The U.S. government has moved to block any effort to take relics from the wreckage of the RMS Titanic, casting in doubt a planned summer expedition to salvage the sunken ocean liner’s telegraph machine.
The company that controls the underwater ruins, R.M.S. Titanic Inc., won approval from a judge last month to attempt to remove the Marconi telegraph that was used to radio for help when the ocean liner sunk in 1912. But the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is hoping to intervene in the case and forestall the mission.
The company, RMST, won control over the wreckage two decades ago, by bringing artifacts from the site of the Titanic to a federal court in Norfolk. For many years, the United States has operated in the case as a “friend of the court” — able to make arguments but with no standing to appeal a ruling. When RMST presented its plan to recover the Marconi, the government argued that the wreck should be left undisturbed as a gravesite for the 1,500 who drowned there.
Judge Rebecca Beach Smith sided with the company, writing that “poignant” photographs of the wreck’s ongoing deterioration “combined with the historical and cultural importance of the Marconi artifacts” convinced her a salvage attempt was necessary.
Now the government wants to be able to challenge the removal of the Marconi on appeal.
“The United States has a role to protect the interests of the Titanic,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kent Porter wrote in a filing Monday.
At issue is whether an international agreement to protect the Titanic as a memorial site is enforceable. That agreement would require anyone seeking to “conduct any research, exploration, salvage, or other activity that would physically alter or disturb the wreck or wreck site of the RMS Titanic” to get approval from the U.S. commerce secretary.
The United States says the agreement is enforceable because it was signed by Britain in 2003 and approved in a congressional spending bill in 2017. RMST disputes that, saying the treaty was never properly ratified and conflicts with their salvage rights under maritime laws whose origins date back thousands of years.
“In the practice of the United States, acceptance may be used instead of ratification when, at a national level, constitutional law does not require the treaty to be ratified by the Senate,” Porter wrote.
An attorney for RMST said the company is reviewing the filing and will respond in writing.
In a statement after Smith’s ruling in May, RMST President Bretton Hunchak said: “We remain dedicated to sharing the legacy of the Ship and her passengers with the public. Without the recovery, conservation and display of these artifacts, the ability to experience firsthand additional significant historic artifacts would be limited to only an exclusive group, those who have the privilege and economic means to travel to the wreck site.”