The U.S. government is trying to stop a planned expedition to recover items of historical interest from the sunken Titanic, citing a federal law and an international agreement that treat the shipwreck as a hallowed gravesite.
The expedition is being organized by RMS Titanic Inc., the Georgia-based firm that owns the salvage rights to the world’s most famous shipwreck. The company exhibits artifacts that have been recovered from the wreck site at the bottom of the North Atlantic, from silverware to a piece of the Titanic’s hull.
The government’s challenge comes more than two months after the Titan submersible imploded near the sunken ocean liner, killing five people. But this legal fight has nothing to do with the June tragedy, which involved a different company and an unconventionally designed vessel.
The battle in the U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, which oversees Titanic salvage matters, hinges instead on federal law and a pact with Great Britain to treat the sunken Titanic as a memorial to the more than 1,500 people who died. The ship hit an iceberg and sank in 1912.
The White Star Line passenger liner R.M.S. Titanic embarking on its ill-fated maiden voyage. (Credit: Getty Images)
The U.S. argues that entering the Titanic’s severed hull — or physically altering or disturbing the wreck — is regulated by federal law and its agreement with Britain. Among the government’s concerns is the possible disturbance of artifacts and any human remains that may still exist.
"RMST is not free to disregard this validly enacted federal law, yet that is its stated intent," U.S. lawyers argued in court documents filed Friday. They added that the shipwreck "will be deprived of the protections Congress granted it."
RMST’s expedition is tentatively planned for May 2024, according to a report it filed with the court in June.
The company said it plans to take images of the entire wreck. That includes "inside the wreck where deterioration has opened chasms sufficient to permit a remotely operated vehicle to penetrate the hull without interfering with the current structure."
RMST said it would recover artifacts from the debris field and "may recover free-standing objects inside the wreck." Those could include "objects from inside the Marconi room, but only if such objects are not affixed to the wreck itself."
The Marconi room holds the ship’s radio — a Marconi wireless telegraph machine — which broadcast the Titanic’s increasingly frantic distress signals after the ocean liner hit an iceberg. The messages in Morse code were picked up by other ships and onshore receiving stations, helping to save the lives of about 700 people who fled in life boats. There had been 2,208 passengers and crew on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, from Southampton, England, to New York.
"At this time, the company does not intend to cut into the wreck or detach any part of the wreck," RMST stated.
The company said it would "work collaboratively" with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. agency that represents the public’s interest in the wreck. But RMST said it does not intend to seek a permit.
U.S. government lawyers said the firm can’t proceed without one, arguing that RMST needs approval from the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, who oversees NOAA.
The company has not filed a response in court. But in previous cases, it has challenged the constitutionality of U.S. efforts to "infringe" on its salvage rights to a wreck in international waters. The firm has argued that only the court in Norfolk has jurisdiction, and points to 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 firm said it has recovered and conserved thousands of Titanic artifacts, which millions of people have seen.
"The company will continue its work, respectfully preserving the memory and legacy of Titanic, her passengers and crew for the future generations," RMST said.
In 2020, the U.S. government and RMST engaged in a nearly identical legal battle over a proposed expedition that could have cut into the wreck. But the proceedings were cut short by the coronavirus pandemic and never fully played out.
The company’s plan then was to retrieve the radio, which sits in a deck house near the grand staircase. An uncrewed submersible was to slip through a skylight or cut the heavily corroded roof. A "suction dredge" would remove loose silt, while manipulator arms could cut electrical cords.
The company said it would exhibit the radio along with stories of the men who tapped out distress calls "until seawater was literally lapping at their feet."
In May 2020, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith gave RMST permission, writing that the radio is historically and culturally important and could soon be lost to decay. Smith wrote that recovering the telegraph would "contribute to the legacy left by the indelible loss of the Titanic, those who survived, and those who gave their lives in the sinking."
A few weeks later, the U.S. government filed an official legal challenge against the 2020 expedition, which never happened. The firm indefinitely delayed its plans in early 2021 because of complications wrought by the pandemic.