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Expedition seeks sunken treasure

A Columbus, Ohio-based expedition is combing a sunken wreck off the coast of North Carolina for the third year, hoping to retrieve more gold worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The research and discovery ship Arctic Discoverer and its 22-member crew are piecing together a "big jigsaw puzzle" in their quest at the bottom of the ocean about 200 miles offshore, said Thomas G. Thompson, founder and leader of the expedition.

The Arctic Discoverer set sail from Jacksonville earlier this week for its third salvage operation of the gold-laden SS Central America, which sank during a hurricane 134 years ago.

The Central America was carrying gold bars and coins from the San Francisco mint to New York banks. The loss then was put at $1.2-million, enough to help trigger the panic of 1857.

Two years ago, lawyers for the expedition estimated the treasure to be worth $1-billion. Thompson estimates its worth at $100-million to $400-million.

The expedition uses an unmanned remote recovery vehicle, Nemo, which has recovered most of the easily reached gold in the last two years, Thompson said.

Now Nemo's task is to comb carefully through the wreck, looking for 3 tons of gold believed to be still there.

Crew members must figure out the mechanics of how the Central America came apart when it sank. Then they must understand how the ship's parts and stores have been degraded and transformed by water pressure, worms and silt.

The expedition found the remains in 1988 and was awarded ownership last year by an admiralty court in Norfolk, Va. The award is under appeal, but Thompson can continue mining the ship.