A salvage firm that has retrieved artefacts from the Titanic wants to recover from its wreckage the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Machine that transmitted the doomed ship’s distress calls.
Lawyers for RMS Titanic called witnesses before a US federal judge to explain why the company should be allowed to possibly cut into the rapidly deteriorating ship to recover the device before it is irretrievable.
“It’s one of those iconic artefacts, like the signal flares (that the sinking ship launched),” said David Gallo, an oceanographer who retired from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and is now a paid consultant for the firm.
Mr Gallo, who appeared at federal court in Norfolk, Virginia, said that salvaging the device would not be “grave robbery” but a way to connect people to the ship’s legacy and honour its passengers.
US District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith, the maritime jurist who presides over Titanic salvage matters, said it was too early for her to make any decisions on the proposal.
She said she needed more details and proposed scheduling another hearing sometime in the future.
The Titanic was travelling from England to New York when it struck an iceberg at 11.40pm local time on April 14 1912.
The large and luxurious ocean liner sent out distress signals using the relatively new Marconi wireless radio system.
The messages in Morse code were picked up by other ships and onshore receiving stations.
They included: “We require immediate assistance”, “Have struck iceberg and sinking” and “We are putting women off in boats.”
The ship sank in less than three hours, with the loss of all but 700 of the 2,208 passengers and crew.
An international team led by oceanographer Robert Ballard located the wreckage in 1985 on the North Atlantic seabed, about 400 miles off Newfoundland, Canada.
RMS Titanic oversees a collection of thousands of items recovered from the site over the years as the court-recognised salvor, or steward of the artefacts.
The company has argued that time is running out to retrieve the telegraph machine.
It has been referred to as “the voice” of the Titanic, which also delivered the ship’s last words.
The device is located in a room on the ship’s deck.
A gymnasium on the other side of the grand staircase has already collapsed.
The roof above the telegraph machine has begun to perforate.
“I’m not sure if we go in 2020 that the roof won’t be collapsed on everything,” said Paul Henry Nargeolet, director of the company’s underwater research programme.
The company is already facing resistance from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which represents the public’s interest in the wreck site.
The US Attorney’s Office in Virginia represents NOAA.
Its lawyers argued in court documents that the proposed retrieval runs contrary to prior court orders that prohibit the firm from cutting holes or taking items from the wreck.
The items that the firm has salvaged, including silverware, china and gold coins, came from a debris field outside the ship.
“It seems clear that this is not simply a ‘one-off’ proposal for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph, but a placeholder for future requests to take similar actions in order to recover other artefacts from inside the wreck,” federal lawyer Kent P Porter wrote.
Mr Porter also wrote that the court must consider international agreements involving the wreck as well as archaeological standards to determine whether the retrieval is justified.
He cited the United Kingdom-based Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee, which said the company has failed to adequately justify its proposal.
Karen Kamuda, president of the Massachusetts-based Titanic Historical Society, said the society “has been against disturbing the wreck since 1985 because it is a grave site”.
“As usual, it’s all about money,” she wrote.