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Saturday, September 24, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Robot To Snag Items From Sunken Ship -- Liner's Treasures Buried 80 Years

Shortly before 6 a.m. on a foggy morning 80 years ago, Capt. Zimro Moore sawed through a rope with a pocketknife, freeing a lifeboat only moments before his ship, the SS Admiral Sampson, sank 320 feet to the bottom of Puget Sound.

Moore, four crewmen and 11 passengers on the steam-powered Alaska-bound luxury liner went to their deaths in the Sound off Point No Point on Aug. 26, 1914.

Beginning tomorrow night, Capt. Moore's 280-foot vessel will have a visitor. Viper, an underwater robot, will be deployed on the ship 24 hours a day for a week, recovering artifacts.

Kent Barnard and Gary Severson of Argonaut Resources Inc. of Mukilteo have been researching the history of the vessel for more than three years.

They discovered the Admiral Sampson, using sonar, in 1991. Since then, they have made close to 40 dives in a two-man submarine, bringing up about two dozen artifacts.

The items include several portholes, the 85-pound solid-brass ship's whistle and some letters from the ship's name across the fantail.

The Admiral Sampson was sliced almost in two by the knifelike bow of another passenger liner, the Princess Victoria. Both had been moving at crawl speed of 3 knots, navigating with just the help of warning blasts from their ship's whistles and reports from lookouts.

When that primitive system failed to keep the ships from colliding, most of the Admiral Sampson's 160 passengers were forced to scramble over railings from one wounded liner to the other. The Princess Victoria limped back to Seattle with a 14-foot rip through its bow. The other ship was torn near its stern.

In relative terms, finding the Admiral Sampson was fairly easy.

"The hull is in two pieces. We think it broke apart when it hit the bottom. It made a crater there," Severson said yesterday. "The large piece of the hull is sitting there like a big steel wall, virtually upright."

The smaller stern section rests on its side, at a 45-degree angle. "The two 10-foot bronze propellers look like they fell off the ship on impact, maybe because the shafts broke," Barnard said.

The bottom of the Sound around the wreck is littered with hundreds of brass portholes, waiting for recovery. "So are seven stacks of china plates, maybe 300 of them, that we found in the pantry," Barnard said. Videos taken by another small robot clearly show the Admiral Line's green emblems on the dishes.

Barnard said the engine-control telegraph and the pilothouse's large compass appear to be in excellent condition.

"We will start on the forecastle with the Viper," said Severson.

The Seahorse, the barge being used by Seversen and Barnard, is fitted with a 65-ton capacity crane which will be used to raise the ship's anchors and propellers.

Smaller pieces will be carefully placed by Viper's hydraulic arm in large steel baskets for hoisting.

While cleaning and polishing operations take place on deck, the Viper will continue the around-the-clock recovery process.

The artifacts will be stored in a secure warehouse pending a public auction in early December.

Working through various state agencies and federal courts, Argonaut Resources secured the exclusive salvage rights to the vessel in 1992.

Among the bounty, if rumors prove true, the recovered artifacts could include a diamond necklace from the Admiral Sampson's safe and gold from the suitcase of a stowaway passenger.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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