December 8, 2023

The company that owns the salvage rights to the Titanic shipwreck has cancelled plans to retrieve more artefacts from the site because the leader of the upcoming expedition died in the Titan submersible implosion, according to documents filed in a US district court this week.

The decision could affect a looming court battle between the company and the US government, which has been trying to stop the 2024 mission. US attorneys have said the firm’s original plans to enter the ship’s hull would violate a federal law that treats the wreck as a gravesite.

Frenchman Paul-Henri Nargeolet was the director of underwater research for RMS Titanic Inc (RMST), the Georgia-based firm that recovers and exhibits Titanic artefacts. Nargeolet was lending his expertise to a separate company, OceanGate, when he and four others died on the Titan’s final dive near the Titanic in the north Atlantic in June.

Before Titan’s tragic dive, RMST planned to take images inside and outside the wreck. The firm also wanted to retrieve items from the debris field as well as freestanding objects within the sunken ocean liner.

Nargeolet was supposed to be in charge. The former French navy officer had already completed 37 dives and supervised the recovery of about 5,000 Titanic artefacts. RMST’s exhibits have displayed items ranging from silverware to a piece of the ship’s hull.

The company’s original 2024 expedition plan also included possibly retrieving objects from the ship’s famed Marconi room. That’s where the Titanic’s radio transmitter broadcast increasingly frantic distress signals after the ocean liner hit an iceberg.

The messages in morse code were picked up by other ships and receiving stations onshore, which helped to save the lives of about 700 people who managed to flee in lifeboats. There were 2,208 passengers and crew on the Titanic’s 1912 doomed maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York.

The company said on Wednesday in its court filing that its plans now only include imaging at the wreck site and surveys to refine “future artifact recovery”.

“Out of respect for PH Nargeolet and his family, and the other four people who perished so recently at the site, and their families, the company has decided that artifact recovery would not be appropriate at this time,” the firm wrote.

RMST also said it will not send another crewed submersible to the Titanic until “further investigation takes place regarding the cause of the [OceanGate] tragedy”. The US Coast Guard is leading the probe into the Titan’s implosion.

The court case hinges on federal law and a pact between the US and Britain to treat the sunken Titanic as a memorial to the more than 1,500 people who died.

In August, the US argued in court filings that entering the Titanic’s severed hull – or physically altering or disturbing the wreck – is regulated by the law and its agreement with Britain. Among the government’s concerns was the possible disturbance of artefacts and any human remains that may still exist.

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