DUBLIN, Ireland -- Mystery surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania may be resolved after the American owner of the Cunard liner won his case to dive on the wreck.
The decision by the Supreme Court in Dublin, the highest court in the Irish Republic, to overturn a refusal for an exploration licence from the Arts and Heritage Ministry clears the way for Gregg Bemis to realise a 40-year dream to uncover what made "the Greyhound of the Sea" sink so fast after she was torpedoed by a German U-boat off southwest Ireland in May 1915.
The Lusitania – which held the speed record for crossing the Atlantic until 1909, when she lost it to her sister ship, the Mauretania – sank in 18 minutes, taking 1,198 people, including 100 children, with her.
The blast that sank the 790ft (241m) vessel came from a secondary explosion on the starboard side after the torpedo, fired by U-20, hit the Lusitania under the bridge.
The sinking caused massive controversy because the vessel was carrying civilian passengers between New York and Liverpool, including eminent and wealthy politicians, artists, academics and businessmen.
The captain of the German U-boat, Walther Schwieger, was branded a war criminal, and the furore added to pressure on the US to enter the Great War on Britain's side. But since the Lusitania sank, eight miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, rumours and conspiracy theories have abounded about her fate.
In 1993 Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck of the Titanic, said that he believed that the dust in the coal bunkers would have been thrown into the air by the vibration from the torpedo impact; the resulting cloud then being ignited by a spark and causing the second explosion.
But that theory has been discounted by the damp conditions and the sudden rush of seawater into the ship through the hull's damaged plates.
The U-boat captain has also been accused of lying about the number of torpedoes fired at the stricken vessel. Marine forensic investigators have suggested that an explosion in the ship's steam-generating plant may have been the cause.
Mr Bemis hopes that his court victory will clear the way for the true story to emerge. The venture capitalist from a wealthy food-packaging family suspects that the Lusitania was secretly carrying munitions to Britain and that these caused the huge explosion.
Mr Bemis, 78, is planning a dive on the Lusitania, lying in 300ft of water, this summer. But his main research will be conducted next year. "All the equipment that I need has already been booked for this year," he told Irish newspapers.
"There is some work that can be done that I think will be very advantageous to my ultimate dive, preliminary survey work."
The exploration will be complicated because the Lusitania is lying on its ruptured, starboard side. Mr Bemis hopes that his team can cut through the port side and make his way down to the damage using a "saturated" diving system.
"They will always be under pressure equivalent to the depth of the Lusitania, so they can put in shifts of two or three hours working on the bottom," he said. The court granted Mr Bemis a five-year licence to dive after a protracted legal battle with the Arts Ministry.
The wreck was declared a protected site, placing an underwater heritage order on it to deter treasure hunters. That was in response to reports that the art collector Sir Hugh Lane, one of the passengers who perished, was transporting paintings by Titian, Monet and Ru-bens in sealed containers.
Mr Bemis became a co-own-er of the wreck in 1968, a year after it was sold for £1,000 by the Liverpool & London War Risks Insurance Association to John Light, a former US navy diver. "There was one other bidder: the British secret service," Mr Bemis claimed. "Obviously they were too cheap to put up the cash." By 1982 Mr Bemis's two partners in the salvage venture had given up in the face of mounting bills and he bought them out. "We'd spent a lot of money by then. My kids reckon I'm like a dog with a bone."
The next challenge was in the courts. "Everyone has their point of view. The Irish Government said no one should touch it but I disagreed. They were in the wrong – it is my property."
Mr Bemis made his first visit to see his property in 2005 at the age of 76, but he is under pressure from his family not to return. "I reckon it might have been an age-depth record. I'm an experienced recreational diver so I went down but was only there for five minutes. But what I saw of her was very beautiful."
The venture may cost £3 million, which Mr Bemis hopes to recoup by making a film and mounting an exhibition of recovered artefacts.
He owns anything on the liner that belonged to Cunard, while luggage and cargo belongs to the Irish authorities as receiver of the wreck.
Nevertheless, it is not the lure of gold or fine art that has driven Mr Bemis's passion for the Lusitania, but the mystery of its final voyage. "It's almost impossible to sink a vessel of that size so fast. I don't agree with government cover-ups. To prove what really caused it to sink would help bring real closure for the relatives of those who perished."
Gregg Bemis, is a venture capitalist and entrepreneur.
He has run unsuccessfully three times as a Republican candidate in New Mexico.
Bemis also has a keen interest in the Estonia, a ferry that went down in the Baltic in 1994, taking 852 lives. He suspected foul play and conducted an unauthorised dive in 2000.
Last days of the Lusitania
Departs New York at noon, May 1, 1915, amid German warnings to its 1,256 passengers
May 6, Lusitania's captain receives warning that U-20 is active off southern Irish coast
May 7, Lusitania alters course after a new warning, heading northwest to approach coast, thinking that U-boat would stay in open waters
U-20, low on fuel and heading for home, spots Lusitania at 1pm. Steaming at 20 knots into Queenstown (new Cobh) harbour
U-20 captain gives order to fire torpedo at 2.20pm as Lusitania crosses right in front of submarine. A second explosion occurs immediately after torpedo hits
Lusitania sinks at 2.28pmlink