Ohio geologist returns to shipwreck treasure after two decades

Recovered artifacts included several tons of gold and silver, which eventually sold for more than $40 million.
MCT Regional News
Apr 28, 2014

Once again, geologist Bob Evans is ready to hear the treasure of the SS Central America shipwreck tell its stories.

Twenty-six years after he and an unlikely crew of scientists, sailors and shipwreck enthusiasts found the ship’s remains at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, Evans is traveling with a new crew to once again uncover the vessel’s secrets.

“It’s happening all over again,” an emotional Evans said on Tuesday, a day before he set off on the Odyssey Explorer from the port of Charleston. “I always thought sooner or later it would come back to me.”

Odyssey Marine Exploration, which owns the Odyssey, has been hired by a court-appointed receiver to bring up the gold, silver and other artifacts that were left behind in 1991, the last time Evans and his fellow deep-sea explorers visited the wreck.

Evans was the right-hand man for Tommy Thompson, a Battelle scientist who had dreamed up the recovery effort in the early 1980s and convinced friends and Columbus-area investors that his quest could be successful.

Evans and Thompson had been friends since the late 1970s. Thompson relied heavily on Evans’ historical and scientific knowledge as he formulated plans to find the Central America and then, beginning in 1988, to recover its cargo.

The massive recovery vehicle they used, remotely operated and cutting-edge at the time, was able to go deep into the ocean where divers couldn’t and pick up the ship’s remains.

Once artifacts were brought to the surface, Evans catalogued each one and cleaned and preserved them. That included several tons of gold and silver, which eventually sold for more than $40 million.

Now, more than two decades later, Evans is the only original crew member returning to the shipwreck.

“I’m excited to apply the new technology on the site,” he said last week as he showed visitors the “coin room” on the Odyssey, where he’ll once again catalogue, store and keep track of the gold they expect to bring up.

While the basics of the robot are the same — lights, mechanical hands and cameras that beam photographs to the ship above — the sophistication level has been dramatically improved with digital photography, modern computers and crew members expert in maneuvering the robot and viewing the shipwreck.

Remembering the earlier expeditions to the shipwreck is like seeing yourself as a character in literature, said Evans. Since the find, he became an expert on the recovered gold coins and has given speeches across the country about the treasure and the expeditions.

Most of his time is spent on his small farm in Muskingum County, but he’ll remain on the Odyssey this summer.

He isn’t worried that another exploration company might have pillaged the shipwreck since his last visit. Its location has been kept secret, he said, and the shipwreck community is so small that the Odyssey crew would have heard about any trespassing.

He thinks that a lot of gold remains in the shipwreck.

“I’ve been saying for years that the amount of gold in the hands of the passengers on board was as much as the commercial shipment,” he said. But he isn’t expecting to get rich himself.

“I’m not a particularly material person,” he said. “The experience is worth so much more than the money.”

As for Thompson, Evans said he was a good friend but he has had little contact with him in the past 15 years.

Thompson became a federal fugitive in 2012 when he ignored a federal judge’s order to appear in court. U.S. marshals have been unable to find him or his companion, Alison Antekeier, who lived in Columbus until a few years ago.

“It’s almost like he’s a memory,” Evans said.

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Recovery of shipwreck's gold begins again

A ship and its crew are anchored 160 miles off the coast today, poised once again to bring up what some call the biggest shipwreck treasure in U.S. history.

The deep-ocean exploration ship Odyssey Explorer left this port city on Wednesday to begin an expedition that some in landlocked Columbus have dreamed about for two decades — the recovery of artifacts and a huge cache of gold from the wreck of the SS Central America, a recovery that was halted in 1991 and didn’t begin again until last week.

“We’re carrying on the story,” said Neil Cunningham Dobson, chief marine archaeologist for Odyssey Marine Exploration, the shipwreck-exploration company based in Tampa, Fla.

Dobson, Odyssey Marine President Mark Gordon, geologist Bob Evans and other crew members described their jobs and how the recovery will work to reporters wandering the steamy decks of the docked ship on Tuesday.

For more than a decade, Odyssey Marine has located shipwrecks deep below the ocean surface, too deep for divers to visit but not too deep for the ROV — remotely operated vehicle — that will be at the heart of this recovery.

Its target this summer is the 95 percent of the Central America shipwreck that wasn’t explored or recovered between 1988 and 1991, when the Columbus-based Recovery Limited located, mapped and brought up gold and artifacts from the ship’s remains.

The ship, carrying gold bars and coins from the San Francisco mint to New York banks, sank during a hurricane in 1857 off the South Carolina coast, taking 428 crew members and passengers to their deaths.

Its modern chapter began in the 1980s when Battelle scientist Tommy Thompson decided to find the shipwreck and bring up the gold it reportedly held. He convinced more than 100 wealthy investors, most from central Ohio, that his treasure hunt could be a success — and, to the surprise of many, it was.

But lawsuits halted the recovery and sucked capital from Thompson’s companies. Though the gold was sold for more than $40 million, investors received nothing.

Some, including The Dispatch Printing Company, which publishes The Dispatch, sued Thompson.

Thompson has been a fugitive since a U.S. district judge ordered his arrest in 2012 after the salvager did not show up at a federal contempt-of-court hearing. Seamen who worked for him on the Central America expedition are suing him in that case, alleging they are entitled to a small percentage of the treasure.

U.S. marshals have been actively searching for Thompson and his assistant, Alison Antekeier, who did not appear in federal court as ordered later that year. Marshals have learned that the couple lived in a Vero Beach, Fla., mansion for six years before they disappeared.

In 2013, a Franklin County Common Pleas judge appointed receiver Ira O. Kane to take over Thompson’s companies, and Kane hired Odyssey Marine to return to the shipwreck.

Which brings us back to the Odyssey Explorer on a sunny Tuesday in South Carolina.

The 41-member crew, Gordon said, was itching to reach the recovery site, a trip that would take 24 hours. Since they know the ship’s location from Thompson’s work, the plan was to immediately begin mapping the site with Zeus, their ROV.

The size of a small truck, Zeus is equipped with lights to illuminate the pitch black at the bottom of the ocean, cameras that will relay real-time images of the shipwreck, “arms” that can pick up artifacts, and containers to house those artifacts.

A bright yellow crane was designed to lift the 61/2-ton Zeus into the water on the starboard side of the ship, and a thick cable would help lower it to the ocean bottom in a two-hour process.

Thrusters on Zeus allow pilots on the ship, watching video monitors, to “fly” it over the wreck, senior project manager Ernie Tapanes explained as he pointed out what look like circular fans on the ROV.

A ship navigator, using other monitors, directs the pilots on where to position the ROV, and archaeologist Dobson, using a third set of monitors, helps it safely home in on interesting artifacts.

“This is where the magic happens,” Dobson said in his thick Scottish accent.

Before anything is removed, Zeus’ cameras will create a map — a photomosaic — of the shipwreck made up of thousands of high-resolution images. That also will help Dobson and the navigator determine where Zeus should work.

“It’s up to us to tell the story of the ship and the people on it,” Dobson said. “It’s not just all about the shiny things on the seabed. It’s a time capsule of life.”

Laura Barton, an Odyssey Marine spokeswoman, emphasized that crew members aren’t treasure hunters. In fact, they hate the term.

“We spend a lot of time and money doing proper archaeological recovery,” Barton said.

But there has to be an economic return to pay for the work, Gordon said, and he thinks there is on the Central America.

Under its contract, Odyssey Marine is paying for the recovery operation and will receive 80 percent of the proceeds until certain expenses are paid. Then the company will receive 45 percent of the proceeds.

Odyssey has recovered treasure in similar ocean-bottom efforts, including the Civil War-era shipwreck SS Republic, which was similar to the Central America, and the British cargo steamship the SS Gairsoppa, which sank in 1941.

During the recovery, work will continue for 24 hours a day, with crew members working 12-hour shifts.

The ship will return to port in 30 days to switch out some crew members, pick up supplies and drop off artifacts. Then it’ll head back for another 30-day stint, a rotation that will continue for 120 to 150 days, as long as the weather holds and there’s work to be done.

“We’d love to be done by September,” Tapanes, the project manager, said. If one season isn’t enough, the Odyssey might return to the shipwreck next year.

News about what has been found so far hasn’t yet surfaced and likely won’t for days or weeks, Barton said.

Columbus will be waiting.

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Kathy Lynn Gray - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)

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