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US millionaire who bought famous Lusitania shipwreck torpedoed in 1915, dies at 91

RMS Lusitania (1915) Photograph: Library of Congress

PortandTerminal.com, May 21, 2020

CORK, IRELAND – US businessman Gregg Bemis, the owner of the famous Lusitania shipwreck which was torpedoed and sunk off Cork, Ireland has died in New Mexico aged almost 92.

After it’s sinking, the wreck was originally claimed by the Liverpool & London War Risks Insurance Association who later sold it to a navy diver John Light in 1967 for just £1,000 (less than $20,000 in today’s dollars).

Bemis, a retired venture capitalist, had acquired an interest to the salvage rights of the Lusitania wreck in 1968. In 1982 became the sole owner of the wreck and its salvage rights. Over the years he mounted several dive expeditions to the site to recover artifacts from the wreck.

Old man and young man looking at model of steamship
Gregg Bemis, owner of the Lusitania wreck site, admires a model of the ship in 2015. (Photo: John Allen)

For decades 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 coast of Ireland. The Irish government fought him for years over his plans to explore the wreck, many feeling that it should be left undisturbed as a gravesite for the lives lost during its sinking.

The sinking of the Lusitania

Painting: Lest We Forget. RMS Lusitania sinking.
Painting: Lest We Forget– The Sinking of the Lusitania Photo credit: Gaer Museum, Art Gallery & Library

On May 7, 1915, approximately 11 miles off Ireland’s Old Head of Kinsale, sailing parallel to the coast, the RMS Lusitania came into the sights of German U-Boat U-20

The U-20’s commander gave the order to fire a single torpedo. It struck on the starboard bow and was quickly followed by a secondary explosion within the Lusitania’s hull.

Photo of diver in old diving gear. Ship. Crew.
The first dive to the wreck, which lies 305 feet on the bottom, took place in 1935

Once struck, she sank so quickly that most lifeboats were not successfully launched. Although the sinking occurred within sight of land and even witnessed by some ashore, the heroic efforts of local Irish fishermen who raced to the scene were not enough to avoid massive loss of life. 

The ship sank to the bottom of the ocean 18 minutes after being struck, killing 1,198 of the 1,962 passengers and crew onboard.

That secondary explosion heard after the torpedo’s initial strike had always been a source of fascination for Gregg Bemis. What caused it?

“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.

Last year, Mr Bemis signed over ownership of the wreck to the Old Head of Kinsale Lusitania Museum at a ceremony at the Old Head of Kinsale which is the nearest point of land to where the ship went down on May 7, 1915.

“I’ve come to realise that, at almost 91 years old there is only so much more I can do to further this project and I think because of the Lusitania’s part in history, it’s very important that it be done properly and we get all the artefacts we can from the wreck to put in the museum planned for here,” he said.

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