By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN – The long-simmering row about the ownership of the cargo and passengers’ belongings on the wreck of the Lusitania off the south coast will come before the Admiralty division of the High Court this week.
A standoff between the government and the wealthy American owner of the huge liner has been holding up a $2.5 million study of the liner and the mystery surrounding its sinking.
The Lusitania was torpedoed about 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, Co. Cork, by a German U-boat in 1915 as the liner made its way from New York to Liverpool.
The wreck’s owner, New Mexico businessman F. Gregg Bemis Jr., 69, plans to try to solve the 73-year-old puzzle of why the 755-foot Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes after an unexplained secondary explosion.
Of the 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,200 drowned, 128 of them Americans.
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The sinking contributed to the U.S. entering World War I and controversy has raged since about whether the pride of the Cunard fleet was equipped with naval cannon as an “auxiliary cruiser” and was carrying arms and munitions.
The Lusitania was the largest liner afloat at the time and was known as the “Greyhound of the Seas.”
Launched in 1906, she brought the coveted “Blue Riband of the Atlantic” back to Britain after a record 24-knot westbound trip. The title had been held by German liners.
Bemis has established his ownership of the wreck in courts in the U.S., Britain and Dublin, but the issue of the contents has remained unresolved.
In his legal action against the Irish government, the Attorney General and the Office of Public Works, Bemis will seek to establish that he owns the contents as well as the wreck itself.
The two-year-long row has led to accusations by Bemis that the government has been “stonewalling.” He refused to make any comment on the court case from his Santa Fe home last week.
U.S. Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith intervened on his behalf last year.
Bemis has been planning a lengthy diving expedition to the wreck, but has been having difficulties raising money for the venture while the ownership of the contents remains unresolved.
The Lusitania is lying on its side in about 300 feet of water 12 miles off the coast.
Bemis plans to use special equipment, including a pressurized living capsule that would allow divers unprecedented time and access to make a detailed investigation.
With normal techniques, divers can spend only about 15 minutes at a time on the liner. Part of the cost of the dive would come from the sale of the TV rights.
There have been suggestions over the years that the wreck may contain gold bullion or jewelry belonging to wealthy passengers.