Saturday, 13 December 2014

'Bay Area’s Titanic’: 1901 shipwreck near Golden Gate found

Scientists have located the wreckage of a passenger ship that crashed in 1901 near the site of what is now the Golden Gate Bridge, killing 128 people.

The ship, named the City of Rio de Janeiro, was discovered with the help of a remote submersible last month in 287 feet of water about a half mile from San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The ship was carrying 210 passengers, many of them Chinese emigrants, when it crashed on rocks in heavy fog. It went down in 10 minutes, with many of the passengers trapped in their berths below. Their bodies were never recovered.

"Many of these people were about to start a new life in a new country," said Robert Schwemmer, maritime heritage coordinator for the Office of National Maritime Sanctuaries. "They were only perhaps an hour away from the dock in San Francisco. That is something to think about."

Mr Schwemmer said the City of Rio de Janeiro disaster is often called the Bay Area's Titanic.

The location of the wreckage was a mystery until an expedition that included Mr Schwemmer and James Delgado, a maritime historian, made the discovery.

Mr Delgado said the discovery was "like turning on the light in a dark room. It's great. That's why we do what we do."

Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have taken 3-D and sonar images of the wreckage.

The Rio, which carried 210 passengers and crew, crashed into the rocks at Fort Point near where the Golden Gate Bridge now stands, in a heavy fog, on Feb. 22, 1901. There was panic and confusion aboard, and the ship went down in 10 minutes. Many of the passengers were trapped in their berths below, and their bodies were never recovered.

James Delgado, a marine historian, calls the wreck a sunken cemetery. “It is a mud-filled tomb,” he said.

Most of the passengers and nearly all of the crew were Chinese. Many were emigrants on the last leg of a long journey from Asia. The ship’s last voyage began in China. The Rio stopped in Japan and Hawaii before heading for San Francisco Bay.

Fog obscured the Golden Gate on the night of Feb. 21, 1901, so Capt. William Ward anchored the ship just off the Cliff House, in sight of San Francisco.

Fateful decision

But before dawn, the fog seemed to lift, and after consulting with Capt. Frederick Jordan, the bar pilot, Ward weighed anchor and headed for the Golden Gate. The fog closed in again, however, and about 5:30 a.m. Feb. 22, the Rio ran onto the rocks.

There was tremendous confusion, according to accounts at the time. The officers and crew spoke different languages, and the lifeboats were never launched,. The ship’s lights went out, and the ship drifted off the rocks and sank.

Schwemmer is touched by the tragedy of that long-ago morning. “Many of these people were about to start a new life in a new country,” he said. “They were only perhaps an hour away from the dock in San Francisco. That is something to think about.”

Only 82 of the 210 people aboard were saved, many by the crews of Italian fishing boats heading out to sea. Ward went down with his ship. More than a year after the Rio sank, the vessel’s wooden pilothouse floated loose from the wreckage and drifted to Fort Baker on the Marin side of the Golden Gate. Inside were Ward’s remains. The Chronicle reported that he was identified by a watch he always wore and a watch fob made of a silver Chinese coin.

Scientists and treasure hunters have been looking for the Rio for years, partly based on century-old rumors that the ship carried a fortune in silver. A group whom Delgado and Schwemmer call “treasure hunters” thought they had found the wreck in the Golden Gate in 1987.

Search went awry

However, the searchers were unable to reach it, and the remote-controlled underwater vehicle they were using was lost in the swirling currents of the Golden Gate. Also, the NOAA scientists say, the expedition’s coordinates were off. So the search went on.

Delgado, who has studied shipwrecks for years, believes the rumors of sunken treasure were wrong. The silver bars in the old sea story were actually bars of tin, he said.

But the real scientific treasure lay in finding and photographing the wreck. Earlier this fall, an outfit named CodaOctopus Products was demonstrating some of its equipment to the San Francisco Police Department’s Marine Unit, which was interested in underwater searches. The demonstration took place near the Golden Gate where the freighter Fernstream sank in 1952.

New technology

Schwemmer and Delgado, who had been conducting research involving wrecks earlier in the year, heard about it, and CodaOctopus and Gary Fabian, a sonar expert, joined in the expedition to find the Rio.

“It was a beautiful clear November day, and the sea was flat calm,” said Schwemmer. “We had to work at slack water, between the tides. We could only make a few passes. I was glued to my seat. We were close to Fort Point. And there it was.

“You could see the bow clearly, and then the stern, all buried in 113 years of mud.”

Finding the wreck, Delgado said, “was like turning on the light in a dark room. It’s great. That’s why we do what we do.” The ship will likely remain where it is, buried in more than a century of mud and debris, like a maritime graveyard.

Saturday 13 December 2014


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