lives in the sinking”.
A few weeks later, the US government filed an official lawsuit against the 2020 Expedition, but it never happened. Due to complications caused by the pandemic, the company indefinitely postponed its plans in early 2021.