Norfolk, Virginia Plans to recover the Titanic’s radio transmitter have sparked renewed debate about what to do if experts stumble upon human remains amid the ruins of the ship sunk in 1912.
The company in charge of the wreck relics, RMS Titanic Inc., wants to show the public the Marconi wireless radio transmitter, from which the crew called for help after crashing into an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean.
But lawyers for the US government object, insisting that the expedition could desecrate what is an accidental grave.
“1,500 people perished there,” said Paul Johnston, curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. “Nobody is going to convince me that there is no possibility that there, in some deep hole safe from the currents, some human remains.
The company has plans to dispatch a submersible probe that can negotiate narrow openings or saw through thick metal to reach the booth where the radio is. A suction mechanism would clear the accumulated sediment and a mechanical arm could cut power lines.
RMS Titanic Inc. maintains that if human remains were there, they would have already been discovered. There have been more than 200 expeditions to the Titanic wreckage since they were discovered in 1985.
“It is not comparable to digging on the Gettysburg battlefield,” said David Gallo, an oceanographer who works as a consultant to the company. “In addition, there is an informal rule that if we find human remains we immediately suspend work and meet to decide what to do.”
The dispute stems from a long-standing debate about how to honor the memory of the victims of that historic shipwreck, and whether divers should be allowed inside the ship at all.
In May, a federal judge in Norfolk, Virginia, approved the expedition.
Judge Rebecca Beach Smith determined that the rescue of the radio “will contribute to the legacy left by the irreparable loss of the Titanic, by those who survived and those who lost their lives.”
But the US government appealed the decision in June, claiming the expedition would violate federal law and violate an agreement with Britain in which the parties agreed to declare the ruins a heritage site. Lawyers for the US government argue that the agreement establishes guidelines so that the ship’s hull, the relics found inside and any human remains remain intact.