An expedition is heading out this week to recover the remaining gold from a sunken 19th-century steamship that yielded an estimated $50 million a quarter century ago before legal challenges shut down the recovery.
The Odyssey Explorer and its crew of 41, operated by Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Fla., was to leave late Tuesday or Wednesday for the S.S. Central America, located about 160 miles off the coast of the Carolinas in 7,200 feet of water.
The vessel is expected to be on site for as long as four months, returning before the beginning of hurricane season in late summer.
The Central America sank during an 1857 hurricane in what was one of the worst maritime disasters in the nation's history. The sinking of the 280-foot, side-wheel steamship claimed 425 lives. In addition, thousands of pounds of gold, being brought back east from the gold fields of California, went to the bottom.
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It's not clear just how much more gold might still be found in the wreck. At the time it sank, the ship was carrying gold bars shipped by banks and commercial interests, and its passengers were thought to be carrying a lot of gold of their own, mostly in the form of coins. Most of the gold from the commercial shipment has been recovered.
"I have been telling people for years, and as the historical record suggests, the amount of gold that was in the hands of the passengers on the S.S. Central America was of the same order of magnitude of the commercial shipment," said Ben Evans, a geologist, historian and coin expert from Ohio who was on the initial 1988 expedition and is returning again to the wreck.
"We don't know what the figures are but there is plenty of reason to go back. This is by no means a finished project," he said.
In 1988, shipwreck enthusiast Tommy Thompson, an Ohio native, led a four-year expedition that recovered the initial cache of gold. But the search was suspended when investors and crewmen sued, claiming they hadn't been paid money they were promised.
The investors, from Ohio, claimed they had fronted Thompson almost $13 million for the expedition but never saw any return. The crewmen, meanwhile, said they weren't properly paid for signing confidentiality agreements to keep the ship's location and other details secret.
Thompson has been a fugitive for almost two years after failing to show up for a court hearing.
A deal approved by an Ohio judge last month cleared the way for the new expedition. Odyssey will absorb the costs if no gold is recovered. The receiver for Thompson's companies will get more than half of anything that is recovered, to be disbursed in part to the investors who backed the 1988 expedition.
The gold and other artifacts will be recovered from the depths using a submersible whose remotely controlled arms can pluck items from the ocean floor and deposit them in containers aboard the sub for return to the surface.
It takes about two hours for the submersible to dive to the sea floor at the wreck site and it can stay down several days at a time, said Ernie Tapanes, a senior project manager with Odyssey Marine.