A US judge has ruled that a salvage company can retrieve a wireless set that broadcast the last pleas for help from the Titanic before it sank in 1912.
The judge said the Marconi telegraph machine could be rescued from the decaying wreck despite opposition from the US government because of the Titanic's status as an underwater grave for about 1,500 passengers and crew.
However, the set was historically and culturally important and would contribute to the "legacy left by the indelible loss of the Titanic, those who survived and those who gave their lives in the sinking", said Judge Rebecca Beach Smith.
The decision reverses a previous ruling from 2000 that forbid cutting into the shipwreck to remove artefacts.
In the last minutes before the Titanic slipped beneath the surface, wireless operator Jack Phillips tapped out, "Come quick. Engine room nearly full", before the set went silent.
After the collision with the iceberg on April 15, 1912, the set was the only method of communication with nearby ships, which allowed 700 of the passengers to be saved. Phillips died in the wreck.
The salvagers have raised the prospect that the set could be restored to working order. "Titanic's Marconi wireless telegraph apparatus literally represents the actual voice of Titanic and as such, should be recovered from the wreck as a matter of responsible stewardship," according to legal documents filed by the US company RMS Titanic Inc.
It said it plans to exhibit the ship’s telegraph with stories of the men who tapped out distress calls to nearby ships “until seawater was literally lapping at their feet”.
The proposed expedition has sparked controversy among some archaeological and preservation experts, and the firm may face more legal battles before salvage vehicles can descend nearly four kilometres to the bottom of the North Atlantic to where the ship rests.
The expedition is banned under US law and an international agreement struck between the US and the UK, said the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The salvage firm submitted a 60-page plan to retrieve the set, which is believed to still sit in a deck house near the doomed liner’s grand staircase. The company said an unmanned submersible would slip through a skylight or cut through the heavily corroded roof to retrieve the radio.