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Grissom's Liberty Bell found at sea

Jan 1, 2003

A search for Gus Grissom's Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7, which sank accidentally following a 1961 suborbital flight, was partially successful in May. The Discovery Channel sponsored the expedition that found the capsule in 15,600 feet of water 350 miles east of the Florida coast, but an attempt to recover the nine-foot capsule failed when a deep-towed sonar unit broke loose and sank.

Liberty Bell 7 sank suddenly in July 1961 when the hatch unexpectedly blew off during recovery operations. Grissom barely escaped alive before it flooded and sank. A team of ocean engineers and salvage experts with Oceaneering International of Houston made repeated attempts to raise the capsule in July. Once recovered, Liberty Bell 7 reportedly will be displayed at the Kansas City Cosmosphere, in Kansas City, Mo.

This expedition is the latest success for deep-ocean engineering companies. Using a similar sonar unit, the Israeli submarine Dakar, which sank in 1968, was found in the Mediterranean in May. These units, the technology for which is now owned by Simrad of Lynnwood, Wash., were first used in 1991 to find Lucona, a freighter that was sunk in the Indian Ocean. After the vessel was lost, the insurance company suspected a scam, which resulted in a deep search.

"We found the Lucona and photographed the hull extensively; it was later determinedapparently by studying the holes in the hull that showed outward blaststhat the vessel had been sunk deliberately," said Irv Bjorkheim, an engineer with Simrad who also worked on recovery of the gold from the sidewheeler Central America in the 1980s. (This recovery effort was recently described in the best-selling book by Gary Kinder, Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue SeaAtlantic, 1998.)

A search in 1994 for the bulk carrier Derbyshire off Japan was also successful. "The British government wanted to find out the exact nature of the sinking," said Godik Gyldenege, an engineer with Oceaneering International. "So we towed the AMS units in the area and found it in 13,800 feet of water." The ability to photograph submerged wrecks has assisted in determining exactly why old bulk carriers specifically tend to sink suddenly. The sinkings often occur so quickly that there is little time to assess damage, according to casualty reports in the journal Professional Mariner.

There is even discussion by the deepwater engineering firm Nauticos in Solomons Island, Md., to find and recover the original Pride of Baltimore, a square-topsail schooner that was lost in the Atlantic in May 1986 during a voyage from the Virgin Islands to Maryland. The vessel, which was reportedly knocked down by a microburst, an incident that claimed the lives of the skipper and three crew, lies in 18,000 feet of water.