Thursday, March 31, 2005

 

Lost, found, gone

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Press of Atlantic City
By Mike Jaccarino
March 29, 2005

Divers who salvaged items from sunken lightship have to turn them over to federal government.
Six years. Countless hours of research. Thousands of dollars. But in the end they didn't cheer when the dream came to fruition.

The divers who recovered the 1,200-pound fog bell from the Nantucket Lightship off the Massachusetts coast in 2004 immediately bowed their heads and rang the bell for the seven sailors who died when the ship went down.

Now, remembering the moment - tainted by the events that would follow - dive team member Tom Packer, 45, of Camden County, sighs deeply and asks, "Does that sound like (we're) grave robbers to you?

"It's a tricky business recovering historical artifacts from sunken vessels, like the Nantucket Lightship, which went down May 15, 1934.

Packer and his team had hoped to make the items available for display in museums, including one slated to open on Long Beach Island.

Never mind the 195 feet of cold ocean water. Never mind the decompression, the capricious New England weather or the thousand other things that could have gone wrong.

What finally ended the dream were Uncle Sam and the debate over who should rightfully recover artifacts from ships lost at sea. Last week, the group returned the last of the artifacts from the Nantucket to the U.S. Coast Guard Station in Cape May.

Long before anyone knew the location of the Nantucket, the U.S. government passed the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987. It decrees that any shipwreck located within three miles of the state coast for which the owner is unknown belongs to the state in whose waters it was found.

Some of the items were returned in New Jersey since they had made their way to the Garden State since recovery.

The Nantucket is located about 50 miles offshore, but the vessel, according to Pete Hess, the maritime lawyer who represented some of the Nantucket divers, once belonged to the U.S. Lifesaving Service, and so Uncle Sam felt it still belonged in federal hands.

But the series of events still underscores the ongoing debate about such private recoveries. The 1987 act, according to maritime sources, seeks to prevent the raiding of shipwrecks for personal profit.

However, the Nantucket Lightship divers insist they had no financial interest in the recovery and hoped only to publicly exhibit the artifacts.

"To our wives' chagrin," Packer said, the Nantucket exhibit was to be financed at the divers' personal expense.

"We're interested in the history," said Steve Gatto, a 44-year-year Gloucester County man who accompanied Packer on the recovery effort.

Gatto said he spent countless hours in the National Archives researching the Nantucket Lightship. By late 2004, five museums and historical societies had agreed in principal to exhibit the Nantucket artifacts.

Now meet Bart Malone: The Camden County man has sold shipwreck artifacts, most of which he recovered, on eBay for the last five years.

Last year, Malone sold a cup and saucer recovered from a wreck off the Alaskan coast. The state of Alaska told him, as he said, "I had stole from their ship, which was culturally protected. It cost me $500 for a maritime lawyer to handle the case."

He was eventually exonerated, he said, since he obtained the cup and saucer through a trade for some items he had recovered on a dive from the Andrea Doria.

The list of museums that had planned to exhibit the Nantucket's artifacts included Deborah Whitcraft's shipwreck museum on Long Beach Island. The museum, under construction, is set to open this year.

"These guys risked their lives to recover artifacts from these wrecks," Whitcraft said. "Unless they bring them up, (the artifacts) are going to sit on the bottom of the ocean. You shouldn't be penalized for recovering for the good of the people."

Now, Whitcraft doubts the Nantucket artifacts will make it to LBI.

There is a scene at the end of the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark" that shows the Ark of the Covenant, which Indiana Jones had acquired by performing myriad acts of courage and bravado, stowed away in the back of a federal government warehouse.

When Indiana Jones prods the U.S. government with exhortations of, "It belongs in a museum," Uncle Sam's representatives simply reply that "top men," will be studying the artifact.

Gatto said he didn't even get that much. "They didn't say," he responds when asked what the Coast Guard told him it intended to do with the Nantucket items. "Who knows?"

Coast Guard spokeswoman Lisa Hennings reported Wednesday that it has no plans to display the Nantucket artifacts. She otherwise refused to comment on the case.

And so the Nantucket tour is off. Who knows where the artifacts are now located? "Maybe in a warehouse," Gatto snidely suggested.


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