By Simona Sikimic - Daily Star Lebanon
Unbeknown to the swarms of bathers who migrate to the nation’s beaches to tan and swim each year, the seemingly calm, clear shores of Lebanon’s 225-kilometer coastline are home to countless shipwrecks that hide valuable clues about thousands of years of human history.
Beneath the waves also lie the remains of a C-46 Lebanese International Airways (LIA), passenger airliner that crashed mysteriously in 1957, depositing a “considerable amount” of gold onto the ocean floor and killing all 31 passengers on board the Kuwait-bound plane.
All previous salvage operations to unearth the wreckage have come to nothing, but a high-tech treasure-hunting ship, due to embark from the Port of Beirut shortly, may now finally assemble the missing pieces of the puzzle.
“The Odyssey” is the world’s preeminent deep-ocean shipwreck exploration vessel and comprises a 40-strong crew made up of archeologists, mechanical experts and scientists. It is equipped with military-made, state-of-the-art sensor and radar technology as well as a Remotely Operated Vehicle, “ZEUS,” a kind of unmanned submarine, which is capable of reaching depths of 2,500 meters and is used for documentation and retrieval.
“Odyssey has proven its ability as one of the world leaders in underwater search and recovery, and we are very confident that we can succeed where others have failed,” said Aladar Nasser, Odyssey international relations director. “Through our investigations we are able to solve mysteries and piece together the circumstances of the final missions of the crafts.”
“This project provides an opportunity to explore an aviation mystery which was relatively recent, so we have had an opportunity to cooperate with people that were either witnesses or have been able to provide us with detailed information about the loss – that’s been particularly exciting for us.”
The fatal incident occurred some 11 minutes after takeoff after a fire reportedly broke out on board, causing the pilot to lose control of the plane. The incident was attributed either to electrical failure or human negligence but the true cause and final location of the crash have never been determined.
The task of finding the wreckage will not be an easy one and the operation is likely to take several months.
Contemporary news reports place the plane some 32-kilometers southwest of Rafik Hariri International Airport, but the nature of the crash implies that plane now rests scattered in pieces over a large area, marked with dramatic underwater topography.
The mission, which will be conducted in cooperation with the Public Works and Transportation Ministry, has been on Odyssey’s radar for nearly 15 years when it was first brought to the company’s attention by friends of the pilot.
But difficulties in getting the appropriate permission, combined with prior commitments, have prevented the launch until now.
Founded by deep-ocean shipwreck pioneers and businessmen, John Morris and Greg Stem, Odyssey was born out of a belief that combining good business and sound archeology, termed “commercial marine archeology,” was the only sustainable way of funding long-term exploration.