Feature: Kea island marks centenary of sinking of Britannic, Burdigala, plans museum, research center by Maria Spiliopoulou KEA, Greece, Oct. 2 (Xinhua) -- In November 1916 the HMHS Britannic and the S/S Burdigala sank off the coast of Kea island in the Aegean Sea by a week apart after hitting mines laid by a German submarine. Some 30 people lost their lives in the twin tragedy, while stories about the rescue operation of thousands more by fishermen have passed from generation to generation among islanders. A century later, the Municipality of Kea, the Region of South Aegean Islands and the Friends of Kea Society organized this weekend an international conference to honor the victims, highlight the historic events and present plans for the establishment of an underwater museum and an exhibition and research center on the island which are expected to boost tourism. During the three-day event which run from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, local officials, scholars, deep-water photographers and other delegates exchanged their knowledge on the history of the vessels which were rediscovered respectively in 1975 and 2008, and discussed the significance of their preservation and promotion. The commemorative event started with the placing of three plaques at the shipwrecks by a team of technical divers, one for each vessel and one in the memory of Carl Spencer, a British diver who died in a diving accident while shooting a documentary about the Britannic in 2009. "This conference's aim is to highlight first of all the historic event of the sinking of these ships which is linked to the Balkan wars and of course Greece's role," Municipality of Kea Mayor Yiannis Evangelou told Xinhua on the sidelines of the forum. "The fact that these two ships have special characteristics (they were ships with a very important history because they had been built with special specifications therefore are of great interest as vessels) combined with the fact that there are in the waters close to Kea gives us the prospect to develop a tourism product, the diving tourism, which is a very interesting form of tourism for us," he said. Britannic, widely known as the Titanic's sister-ship, commandeered by the British Admiralty had been converted to hospital ship during the WWI. Launched in 1914 she was the largest ocean liner of the time and after the 1912 Titanic disaster changes had been made to her designs. Britannic was heading to Lemnos island to take on wounded soldiers when it sank on Nov. 21, 1916, with more than 1,000 people on board. Exactly a week earlier the steam liner Budrigala, built in 1897 with a unique propulsion system as S/S Kaiser Friedrich, commandeered by the French Navy at the time, was heading from Thessaloniki to Toulouse with a 450 strong crew to load re enforcements, when it sunk under similar circumstances. The Municipality of Kea in cooperation with the Greek Ministry of Culture and Cypriot authorities have submitted a request for European funds to create an underwater museum on the site for diving tourism and a research and exhibition hall on the island's port to put on display the findings of scientific expeditions of recent years, Evangelou said. Addressing the event, Director of the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities Angeliki Simosi added that the Greek Ministry of Culture supports another request to include Kea's shipwrecks to UNESCO's list of monuments for protection of underwater cultural heritage. Among speakers was also Simon Mills, a British maritime historian, author, and documentaries producer who bought Britannic' s wreck from the British government in 1996. He decided to purchase the shipwreck within 10 minutes once he learned that the British state intended to sell it, while he was making research for a documentary, he told Xinhua. Mills is bound by the Greek law regarding the future of the Britannic, but he is confident that through close cooperation with the Greek authorities he will realize his vision to "bring the mountain to Mohammed", which in this case means to bring up, preserve and place for public display selected items and present images and videos to people who cannot dive for a closer look. "It is frustrating when people are saying oh it is Titanic's sister ship, her forgotten sister or her lost sister. I say actually she is Titanic's big sister," Mills told Xinhua. "But the point is it is not just about diving to it. It is about archaeology, it is about science, what we can learn by analyzing the wreck, how it reacts with its environment," he explained when asked what Britannic has to offer us today. "She sank a hundred years ago and she is in incredible condition. The Titanic has been at the seabed for a couple of years longer and in a very different environment and she is falling apart. By analyzing the different marine environments we work out how man-made structures survive, we can do scientific work, archeological work and all of it has relevance today, as it did in 1916 it does today," Mills stressed. Jonathan Mitchell shared with delegates his grandmother's account of Britannic's last voyage. Sheila Macbeth, was an Army nurse on board that morning. "The reason I am here is that my grandmother was here or rather one mile into the sea in 1916 when the ship was sank and she got into a lifeboat and was rescued and taken to Athens," Mitchell told Xinhua. "She came back again later. Sixty years later when she came to the island of Kea together with Jacques Cousteau and at that time she stayed on Kea, she went submarining. She was 86 years old and she had two artificial legs and she went submarining into the Aegean and went right down to the wreck of the Britannic which you see in these photographs. She lived to be 103 years old," he said. "All of us in our family heard her stories, many stories of how she had a fabulous time in 1976, not such a good time in 1916," he said. For Mitchell there is no question why one should strive to preserve the wreck after a century. "If we do not remember our past we are doomed to relive it. Britannic's shipwreck is a memento of war which should not be repeated." Enditem
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