Wednesday, 10.48pm ‘I’ve found the gold! I’ve found the gold!’ cried diver Rossier
Barrie Penrose reports from the salvage ship Stephaniturm
At exactly 10.48pm last Wednesday evening, John Rossier, a 27 year old diver who came from Zimbabwe, reached down through the thick sediment on the floor of HMS Edinburgh’s bomb room. His rubber gloves closed around a smooth bar of heavy metal which he lifted slowly up to the level of his helmet’s face-plate.
Visibility at 800ft beneath the surface of the Barents Sea is virtually nil, and inside the hull of the sunken ship strewn with tangled debris, where the silt floats thicker than dust in the water, one piece of metal feels very much like another.
But gold is different. As Rossier peered at the object he held in his hands he could see from the lights set up outside of the bomb room that what he was holding was not just another piece of wreckage.
“I’ve found the gold! I’ve found the gold!” he shouted over the intercom linking him with the diver control room far above on the ocean’s surface. It was not, perhaps quite as romantic as the famous cry – “Wonderful things!” – uttered by Howard Carter on his first look into Tutankhamen’s tomb. But to those of us on the exploration vessel Stephaniturm, for whom the past three weeks have been a period of nail-biting tension, the moment was every bit as thrilling.
As word went round the ship t hat we had finally found gold, men from the mess abandoned their supper, overturned a game of scrabble, and ran towards the control room.
David Keene the duty diving supervisor that night, was talking hard into the intercom, trying to make him-self heard over Rossier’s joyful shouts from down below: “What is it? Where is it?” he said, “John, your screaming like hell at me. Christ my hands are shaking. What are you going to do with it?
Listening to Rossier who seemed to be executing a slow motion dance of joy in his diver’s suit, on the ocean bed, he added, shaking his head:”He’s flying down there like a doll, flying like a doll”.
Soon everyone was listening to the commentary. Everyone that is, except the man whose planning has been directed for the past two years towards this one moment and whose company, Jessop Marine, stands to gain up to £20 million worth of gold.
Keith Jessop was fast asleep in his cabin, unaware of the news that had taken his ship by storm. When he was finally awakened, and had stumbled into the control room to listen in t the voices on the intercom, he simply stood, smiling broadly, saying nothing.
By now the gold bar had been identified as number KPO 620, and checked against the official list which Captain Hugh Faulkner of the Edinburgh had carried on its last fatal voyage in May 1942. Rosier placed it in a specially constructed metal cage and then watched as a crane on the ship above winched it slowly upwards.
We leant over the side of the Stephaniturm as the cage broke the surface, and in the light of the arc-lamps, we too could now see KPO 620, all £100,000 worth of it, nestling on the bottom of the cage among the debris cleared from the bomb room.
The cage was swung onto the deck, and opened up. Someone reached in and passed the bar in silence to Keith Jessop who held it lovingly
in his hands. I remembered that some of the Edinburgh’s survivors had described the metal bars as looking more silvery than yellow.
But now, after 30 years in the icy seas, KPO 620 at least was looking decidedly yellow.
Surprisingly, too, it was clean, and turned out to have only minor scratches from the German torpedo explosions which had sunk the Edinburgh in the course of its last desperate attempt to gain the safety of Murmansk.
The one group unable to share in the excitement were those off duty divers on the ship who have to stay in their compression chambers on
deck so that their bodies, already acclimatised to working at 800 feet, are not exposed to the atmosphere on the surface. So Jessop carried
the bar round the chamber to let the divers see what had been found. He held it up so that they could see it through their tiny portholes,
and then passed it in through the locking hatch so that the excited divers could pass it round between them.
Later we all crowded into the Stephaniturm’s mess-room where each member of the crew was photographed on a Polaroid camera, holding the precious bar.
Finally KPO 620 was scrubbed down in a bucket inside a makeshift “bullion room” and was entered as “Number One” in an inventory agreed beforehand by Jessop and by the British and Russian representatives in board the ship. All of them trust that before the end of this operation that the inventory will finally number up to at least 465 ingots as the Edinburgh delivers up the last of its treasure.
THE RUSSIANS, of course, were particularly interested. It was after all their gold in the first place and after Jessops had taken their 45% of it, they will claim two thirds of the remainder, with the British government locking the final share away in the vaults of the Bank of England.
For the past week two ships have been shadowing the Stephaniturm, and one, the Elton, a keeping a very careful watch on the proceedings.
But the two Russian representatives on board our ship are friendlier, and their delight has matched our own as the flow of gold has increased over the past few days. For by Thursday morning a steady stream of the stuff has been brought to the surface. One of the Russians, from Moscow pointed out the characteristics of Stalin’s gold bars:”You see these marks,” he said “Moscow, the number, and the colour and 999: the very best Russian gold.”
The routine that has been established is that as the gold is swung aboard, in consignments which are worth £4 million a time, it is cleaned, then checked by David Keogh, the British government’s representative who works for the Ministry of Defence but also acts for the Department of Trade, the Salvage Association, and the War Graves Commission, as well as being the official padre on board. The bars are then lodged and stored in the bullion room.
It might be thought that a procession of gold bars appearing one after the other on board may become a prosaic sight. But somehow the awesome
sight of the wealth they represent never quite wears off. Holding one of the bars in his hand, Dave Keene sighed and said: “I’ve got £100,000
in my hand. It looks heavy but it just feels beautiful.”
For the divers, however, who are the real heroes of this operation, it has been more than just the gold which has counted. “It’s not only the money,” said one, “we would also like the record for the world’s deepest manned salvage.”
This they can now claim. Although the world diving record is now more than 2,000 feet, that was in a dry chamber. This operation has been carried out in wet suits in one of the most difficult ocean areas anywhere. The Stephaniturm’s divers, from the Aberdeen based firm of Wharton Williams, have now been working solidly on the wreck for the past 14 days, and they have been “in saturation” for three weeks – that is, they have been locked in their compression chambers on board the ship breathing in a special mixture of oxygen and helium which allows them to operate at the crushing pressures of around 350lb per square foot which are found at those depths.
The chamber, which has a complete life support system including medical, communications and entertainment facilities, houses eight divers. From there they have been going down in four hour shifts, two at a time, in a three man diving bell which is lowered through the Stephaniturm’s “moon pool” – a tube in the ships bottom – to about 50 feet directly over the wreck.
One diver stays in the bell while the other, with his umbilical wires and tubes linking him to the bell, and wearing a specially designed “soft” suit in which hot water circulates to keep him warm, does into the bomb room. There they have been painstakingly removing debris and wreckage and searching for gold in the sand at the bottom, ever since they got into the bomb-room nine days ago.
Once John Rossier had found the first bar the rest began coming thick and fast. Much of it found still packed in the wooden boxes where it had first been sorted. Progress would be faster if the gold could be hoisted up in the boxes themselves but this has not proved possible. “The boxes have sea worm in them”, explained Mike O’Meara, the diving superintendant. “Each box weighs about 130lbs and the just disintegrate when they’re moved with the gold inside them.”
So instead the divers are having to load the gold, bar by bar, into the metal cage ready for another run to the surface. Each consignment that comes up has about forty bars in it. That makes each load about £4 million, and it is now coming on board at a rate of around £1 million an hour.
Since the Edinburgh is said to have been carrying five tonnes of gold on board, it is a simple mathematical prediction that by sometime in the middle of next week we should be looking straight in the face of £45 million worth of dull yellow material which at the moment looks like the most sensational stuff in the world.
Who gets rich from the Edinburgh gold? The salvage contract is held by Jessop Marine Recoveries Ltd, a small salvage company formed only 18 months ago by Keith Jessop, 48, a former North Sea diver, now the firm’s managing director. It formed a consortium of three other salvage companies under a sub-contract agreement. These are: Wharton Williams Ltd, which has handled the diving operations; Offshore Supply Association, which supplied the salvage ship and crew; and Racal Decca Survey Ltd which supplied the hydro graphic equipment.
The operation was financed by a number of private investors who put up the £2 million or so to get the scheme off the ground. Jessop Marine will not name them as many of them put up the money on the strict condition on anonymity, either because they did not want to be associated with “the treasure hunt image”, or they were worried about being involved in a “war graves controversy”.
But since there were many investors, and since the sub-contractors will take their share of the £16 million, not everyone is going to become a millionaire overnight. Jessop Marine, as would be expected, will benefit most, it will be transformed from a small company to a substantial one, and, perhaps more important, it will be able to finance its next salvage venture out of its own funds.
Jessop has already picked its next target, but it has no intention of divulging it. “The salvage business is a cut throat one,” operations director James Ringrose said yesterday “you can have a legitimate contract to salvage something only to find that someone has got there before you. Your only protection is secrecy.”
The possibilities are many. A catalogue of sunken treasure ship published recently in the Union, both of whom claim the whose approximate position is known. Their gold, diamonds, and other valuable cargo is worth at least £500 million. Most lie along the old Spanish merchant ship routes but there is still a lot of treasure trove around Britain’s coast.
It is possible, however, to narrow the options. Jessop’s forte is working at depths previously thought impossible – a spin off from off shore oil operations. Most ancient wrecks lie buried under tons of silt, often in quite shallow water. This is not really Jessop’s field.
More to the company’s taste would be the gold sovereigns and platinum ingots in the Tsarist cruiser Admiral Nahkmov, which has lain 300ft down
in the cold waters off Tsushima Island in Japan since the Japanese sank her in 1905. Estimates of the treasure range from £1,700 million to
£16,000 million. But any salvage attempt would involve Jessop in a tug-of-war between Japan and the Soviet Union, both of which claim the treasure.
There are still several tons of gold in the wreck of a German cargo ship torpedoed by the British off Holland in 1917 and some £20 million on board the frigate Lutine which sank, also off the Dutch coast, in 1799. An Australian and New Zealand consortium failed to raise this treasure in the summer of 1980.
The most likely candidate would be the celebrated liner Lusitania, sunk by a German submarine in 1915 of the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland. It was rumoured to be worth £12 million today. The location is known exactly, the depth of 400ft is now no problem. But Ringrose is giving nothing away: “All I can say is that the Edinburgh operation has given us a lot of valuable experience in working in very cold waters.” Presumably then, it is safe to conclude only that Jessop’s next salvage venture will be north of the Tropic of Cancer.