RICHMOND (AP).- The company with exclusive rights to salvage the Titanic is entitled to full compensation for artifacts worth about $110 million that it has recovered in a half-dozen perilous expeditions to the famous shipwreck, a federal judge has ruled.
However, U.S. District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith's ruling late Thursday did not determine how RMS Titanic Inc. will be paid. She said she could take up to a year to decide whether to give RMS title to the approximately 5,900 artifacts or sell them and turn the proceeds over to the company.
Meanwhile, RMS will retain possession of the items, which its Atlanta-based parent company Premier Exhibitions Inc. has been displaying in exhibitions around the world. The artifacts include pieces of china, ship fittings and personal belongings.
"The company is extremely pleased with the ruling, which reflects a thoughtful, deliberate approach to this case as well as the judge's deep concern over the long-term well-being of the Titanic artifacts," RMS attorney Brian Wainger said in a telephone interview.
The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage on April 12, 1912, killing more than 1,500 of the 2,228 passengers and crew. An international team led by oceanographer Robert Ballard located the wreckage on the North Atlantic floor about 400 miles off Newfoundland in 1985.
Courts later declared RMS Titanic salvor-in-possession meaning it had exclusive rights to salvage the shipwreck but explicitly stated it does not own the artifacts or the wreck itself.
In her ruling, Smith praised RMS Titanic for taking substantial financial and physical risks and for going to great lengths to preserve the fragile artifacts. She said the company has devoted more than 500,000 hours of labor to salvaging, conserving and exhibiting the artifacts.
Smith noted that RMS had to invent tools to convert manned submersible vessels from research-only to salvage operations. For example, the company developed a vacuum system for collection of small items and a system that used diesel fuel-filled lift bags to recover a 15-ton section of hull the largest artifact ever recovered from the deep ocean.
RMS employees who took those submersibles 12,500 feet to the ocean floor did so at great personal risk, Smith noted.
"The water pressure at that depth is 6,300 pounds per square inch, meaning that a breach in or even significant damage to, the hull of the submersible would cause the instantaneous death of the entire crew," the judge wrote.
She also recognized the company's extensive efforts to preserve the salvaged artifacts, including desalination and storage in a climate-controlled "bubble" at a warehouse in Atlanta, and its promotion of the items' historical significance through worldwide exhibition. More than 20 million people on four continents have viewed the artifacts.
"The company's commitment is to continue to exhibit the artifacts to educate future generations about this epic tragedy," Wainger said.
Smith's praise for the company's actions was slightly tempered by her concern that the court previously had to block RMS from selling some of the artifacts, but she said that attempt "does not rise to a level of bad faith that would require a substantial reduction in the amount of the salvage award."
The ruling came a little over a week before a new expedition to the Titanic by RMS. Wainger said this one, departing Aug. 22 and scheduled to last about a month, will focus on a scientific study of how rapidly the Titanic is deteriorating.
Smith wrote that the Titanic "is in a process of bio-deterioration that, in one projection, may lead to the deterioration of the promenade decks by the year 2030, with the decking at all levels continuing to collapse towards the keel as the walls fail."
Wainger said the upcoming expedition will be the first one by RMS that will not take artifacts.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.