Protecting its sunken treasure

Sun Journal

Titanic: The company with exclusive salvaging rights to the wreckage wants the Supreme Court to restrict others from visiting the site.

August 30, 1999|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Lying in the cold and dark, on the hostile bottom of the Atlantic 2 1/2 miles down, the wreckage of the Titanic hardly seems like a scene where sightseers would gather.

But the broken hull of the famous White Star Line luxury steamship has been visited more than five times, and a wildly popular Hollywood movie has made the site even more appealing to the curious. Now, access to the scene has become a legal dispute awaiting a reaction from the U.S. Supreme Court.

R.M.S. Titanic Inc., the New York-based company that has gained exclusive rights to the wreck, wants the Supreme Court to put the hull and the area around it off-limits to everyone else, from anywhere in the world, unless they visit with the company's supervision.

One expedition of explorers visited the scene a year ago, without R.M.S. Titanic's approval, and other ocean exploration companies are known to be interested in similar trips. R.M.S. Titanic has made five trips to the site to explore and salvage. The trip down is dangerous, possible only in deep submersibles, but there are still those who want to make it.

If the Supreme Court does what R.M.S. Titanic wants -- the justices have not even agreed to hear the company's appeal -- the court would extend its legal reach to unusual lengths, imposing restrictions on activity at a site 350 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.

That is where the Titanic went down, the night of April 14, 1912, after hitting an iceberg while on its maiden voyage, sailing from Southampton, England, en route to New York.

The 882-foot, 46,300-ton vessel, flying the British flag and thought to be unsinkable, sank in less than three hours. The disaster took the lives of 1,522 people. A total of 705 were rescued, picked up from the ship's 20 lifeboats by the Cunard ocean liner Carpathia.

The wreckage of the Titanic, and the ocean graveyard where it lies, are considered to be of major historical and scientific significance. After the wreck was found in 1985, Congress passed a law to encourage its preservation as a maritime memorial and to try to prevent a free-for-all to recover artifacts.

No human remains have been recovered, and none have been seen by salvaging crews, said Michelle Rollman, assistant to the president of R.M.S. Titanic.

The company has retrieved about 5,000 objects, ranging from love letters to currency to ship's papers to delicate porcelain dishes. In addition, a 20-ton piece of the hull has been recovered. The hull piece and many of the artifacts are on exhibit at the Tropicana Hotel in Atlantic City. The traveling exhibit has been seen in other U.S. cities and in four foreign countries -- far less exposure, of course, than the hit movie "Titanic" has had.

There appears to be no way, with existing techniques, that the entire wreck of the vessel can be brought to the surface and salvaged. "There are no plans to retrieve anything larger" than the 20-ton section brought up, Rollman said.

The wreckage has been extensively photographed and videotaped, and the scene has been the subject of a live television broadcast from the wreck site.

To nonlawyers, it might be surprising that American courts would have anything to say about what happens to the Titanic. But the law of the sea -- and, especially, the law of salvaging shipwrecks -- has a global reach and must be implemented in some court. American courts, like those of other nations, can apply the law of salvage if they can obtain jurisdiction over a shipwreck.

Since 1993, R.M.S. Titanic has been having some success in gaining and protecting salvage rights with lawsuits in an American court, the U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Va. That court, with a single wine decanter recovered from the Titanic standing on a courtroom table as evidence that the ship itself was symbolically in court, found that it had jurisdiction to settle rights to the wreckage.

The judge in that court, J. Calvitt Clarke Jr., not only gave R.M.S. Titanic Inc. exclusive salvage rights and ownership of anything recovered, but also barred anyone but that company from coming within 10 miles of the site.

In addition, Clarke barred anyone else from going down to look at the wreck or the site, from taking photos, or making any videotape of the scene. In effect, that set up a protective zone covering 168 square miles of the North Atlantic Ocean.

The judge said that allowing anyone else to take pictures "is akin to allowing another salvor to physically invade the wreck and take artifacts themselves."

But in March, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a ruling written by Judge Paul V. Niemeyer of Baltimore, partly overturned Clarke's order.

R.M.S. Titanic lost the right to control viewing, photography and videotaping of the site -- a right the company argues is commercially valuable and something it needs to produce revenue to help pay for its salvaging efforts.

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