The bow of the Titanic as it appears today, 100 years after sinking, at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean
“What do you call a thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.”
—joke told by Tom Hanks, as attorney Andrew Beckett, in the movie Philadelphia.
David Concannon has never regretted turning his back on a certain toilet paper price-fixing case. In a roundabout way, it led him to the wreck of the Titanic.
Concannon is one lawyer who—no joke—really has been at the bottom of the ocean. A 1988 IUP graduate who runs his own law firm in the Delaware County community of Wayne, Concannon has made four descents in the deep-diving submersible Mir to the floor of the North Atlantic, 12,460 feet beneath the surface, to explore the remains of the ill-fated luxury liner and recover artifacts. While there, peering through portholes at an alien world, Concannon was struck, as if by a thunderbolt, by the realization that he belongs to an ultraexclusive fraternity. Few people on the planet have visited the grave site of the great ship, which sank on its maiden voyage 100 years ago this month.
“It amazes me that more people have stood on the summit of Mount Everest in a single day than have ever seen the Titanic,” Concannon said. “I led the last expedition to explore it with submersibles in 2005, and we figured then that the number was somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 to 140—ever. I think there have been between 600 and 700 people in space, so that gives you a context. It’s a very small group.”
Yet Concannon’s Titanic experience represents—pardon the expression—only the tip of the iceberg. He has traveled the globe like a modern-day Phileas Fogg in pursuit of adventure, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak at 19,340 feet; diving to a depth of 16,100 feet and finding treasure in the Bermuda Triangle; leading an expedition that discovered two sunken World War II-era fighter planes; sailing through the Beagle Channel at the southern tip of South America, as Charles Darwin did; dodging bullets in Cartagena, Colombia, when rebels opened fire near his hotel; and scuba diving in the Bahamas with former astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Guy Bluford as sharks circled languidly.
Concannon is regarded with such esteem in exploring circles that he became one of a handful of people under the age of 30 to join the prestigious Explorers Club, an international society that promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air, and space. He also displaced astronaut Kathryn Sullivan as the youngest member of the Sea-Space Symposium, an elite group of high-powered leaders in space and ocean exploration, and served as general counsel to the X Prize Foundation, which promotes private space flight. In addition, Concannon founded and now manages Explorer Consulting, LLC, which assists in exploration projects. In that role, he has worked with NASA, National Geographic Television, the Discovery Channel, and Oscar-winning director James Cameron (Titanic), who hired Concannon as an advisor when his company, Earthship Productions, filmed documentaries on the Titanic and the World War II German battleship Bismarck.
It was a request for assistance by Don Walsh, his admitted “hero,” that triggered Concannon’s forays into the field of exploration. Walsh, who in 1960 piloted the bathyscaphe Trieste to a record depth of 35,800 feet in the Mariana Trench, east of the Philippines, casually handed Concannon a brown envelope during a Philadelphia chapter meeting of the Explorers Club in 1998.
“It was a motion for a preliminary injunction to keep him from leading an expedition to the Titanic,” Concannon recalled. “I said, ‘Don, were you thinking about going to the Titanic?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I was.’ So there was a lawsuit to keep him from doing that. And he said, ‘Can you help me?’”
The managing partner at the firm where Concannon was then employed advised him to pass.
“He said, ‘It will distract you from the work we want you to do,’” Concannon recalled. “The alternative was a toilet paper price-fixing case. So I told Don I’d help him. And that really did change my life. I lecture all over the world, and I like to talk to kids more than anything. I tell them you never know when an opportunity is going to come up. You never know when something’s going to fall into your lap. My advice is, ‘Don’t say, why should I do something? Just say, why not?’”
Concannon embraced his opportunity, took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. A year later, he found himself aboard the Russian research vessel Keldysh, floating more than two miles above Titanic’s final resting place. Concannon had been hired by RMS Titanic, Inc., the company that owns the salvage rights to the ship, to help organize the expedition and act as co-leader. He was about to fulfill a dream that dated to 1985, when a crew headed by oceanographer Robert Ballard located the wreck.
“I remember where I was when I heard the Titanic had been found,” Concannon said. “I was driving back to IUP with a classmate, Lisa Cobes, who was the captain of the synchronized swimming team, and we were in her car when we heard on the radio that it had been discovered. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s cool. I’d love to go there someday.’”