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Expedition Surveys Sunken Britannic

November 12, 1997

KEA, Greece (AP) _ Eight decades after the Titanic’s larger sister ship plunged to the bottom of the Aegean, explorers are making new attempts to learn what sank the luxury liner on a World War I mission of mercy.

On Tuesday, an international team of divers finished its first full-scale survey of the Britannic, the biggest shipwreck still on the world’s sea floor.

The divers hope to pull from the depths some clues to the downing of the Britannic. Video footage and metal fragments could show whether it was a torpedo or mine that sank the liner, and explain why the ship sank so quickly _ just 57 minutes after an explosion tore a hole in its bow on Nov. 21, 1916.

The challenge _ as well as the mystery _ drew the explorers.

``We had this dream to dive the wreck,″ said Dan Burton, a British diver and cameraman in the expedition.

One-tenth larger than the equally ill-fated Titanic, the Britannic was requisitioned after its maiden voyage to serve as a wartime hospital ship for Britain.

It sank while on its way to the eastern Aegean island of Lesbos to pick up war casualties bound for Southampton, England. Of the 1,134 people on board, 28 perished in the Kea channel, about 40 miles southeast of Athens.

Lying at a depth of 390 feet, the wreck has been visited just twice before: first by Jacques Cousteau, who discovered its location in the late 1970s, then by marine explorer Robert Ballard, who photographed the wreck using underwater robots in 1995.

Ballard, for one, doubts the mystery of the Britannic’s fate can ever be solved.

``I don’t think you can tell one boom from another boom,″ said Ballard, who led the French-U.S. team that discovered the wreck of the Titanic in the North Atlantic in 1985.

But the 19-strong team of Project Britannic ’97 remains hopeful.

``We have more records of the break and how it looks than anybody else,″ said Burton, speaking one day before the end of the latest expedition.

The divers say theirs is the first extensive, in-person survey of the wreck. They believe their main advantage is in the flexibility of divers, in contrast to cumbersome machines.

``We’ve got views from angles that I believe Ballard didn’t have,″ Burton said.

Using a mixture of gases in their tanks, they were able to film around and inside the wreck for up to 20 minutes at a time. Due to the great depth, they also had to spend between 3 1/2 to four hours decompressing and logged a total of about 40 man hours underwater.

Lying on its starboard side, the Britannic shows little sign of damage apart from the explosion site in the bow.

``The hull is in pretty well perfect condition,″ Burton said. ``Obviously, there’s deterioration of the deck, but it’s pretty well all there.″

Using an underwater scooter to speed him along, Burton and his fellow divers passed the bridge, catching a glimpse of the engine control, still jammed in ``full ahead″ position.

That confirms the accounts of the shipwreck’s survivors, who said that Capt. Charles Bartlett headed for Kea island after the explosion in an attempt to save the ship by beaching it.

Those who died were killed when their lifeboats were sucked under by the still-turning propeller.

Project Britannic aims to bring up metal from the ship to hand to experts for tests that could help determine what sank the ship and whether the manufacture of the metal was at fault in any way, said Alexandros Sotiriou, one of the expedition’s organizers.

``We won’t know if we’ve discovered anything until after we scrutinize the video,″ Sotiriou said, adding quickly: ``We’re divers _ we’re not scientists.″

Burton concedes that it may take many more dives to answer the unresolved questions of the Britannic’s sinking.

Ballard insists his way _ underwater cameras _ offered the best chance at solving the mystery.

``Our robots stayed down there 24 hours a day. You can’t do that with divers,″ he said.

Ballard has proposed installing cameras on the wreck to create an Internet museum, in which images would be available via a computer link.

``It will be easy in the future to access for all people, instead of just macho divers _ they’re a dying breed,″ he said.

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