The company that owns the salvage rights to the Titanic shipwreck has canceled plans to recover more artifacts from the site because the leader of the upcoming expedition died in the implosion of the Titanic submersible, according to documents filed Wednesday with filed in a U.S. District Court.
The decision could have implications for a looming court battle between the company and the U.S. government, which is trying to stop the 2024 mission. U.S. attorneys said the company’s original plans to penetrate the ship’s hull would violate a federal law that treats the wreck as a burial site.
Paul-Henri Nargeolet was head of underwater research for RMS Titanic, Inc, the Georgia-based company that recovers and displays Titanic artifacts. Nargeolet was lending his expertise to a separate company, OceanGate, when he and four others died near the Titanic on Titan’s final dive in June.
Before the tragic dive, RMST planned to take images inside and outside the wreck. The company also wanted to recover items from the debris field as well as detached items from the sunken ocean liner.
Nargeolet should be in charge. The former French naval officer had already completed 37 dives and oversaw the recovery of around 5,000 Titanic artifacts. RMST’s exhibits featured items ranging from silverware to a portion of the ship’s hull.
The company’s original 2024 expedition plan also included the possible recovery of items from the ship’s famous Marconi Room. There, the Titanic’s radio broadcast increasingly frantic distress signals after the ocean liner struck an iceberg.
The Morse messages were received by other ships and receiving stations on land, helping to save the lives of about 700 people who escaped in lifeboats. On Titanic’s only voyage from Southampton, England, to New York, there were 2,208 passengers and crew.
The company said in its lawsuit Wednesday that its plans currently only include imaging at the wreck site and surveys to refine “future artifact recovery.”
“Out of respect for PH Nargeolet and his family, as well as the other four people who recently died at the site and their families, the company has determined that recovering artifacts would not be appropriate at this time,” the company wrote.
RMST also said it would not send another manned submersible to the Titanic until “further investigation into the cause of the (OceanGate) tragedy is conducted.” The US Coast Guard is leading the probe into the implosion of the Titan.
Meanwhile, it is unclear how the change in plans might affect the burgeoning legal battle between RMST and the U.S. government. The company’s filing appears to indicate that it no longer plans to enter the ship’s hull, which the government says would be a violation of the law.
A hearing was scheduled for Friday afternoon in the U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, which has jurisdiction over Titanic salvage matters.
“Today’s filing underscores that we take our responsibilities seriously,” RMST CEO Jessica Sanders said in a statement.
“In light of the OceanGate tragedy, the loss of our dear colleague Paul-Henri ‘PH’ Nargeolet and the ongoing investigation, we have decided to amend our previous application to only undertake unmanned imaging and survey work at this time,” she said.
Lawyers for the U.S. government did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The lawsuit hinges on federal law and a pact between the U.S. and Britain that calls for the sunken Titanic to be treated as a memorial to the more than 1,500 people who died.
In August, the US argued in court papers that entering the Titanic’s severed hull – or physically altering or disturbing the wreck – was regulated by the law and its agreement with Britain. The government’s concerns included the possible destruction of artifacts and possible remaining human remains.
The company has not directly responded to the government’s demands in court. But in previous cases, RMST has challenged the constitutionality of U.S. efforts to “violate” its salvage rights to a wreck in international waters. The firm has argued that only the Norfolk court has jurisdiction, citing centuries-old precedent in maritime law.
In a filing with the court earlier this year, RMST said it had no plans to seek government approval for its original expedition plans. But those plans have changed.
The company said Wednesday it “will not recover any artifacts or undertake any other activities that would physically alter or disturb the wreckage at this time.”