BOSTON – Five Massachusetts divers who explored the remains of a steamship that sank in 1898 in New England's worst maritime disaster say they found plenty of evidence of those who went down with the luxury steamship, but no human remains.
The wreckage of the S.S. Portland off Cape Cod was littered with artifacts like plates, dishes, mugs, wash basins and toilets — even a few medicine bottles etched with the name of an apothecary in Maine.
David Faye, one of the divers, said the human tragedy was the first thing to come to mind when the ship emerged from the pitch black darkness 460 feet below the ocean surface.
"I immediately thought of these people — how horrible it must've been," said Faye, a lawyer in Cambridge. "They had no communication with shore. They had no idea where they were. The storm was pushing them out to sea."
More than 190 people died when the paddle-wheel steamer sank 110 years ago after departing Boston.
The recreational divers spoke this week publicly about their three successful dives in August and September, marking the first time divers had reached the Portland wreckage.
Reaching the ship tested their limits and their equipment because the wreckage rests so far below the surface. Their dives were so deep that some of the underwater lights imploded with a noisy boom, Faye said. The divers could spend only 10 to 15 minutes exploring the wreckage site before returning to the surface.
The wreck was first located in 1989 by underwater explorers Arnold Carr and John Fish, but they couldn't prove it was the Portland.
It wasn't until 2002 that the ship's location in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary between Cape Ann and Provincetown was firmly established by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration team using a submersible.
Because the location is kept secret, the divers had to independently verify the location. They had no sponsors; they paid out of pocket for their dives. The diving equipment cost between $10,000 and $50,000 per person, Faye said.
The group succeeded in reaching the Portland on three out of seven tries. The dives were so deep that the divers used a combination of helium and oxygen in their tanks; it took up to four hours for the divers to surface from the depth to avoid decompression illness, known as the bends.
"You have to give the wreck its respect," Faye said. "It's deep and it's dangerous, and you have to be at the top of your game."
To this day, it remains a mystery why Captain Hollis Blanchard ignored forecasts of a storm as the Portland left Boston's India Wharf on Nov. 26, 1898. The winds reached 100 mph, and waves crested at 60 feet, higher than the ship's smokestacks.
The divers realized immediately they'd found the right wreckage. Parts of the twin smokestacks remain, along with the paddle wheels. Much of the wreckage was entangled in fishing nets.
The divers found no human remains. If there are any human remains, they were likely below decks, which the divers didn't explore because of the danger.
The divers were unable to retrieve artifacts from the wreckage because of rules in place in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. For now, the Portland's resting place remains a secret to prevent it from being plundered.