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David Concannon ‘88's Titanic Adventures

By Bob Fulton
April 10, 2012
Appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of IUP Magazine

Lawyer David Concannon took a case all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. Then he took on some real challenges—four dives to the Titanic shipwreck. Now he tells lecture audiences, “Don’t say, why should I do something. Just say, why not?”

Bow of Titanic as appears today

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.’”

Boarding MirMir ship hover

David Concannon boarding the Mir submersible in 2005 for the two-and-ahalf-hour descent to the Titanic wreckage

A crane on the Russian research vessel Keldysh lowers the Mir into the North Atlantic.

He did just that in 2000, squeezing into the compact, titanium-hulled Mir along with cinematographer Ralph White and pilot Anatoly Sagalevitch for the two-and-a-half-hour descent to the wreck, pulse quickening as the sub’s powerful halogen lights pierced the inky blackness to reveal haunting sights. Concannon made three dives that year, during which he found a new debris field, a mile and a half in length, leading away from the wreck; recovered the ship’s main compass from the bridge; gazed into the stateroom of Titanic Captain Edward Smith, its most prominent feature being his porcelain bathtub; and spotted hundreds of artifacts—china, wash bowls, cups, crystal decanters, copper pots, and other cooking utensils. A leather bag belonging to passenger Edgar Samuel Andrew, retrieved using the sub’s mechanical arm, proved particularly poignant in light of what Concannon learned later. The 17-year-old Andrew penned a letter to his friend Josey Cowan two days before Titanic departed Southampton, England, expressing irritation that he had to transfer from another White Star liner to Titanic, forcing him to leave England a week early and therefore miss Cowan’s arrival from Argentina.

Wrote Andrew, “Right now I wish the Titanic were lying at the bottom of the ocean.” He perished along with more than 1,500 others the night of April 14-15, 1912. Cowan’s family kept the letter a secret for 90 years, coming forward only after Concannon found Andrew’s bag.

“It’s very, very chilling,” he said. “I think, of all my Titanic experiences, that’s what I’m most proud of—recovering that and adding that footnote to the history of the ship and the passengers and crew.”

He returned to Titanic in 2003 and made a third visit in 2005, an expedition chronicled by a film crew for a program that aired on the History Channel in 2006. (Concannon was conspicuous in his IUP sweatshirt. In another nod to his alma mater, he regularly listened to the Clarks, a popular rock band that formed on campus, during Mir dives.) All told, Concannon has been deeply involved in six Titanic expeditions and peripherally in two others. Given that, it’s surprising that he much prefers to discuss his experiences with another ship that, in contrast to Titanic, never gripped the public’s imagination or inspired movies and books. In fact, its very name is unknown.

Scuba diving with sharks

Scuba Diving with the Sharks

David Concannon, astronaut Guy Bluford, and NASA’s
Gary Martin, left to right, in the Bahamas in 2010

In 2001, Concannon served as advisor to and was a participant in the so-called Atlantic Sands expedition to the Bermuda Triangle that located the deepest wooden shipwreck ever found. He made one dive in the Mir to the wreck, situated at 16,100 feet, about 300 miles off Florida’s Atlantic coast, just north of the Bahamas.

“The ship was sitting upright, almost completely intact,” Concannon recalled. “There were literally a pile of things on the back deck—a chest, octants, telescopes, dishes, just sitting there. The hold was filled with coconuts and there were rum bottles in the bow. So we called it the piña colada wreck.”

Of considerably more value were coins recovered from the stern, including between 1,600 and 1,800 Spanish pieces of eight, the most recent dated 1809. Expedition members also unearthed proof that what they initially assumed was a merchant vessel was actually a slave ship.

“We found a newspaper, wrapped around gold coins inside a gold snuff box, that was from Jamaica, and it showed the sale of slaves,” Concannon said. “The ship had come from Africa, the crew dropped off its human cargo in Jamaica, sold the slaves, and it had the money and goods that it could sell in England, most likely. So that was pretty neat, that we unraveled this mystery. The reason that ship’s more exciting to me than Titanic is we know a hell of a lot about the Titanic—there are thousands of photographs from the period, there are drawings, there are witness accounts. It’s been well-documented. But this was a complete mystery. We had to dig, dig, dig, dig, dig and do some detective work. And we got some answers.”

The irony in his dives to the Atlantic Sands wreck and the Titanic is that Concannon never figured he’d be one of those lawyers at the bottom of the ocean Andrew Beckett joked about. He never even figured he’d be a lawyer.

“I thought I’d go into finance,” Concannon said. “Then, in October of my senior year at IUP, the stock market dropped about 500 points in one day and all of my job offers went away. I needed to find something else to do. And so I ended up in law school.”

Widener University School of Law, near Philadelphia, to be precise. Concannon later spent 10 weeks in Kenya, studying international environmental law, and for fun visited neighboring Tanzania to tackle Kilimanjaro. His ascent was a springboard of sorts to the kind of extreme elevations and depths and out-of-the-way destinations that mark him, by any measure, as a rara avis.

Small wonder then that Concannon holds listeners spellbound recounting tales of his adventures during speaking engagements that have taken him to five continents. He’s counted among the few people to have visited the wreck of the Titanic, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Concannon has also found treasure in the Bermuda Triangle, located two sunken World War II-era aircraft, followed Charles Darwin’s route through Tierra del Fuego, played a role in the first private space flight, and gone scuba diving in the company of two astronauts—and many more sharks.

“I’ve had more than my fair share of once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” Concannon admitted.

All because he turned his back on a certain toilet paper price-fixing case.

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