THE millionaire former US owner of the Lusitania wreck off Ireland’s south coast has died aged 91 years.
regg Bemis just last year signed the World War I wreck over to a Cork historical group which operates the special Lusitania museum.
Mr Bemis, who was based in New Mexico, had been in ill-health over recent months.
He died in the US earlier this week.
However, he was able to attend Ireland in person last year as part of his lifelong campaign to see the historical significance of the Lusitania wreck recognised and honoured.
He signed over the World War I wreck to the Kinsale committee of the museum at a special event in Cork last May
with local historians hailing it as “a wonderful boost” for the museum.
The not-for-profit Old Head of Kinsale museum boasts the world’s most detailed exhibit on the sinking of the liner credited with being instrumental in bringing the US into World War I.
Mr Bemis signed a deed of gift, on the 104th anniversary of the tragedy, at a special ceremony in The Speckled Door pub in Kinsale – just metres from where people watched in horror in 1915 as the great liner was hit by a torpedo.
The US businessman last year said he was “very impressed” by the work undertaken over many years by the Kinsale museum backers.
He also said he believed they were best placed to preserve the Lusitania’s legacy for future generations.
The Kinsale museum now has all rights to the wreck – subject to Department of Heritage approval.
Mr Bemis had donated multiple artefacts to the museum over the years which had been recovered from dives on the wreck site.
“I believe in the integrity of history,” he said last year.
“They have done a great job here (at the museum).”
Old Head of Kinsale Museum official, Con Hayes, said it was a major boost to their efforts to develop an expanded museum where the Lusitania story and its artefacts can be displayed in an enhanced manner.
For decades Mr Bemis had championed the historical exploration of the wreck to determine precisely why the famous liner sank so fast after being struck by a single German U-boat torpedo in 1915 as it steamed off the Old Head of Kinsale.
The New Mexico businessman had acquired an interest in the World War I wreck in 1968 and in 1982 became sole owner of the wreckage and its salvage rights.
Mr Bemis had described as “a tragedy for Ireland” the fact a full expedition did not take place in 2015 to mark the centenary of the Lusitania’s sinking.
RMS Lusitania sank some 18km off the Cork coast on May 7 1915 after being struck by a single torpedo from the German submarine, U-20.
However, a second internal explosion minutes later dramatically accelerated the rate of sinking – and cost hundreds more lives.
Mystery has surrounded the cause of the second explosion with theories linking it to munitions being carried on the liner, igniting dust in a coal bunker or a giant boiler exploding.
The liner was carrying almost 60 tonnes of munitions bound for Britain from the US.
A total of 1,198 people died with just over 700 being saved.
President Michael D Higgins, when serving as Heritage Minister over 20 years ago, placed a national heritage order on the Lusitania wreck.
“I think it is, above all else, a grave. I am very familiar with the circumstances when I made my order 20 years ago,” he warned in 2014.
“It was, if you like, to assure respect. It also was to enable such search and investigation to take place in a regulated and responsive environment.”
“In other words that it would have to be fully transparent. Remember that there are relatives of those who died and who are interested in anything that comes from the Lusitania.”
“I think, yes, the investigation of the wreck itself is of course possible under conditions that I believe are not onerous.”
However, Mr Bemis warned in 2014 that impossible dive conditions were frustrating ongoing attempts to determine once and for all what caused the catastrophic second explosion.
“Someone needs to take up the cause for the Irish people. The Irish people are not getting the benefits they could from proper development of the Lusitania as a long term source of revenue,” Mr Bemis warned.
“The tourist value on land of the truth of the sinking and a museum properly furnished with recoveries could be of tremendous long term value. And the tourist value for divers coming to Ireland to visit the wreck could also be the source of significant income to the country for years.”
“I want the solve the mystery of the second explosion that caused the liner to sink so fast with such heavy loss of life and bring to a museum some of the artefacts of the second most famous wreck in history after the RMS Titanic,” he stressed.
The Department of Heritage has repeatedly insisted it has facilitated all such dives.
“The Lusitania is generally recognised one of the world’s most important shipwrecks and the department’s view is that the conditions attached to licences are no more onerous than is absolutely necessary to protect a wreck of this magnitude,” a spokesperson said.
They added that previous licences facilitated both the successful ‘Discovery Channel’ documentary in 2008 and the ‘National Geographic’ expedition in 2011.
Source: Irish News