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Diving on history: plunder or recovery?

A group of divers and the Coast Guard are at odds over artifacts recovered from Nantucket Lightship LV 117

A group of divers and the Coast Guard are at odds over artifacts recovered from Nantucket Lightship LV 117

For 70 years a 1,200-pound bronze bell, part of the wreckage of Nantucket Lightship LV 117, lay on the ocean floor, its burial shroud woven from a tangle of fishing nets and cables it had snagged over the decades.

In 1934 an ocean liner, not heeding the sound of the bell nor the vessel’s blasting horn, steamed through a thick fog and sank the lightship, killing seven crewmen. Then in August 2004, after exploring and documenting the largely forgotten hulk for six years, a group of divers hauled the signal bell up 200 feet from the sea bed to the deck of a dive boat anchored 50 miles south of Nantucket, Mass.

Theirs was a recovery laden with symbolism. The lightship was a navigational aid for vessels crossing the Atlantic, and the bell was one means the lightship crew had during a fog to remind the outside world that they were there. After the vessel sank, the world largely forgot about both ship and bell. Schoolchildren raised money for a plaque to honor the dead, but there were no government memorials.

Then the bell that failed to save the lightship re-entered this oblivious world. Divers said the bell and other artifacts now would be used to remind people of LV 117, its lost crew and the lightship service.

Seven months later, in March 2005, the bell was buried again, this time in a Coast Guard storage facility. The divers, who had put a dozen lightship artifacts on display and offered them free to museums, had claimed theirs was an altruistic pursuit of history. The Coast Guard called them plundering grave robbers, suggested they were felons, and demanded — in lieu of criminal charges — that the divers give the agency all of their artifacts, notes and film, and that they keep the wreck’s location secret and never again dive on LV 117.

The Coast Guard curator Gail Fuller says it will be some time, if ever, before anyone sees the bell again. “[Restoration] could take years. We have minimal resources for that kind of thing,” says Fuller. “These items belonged on the ship, in my view.”

The Coast Guard historian Bob Browning says salvaging artifacts from the lightship is equal to “ripping pages out of a rare book when there are no more copies.”

“What’s unfortunate,” counters Eric Takakjian, the leader of the dive expedition, “is that we turned this stuff over to them, and it all ended up in a warehouse. It’s not on public display. The loss is not to us, it’s to the general public who would have been able to see [the artifacts] starting this year. It’s probably going to stay in a warehouse forever.”

Takakjian, a Coast Guard veteran who owns a Massachusetts marine research business, says his group of divers had no commercial interest in recovering the Nantucket Lightship artifacts, only a desire to bring the lightship story to the public. “The Coast Guard has been very negligent in taking care of their history,” he says.

The bitter claims and counterclaims — from the Coast Guard and lightship veterans on one side and the divers and their supporters on the other — paint an ambiguous picture. Right and wrong, if they exist in this case, are not easily brought into focus. And this, too, is symbolic.

Crewmen were ringing the big signal bell on Lightship LV 117 by hand at 11 a.m. May 15, 1934, and the ship’s horn was blasting in the thick spring fog. The 11 crewmen — civilians working for the federal Lightship Service, several of them immigrants from Cape Verde — had reason to be concerned for their safety. Four months earlier, the ocean liner SS Washington had sideswiped the 133-foot steel lightship, shearing off its lifeboat and davits and its radio antennae. In April the ocean liner RMS Olympic passed so close during a break in the unusually foggy spring weather that lightship crewmen snapped photographs. And just before dawn on this May morning, the ocean liner SS Paris had passed within 100 feet of LV 117, the thrum and splash of its engines and propellers audible in the 30-second intervals between the deafening foghorn blasts.

Then the Olympic, 882 feet of her and inbound on another trip from Europe, appeared out of the fog. She rammed the lightship on the beam and drove it and four of its crewmembers to the bottom. (Three more would die later of their injuries.)

The ship, which had been in service for three years before the disaster, was left on the bottom, and a new lightship was dispatched as a replacement. Five years later the Coast Guard absorbed the Lightship Service. The last Nantucket Lightship was replaced by a buoy in 1983.

Once the last lightship was docked, nothing official marked the site of LV 117, one of many wrecks off Nantucket. And only the schoolchildren’s plaque, mounted in the balcony at Seamen’s Bethel Church in New Bedford, Mass., and rarely visited, paid homage to the fallen seamen. There were, however, a number of incidental grave markers. Area fishermen noted on their charts the coordinates where they lost nets and rigging as they dragged the bottom. Some of these so-called “hang numbers” actually recorded LV 117’s location.

Takakjian, whose Quest Marine Services does diving, marine survey and oceanographic work with its 43-footer, was involved with a group of recreational divers searching for wrecks. “My [avocation] is in exploring the underwater world and bringing that world to light,” he says. The group began research on LV 117 in 1995, looking for clues to its location. There were 42 hang numbers for them to investigate. They towed a side-scanning sonar — a torpedolike device — in the swift currents off Nantucket.

For the next three years the divers worked from the surface until, in January 1998, they recorded an image that looked as though it might be the lightship. They returned in July, dove on the wreck, and identified it by its bullnose — the nostril-like chock in the bulwark at the bow through which the ship’s 2-inch anchor chain had been fed to an 8,000-pound mushroom anchor.

“The wreck was completely enshrouded in fishing nets, wire cable netting and things like that, which we removed,” Takakjian recalls. “We treated the site with utmost respect. It is a grave site.”

The divers now began what Takakjian describes as “a several-year program to photograph and document and do archaeological measurements to establish essentially the layout of the shipwreck and where everything was on it.” In the fall of 1998, he says, the group contacted Coast Guard historian Browning and offered to recover the ship’s signal bell and donate it to the Coast Guard for display. He says he remembers Browning being “thrilled.” Browning told Takakjian that the recovery had to be done in an archaeologically correct manner.

“We assured him that was the way we did things,” Takakjian says. “He didn’t have authority to give permission, so he referred us to the [Coast Guard] legal division. They wrote us back to say they weren’t funded to develop a long-term management plan for the site. So they requested we do nothing. That didn’t sit well.”

Takakjian says the divers saw the wreck as a significant part of history. “So we said we’ll go ahead with the project and pay for it ourselves,” he says. “Over the years, we recovered the helm, the engine telegraph, a signal light from the main mast, the compass binnacle, a couple of portholes, a clock and eventually the 1,200-pound bell.”

Browning’s recollection differs from Takakjian’s on several points. “They discussed it with me, and I said we would proceed if we had a proposal from them, exactly what they were going to do,” Browning says. “It had to be in tandem with an underwater archaeologist.”

He says that if the divers planned to recover artifacts, that had to be done with a preservation plan with funding for restoration of the artifacts. “I come from an underwater archaeology background. There was no way I was going to let this guy yank stuff off the bottom,” without the proper plans in place, Browning says.

The historian calls what Takakjian and the other divers did “criminal.”

“He defiled the site without documenting it properly,” says Browning. “It’s not documented like an archaeologist would.” He says Takakjian’s documentation is a “diver’s documentation.”

Takakjian says he contacted a marine archaeologist for guidance before beginning work at the LV 117 site. Victor Mastone is the director of the state-run Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources. “Victor Mastone is a friend of mine,” Takakjian says. “Even though the wreck site was outside of Massachusetts waters, I could ask him to provide oversight of the project. Vic provided me with guidelines.”

Mastone, a state employee, referred questions for this story to a state spokesperson, who acknowledges that Mastone “received a letter from the diver. He responded and said this is not our property but federal property.” The spokesperson says Mastone “recommended that they [the divers] contact the property owners.”

By March 2004, Takakjian and his friends not only had surveyed the wreck site but had brought to the surface all of the artifacts, except the bell, that they would ever recover. That month, they displayed the items at a symposium of the Boston Sea Rovers, a recreational diving organization. Takakjian says more than 2,000 visitors saw the group’s display. “We had photographs and historical text of the wreck for people to learn about it. It was very well received,” he says.

The divers also gave several public lectures in early 2004, and there was media coverage of their story. “We were spreading the word and getting the history out to as many people as we could possibly reach,” says Takakjian. “When we had that display in March, there was a group of people called the Lightship Sailors Association. They viewed the artifacts and seemed pleased. Some were very enthusiastic, but apparently a couple of them weren’t.”

Larry Ryan is president of the Lightship Sailors Association, a group of lightship veterans and others interested in the service. “[Takakjian] invited two of our board members to attend and to look at the display,” Ryan says. “The display at the time was promoted as a preservation effort. Two of our members went and found that there was very little historical preservation.”

Ryan, who says he served aboard lightships in the Coast Guard, says the Coast Guard already was investigating before his group got involved. He says his association offered to help the Coast Guard investigate Takakjian.

“They declined anything from us,” says Ryan. “All we wanted to say was the divers who went down on that thing, they were not historians; they were not preservationists; they were treasure hunters. That’s where we became appalled by the audacity to go down and take things from a grave ship and call it anything but plunder. Our position is … that a ship with lost sailors on it is as sacred at 200 feet as it is here at the city cemetery at 6 feet. The grave ship contains the remains of lightship sailors, and they should be respected.”

One association member who approved of the divers’ work on LV 117 was the group’s historian, Douglas Bingham, who is not a lightship veteran. “When he looked for the 117 lightship, Eric [Takakjian] went out there and plotted all the hang sites where fishermen had lost gear … and ascertained the position of the 117. They photographed it; they videoed it. There’s a lot of stuff they left down there. Artifacts they did recover were conserved, treated with respect, treated with dignity. He was in sight of agreements with maritime museums in New England to display them.”

Bingham, a chauffeur who describes himself as an amateur historian, says he kept his organization abreast of Takakjian’s work on LV 117 and thought at the time that the Lightship Sailors approved. “What they [the divers] did was commendable in terms of preserving history,” he says. “Instead of being scorned and being punished, as the federal government was so willing to do, these guys ought to have gotten medals.”

Bingham was dismissed as historian by the Lightship Sailors for his support of Takakjian, according to both Bingham and Ryan.

Meanwhile, unaware they were being investigated, the divers began talks with several museums and historical groups, hoping to launch a touring show of the artifacts this spring. Among those they contacted were the Nantucket Historical Association, the Scituate (Mass.) Maritime Museum and the American Lighthouse Foundation in Wells, Maine. No agreements were reached with any of the organizations because, according to Takakjian, the Coast Guard investigation intervened.

Tim Harrison, president of the American Lighthouse Foundation, recalls that Takakjian “had talked to us about that [traveling display of artifacts], and we said we’d love to have them on display at the Museum of Lighthouse History.” Harrison says he “absolutely would still show them.”

That possibility was eliminated in October 2004. A Coast Guard investigator had called some of Takakjian’s friends to ask questions about the Nantucket Lightship dives. Those friends informed Takakjian of the calls, and he contacted the investigator, inviting him to come to his Fairhaven, Mass., business, where some of the artifacts were stored.

“The case he put before me was theft of government property of $60,000,” Takakjian recalls. “He said, ‘We’d be prepared to drop the case if you turn over the artifacts and we can display them.’ I said, ‘That’s what we wanted in the first place.’”

The divers asked the Coast Guard for a letter of immunity from prosecution. They feared that a future Coast Guard administration could reinstate the charges, which could put those divers who held Coast Guard licenses out of business. The investigator agreed, and when an immunity letter was delivered, the divers asked a friend who was a lawyer and a diver to review it.

Takakjian says that without his or his friends’ knowledge, the lawyer demanded salvage rights from the Coast Guard for the artifacts. The first hint of a problem was when the divers received orders to appear in court. Taking their case in their own hands, they gathered the artifacts, including the 1,200-pound bell, and handed them all over to investigators. That was in March 2005. The case finally was resolved later last year.

Then during the winter, the Coast Guard issued a press release about the case that labeled Takakjian’s salvage of LV 117 “a defiant dive exploration” that “plundered the ship and ultimately desecrated a gravesite.” The press release quoted Coast Guard Special Agent Michael R. Burnett, its investigator, who said, “People should not exploit wrecks for personal gain, profit and notoriety.”

The sentiments satisfied Ryan of the Lightship Sailors Association. Giving the artifacts to the Coast Guard and preventing further dives on the lightship “was as good as it’s going to get,” Ryan says.

Takakjian, however, sounds bitter. “There’s been a tremendous amount of mudslinging lately,” he says, referring to the Coast Guard news release. “The whole thing was put to rest last summer. The Coast Guard has chosen to jump on the bandwagon and assassinate my name and my goodwill just recently. Why they’re doing that I’m not sure. All we’re trying to do is share this history with the public.”

Takakjian says the Coast Guard had ignored the story of LV 117 and its crew. “So we stepped in to do it, and everybody would have benefited,” he says. “A good question to ask them is where the artifacts are now. I don’t believe they are on display.”