Lusitania's owner wins dive case
April 03, 2007
THE mystery surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania may be resolved after the US owner of the Cunard liner won his case to dive on the wreck.
The decision by the Supreme Court in Dublin, the highest court in the Irish Republic, to overturn the refusal for an exploration licence from the Arts and Heritage Ministry clears the way for Gregg Bemis to realise a 40-year dream to uncover what made "the Greyhound of the Sea" sink so fast after it was torpedoed by a German U-boat off southwest Ireland in May 1915.
The Lusitania - which held the speed record for crossing the Atlantic until 1909, when it lost the title to its sister ship, the Mauretania - sank in 18 minutes, taking 1198 people, including 100 children, down with it.
The blast that sank the 241m vessel came from a secondary explosion on the starboard side after the torpedo, fired by U-20, hit the Lusitania under the bridge.
The sinking caused massive controversy because the vessel was carrying civilian passengers between New York and the British port of Liverpool, including wealthy politicians, artists, academics and businessmen.
The captain of the German U-boat, Walther Schwieger, was branded a war criminal, and the furore added to pressure on the US to enter the World War I on Britain's side.
But since the Lusitania sank, 13km off the Old Head of Kinsale, rumours and conspiracy theories have abounded about its fate.
In 1993, Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic, said he believed the dust in the coal bunkers would have been thrown into the air by the vibration from the torpedo impact; the resulting cloud then being ignited by a spark and causing the second explosion.
But that theory has been discounted because of the damp conditions and the sudden rush of seawater into the ship.
The U-boat captain has been accused of lying about the number of torpedoes fired at the stricken vessel.
Marine forensic investigators have suggested there may have been an explosion in the ship's steam-generating plant.
Mr Bemis hopes his court victory will clear the way for the true story to emerge. The venture capitalist from a wealthy food-packaging family suspects the Lusitania was secretly carrying munitions to Britain and that these caused the huge explosion.
Mr Bemis, 78, is planning a dive on the Lusitania, which is lying in 91m of water, this summer.
But his main research will be conducted next year.
"All the equipment I need has already been booked for this year," he told Irish newspapers at the weekend. "There is some work that can be done that I think will be very advantageous to my ultimate dive - preliminary survey work."
The exploration will be complicated because the Lusitania is lying on its ruptured starboard side. Mr Bemis hopes his team can cut through the vessel's port side and make its way down to the damage.
"They will always be under pressure equivalent to the depth of the Lusitania so they can put in shifts of two or three hours working on the bottom," he said.
The court granted Mr Bemis a five-year licence to dive, after a protracted legal battle with the Arts Ministry. The wreck was declared a protected site, placing an underwater heritage order on it to deter treasure hunters.
That was in response to reports that one of the passengers who perished, the art collector Hugh Lane, was transporting paintings by Titian, Monet and Rubens in sealed containers.
Mr Bemis became a co-owner of the wreck in 1968, a year after it was sold for pound stg. 1000 by the Liverpool & London War Risks Insurance Association to John Light, a former US navy diver.
"There was one other bidder: the British Secret Service," Mr Bemis claimed.
"Obviously, they were too cheap to put up the cash."
By 1982, Mr Bemis's two partners in the salvage venture had given up in the face of mounting bills and he bought them out. "We'd spent a lot of money by then," he said. "My kids reckon I'm like a dog with a bone."
The next challenge was in the courts. "Everyone has their point of view. The Irish Government said no one should touch it, but I disagreed. They were in the wrong - it is my property."
Mr Bemis made his first visit to see his property in 2005 at the age of 76, but he is under pressure from his family not to do it again.
"I reckon it might have been an age-depth record," he said.
"I'm an experienced recreational diver so I went down, but was only there for five minutes. But what I saw of her was very beautiful."