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The Marconi wireless telegraph was still a relatively new piece of technology in 1912 and after it had broken down the night before, its senior operator Jack Phillips was struggling to clear a backlog of radio messages for first-class passengers and crew. Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of requests, a frazzled Phillips, 25, put to one side an alert from the Mesaba ship warning of a nearby ice field. “Shut up! I am busy,” he shot back, failing to notify the bridge. That decision would ultimately prove disastrous.
Two hours later, at 11.40pm Titanic time, the British luxury ocean liner on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and started taking on water.
Under Captain Edward J Smith’s orders, Jack and fellow operator Harold Bride sent a series of increasingly frantic distress signals to neighbouring ships. “Come at once. We have struck a berg. It’s a CQD (meaning All Stations, Distress) old man”, they tapped in morse code at 12.20am, later pleading: “Women and children in boats. Cannot last much longer. Losing power”.
Titanic’s final appeal: “Come quick. Engine room nearly full” was made shortly before its lights went out and the power failed.
At 2.17am on April 15, the 52,310-ton ship hailed as “unsinkable” snapped in two and plunged to the seabed, taking with it more than 1,500 poor souls. The 705 individuals rescued by the SS Carpathia one hour later some 370 miles off Newfoundland, Canada, would have perished too were it not for the wireless messages.
Now, this historic piece of equipment lies at the centre of an increasingly bitter international row over whether it should be retrieved from the disintegrating Titanic amid accusations of grave-robbing and piracy.
US company RMS Titanic Inc (RMST), sole holder of the shipwreck’s salvage rights since 1996, warns the wireless sits beneath the roof of the Silent Room in the Marconi Suite, which is “expected to collapse” within the next few years. It plans to use remotely operated vehicles to “surgically remove” the machine through a skylight in its perforated roof, near the ship’s grand staircase.
US district judge Rebecca Beach Smith granted RMST expedition permission in May, overturning a 2000 court order that forbade it to slice into the shipwreck or detach any part. At that time the firm had been on the hunt for diamonds.
Titanic expert Parks Stephenson, who visited the site in 2005, 2010 and 2019, and whose report was cited by RMST in legal documents, told the Daily Express the decking is now “paper thin” and Titanic’s “voice” is historically significant enough to be saved, with a unique spark he is “100 per cent” sure can be heard again.
“I am not the least bit interested in bringing up a crate of the dinnerware,” he says. “I want to save something that, when the wreck is gone and people ask ‘Is this story true?’, you can show them the remains ofthe vessel.”
Once recovered and restored, the wireless will be displayed at RMST’s Titanic Museum in Las Vegas before touring the world. It will join the 5,500 artefacts salvaged between 1987 and 2004 including diaries, jewellery, clothing and a chunk of the hull.
“Ultimately, the Marconi radio system remains an unsung hero, responsible for countless generations of families that exist only because the radio cried out on behalf of their ancestors,” RMST President Bretton Hunchak said in a statement. “For that reason, we must recover this incredible piece of history, to rescue the radio that saved 705 lives from being taken from the world that fateful night.”
Not everyone agrees. “Leave it alone,” Warren Ervine, 86, bellows down the phone from his home in Nova Scotia, Canada. “I don’t like people fooling around with a grave site.”
The retired geological engineer is the nephew of Belfast-born Albert Ervine, 18, the youngest member of the Titanic engineering team who helped to keep the lifeboats’ electric winches working and the sinking ship’s lights on until the last possible moment. British coal stoker Frederick Barrett testified to the men’s bravery in court after surviving the disaster.
Albert, the older brother of Warren’s father, is a hero in his nephew’s eyes. Warren objects to Titanic being disturbed and is scornful of claims it is for educational purposes. “I have a doctorate degree and I am not stupid,” he sneers. “That is just a smokescreen. They want to make money off it.”
His opinion is shared by Briton Dr John Martin, the great nephew of Dr John Edward Simpson, Titanic’s assistant surgeon who left behind a wife and son at the age of 37.
John, who is in his early 70s, questions the cultural significance of retrieving the wireless, now heavily corroded by rust.
“How will it advance scientific knowledge one iota?” he says. “It is the radio messages and not the equipment that are important. We have those messages.
“The profiteers will leave behind a scar and an invitation for further similar raiders who will exploit the precedent.”
It is not just descendants who are fearful of a new rush on Titanic and its treasures. A UK-US treaty was introduced in January this year to protect the site and in June, the US Government blocked Judge Smith’s ruling, foiling RMST hopes for an August expedition.
The UK Government says Titanic lies within America’s “jurisdiction” and “it is for the US to enforce the treaty according to their legislation”.
Belfast East MP Gavin Robinson has likened the “pilfer and pillage” operation to piracy while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which monitors the wreck, filed the legal challenge against RMST this year.
In 2012, NOAA director of maritime heritage James P Delgado, who had visited the wreck 33 times, pointed out “there are people inside”.
RMST has disputed the possibility of this claim but relatives who are fearful of their loved ones’ final resting place being disturbed include New Yorkers John Locascio, 66, and his wife Angelica Harris. “Maybe by cutting into that ceiling you could be cutting into the remains of someone who was lying there,” says Angelica, niece by marriage of Alberto and Sebastiano Peracchio.
The two Italian brothers were waiters in the ship’s à la carte restaurant, catering for the richest of the first-class passengers.
Aged just 20 and 17, and hopeful of a new life in America, they were ordered to remain below deck in their cabins until they were needed up above.
“Maybe it is my uncle’s body lying on top of that ceiling,” Angelica says. “Maybe one of them got out and was trying to swim out and ended up coming to rest on that site.”
She has written a book about Alberto and Sebastiano’s story called Titanic The Brothers Peracchio – Two Boys and a Dream. It was inspired by a conversation with her future uncle by marriage, Modesto, when she was 19 and saw a picture of the two boys at his dinner table. He was four when his older brothers died and grew up knowing little about them.
“It was kind of a taboo subject,” John remembers. “But as time went on my father wishes he could have more information about his brothers and exactly what happened to them.”
An increasing number of questions encircle Titanic’s ghostly hulk. The central dilemma is whether the ruin should be mined for artefacts to unlock vital secrets before it is too late – some experts estimate Titanic will disappear within the next 30 years – or be left alone entirely.
Interest began to grow after oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the ship in 1985, super-charged by director James Cameron’s 1997 Hollywood blockbuster, Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
Millvina Dean, Titanic’s last survivor, died in 2009 aged 97 and although official Titanic societies exist for descendants in Canada, the US and the UK, there are countless more enthusiasts hungry for information about the world’s most famous ship.
“With all due deference to the families, and I don’t want to sound cruel in saying this, Titanic does not belong to us, it does not belong to our generation, it has an enduring attraction among the world,” says Parks, who disagrees with the grave site designation.
He maintains he has never seen bodies down there and says he knows of no other shipwreck “given as much consideration as Titanic” internationally. “We actually have a responsibility to salvage what we can for future generations when this wreck ultimately degrades back to its natural state and nature, which it’s doing now and it’s an unstoppable process,” he says.
Don Lynch, historian for the Titanic Historical Society and official historian on the 1997 Titanic movie, disagrees. He describes RMST’s earliest salvage operations as “a mess” when items were allegedly not documented properly and divers were “grabbing things”.
He adds: “It’s like the Egyptian tombs being raided by plunderers rather thanby archaeologists.”
RMST’s parent company Premier Exhibitions went bankrupt four years ago and, now backed by private equity, is under new management led by Bretton Hunchak.
Susie Millar, President of the Belfast Titanic Society, believes that change is important – she had a change of heart after meeting Hunchak and his team earlier this year.
“What swung it for me is one of the divers said, ‘If we don’t go down and get these things, someone will do it who won’t have as much respect’,” she says. Her great-grandfather Thomas Millar, 33, was Titanic’s sole deck engineer, a widower who left behind two orphans aged five and 11.
Titanic tour operator Susie hopes the wireless will be loaned to Belfast’s world-famous Titanic Museum in the future. “That is for the greater good of this city,” she says.
“I told Bretton my dream scenario is there is a piece of Titanic hull sitting on the slipways where she was built and he didn’t baulk at that.”
Perhaps a piece of Titanic could yet be reunited with the place that is truly her home.
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