Clues to horrific WWI ship attack lost in operation

Photo dated 25/12/1911 of the Lusitania moored in the Mersey.
Photo dated 25/12/1911 of the Lusitania moored in the Mersey.

A telegraph machine from the Lusitania, thought to hold vital clues to its sinking after being torpedoed, has been lost during an unsupervised recovery operation, it has emerged.

Questions have been raised by a parliamentary watchdog as to why a diver was allowed to carry out the botched recovery without an archaeologist.

The Cunard British cruise liner, the largest ship in the world when built, was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Co Cork on May 7 1915 – killing 1,201 people.

Its wreck, 11 nautical miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, is regarded as a war grave and protected under Ireland’s National Monuments Acts.

Terry Allen of the National Monuments Service told a parliamentary committee in Dublin that a telegraph from the wreck was lost during a dive on July 13 last year.

The operation was carried out by deep-sea diver Eoin McGarry, on behalf of the US businessman Gregg Bemis, who owns the wreck.

Mr Allen said the telegraph was sent to the surface using a lift bag while the telegraph’s pedestal was separately tied on to a shot line and hauled up.

The lift bag, which was tested prior to use and found to be fine, had in fact been punctured with “a pin hole”.

“Essentially the lift bag burst and the telegraph itself went back to the bottom,” he said. A number of attempts to locate it 90 metres below the surface have failed.

Mr Allen told the committee the loss would have happened with or without an archaeologist present, as is usually the case under regulations protecting the wreck.

Peadar Toibin, chairman of the parliamentary committee, said the Lusitania was one of the most important wrecks of Ireland and that the decision to allow a dive without supervision was a “significant break” in standard procedure.

Among the liner’s 1,266 passengers and around 696 crew, there were 129 children, of whom 94 died as the ship, sailing from New York, sank in just 18 minutes. The cause of a second explosion on the ship is still being investigated.

The ship’s captain, William Turner, who survived, received messages on the morning of the disaster that there were submarines in the area, and altered course.

Mr Toibin said the minister has “questions to answer” as to why there was a “clear break” in strict oversight rules in the botched recovery dive in May.

“This dive resulted in damage to an important historical and archaeological object and its subsequent loss,” he said.