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CANADA: American man continues fight to exhume unidentified Titanic victims

Bill Willard says he has the support of over 130 families who want to find out if their loved one's final resting place is here in Halifax
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(Meghan Groff/HalifaxToday.ca)

HALIFAX - The North Carolina man behind the proposal to identify unknown victims of the Titanic hopes to meet face-to-face with cemetery representatives when he visits Halifax later this year.

Bill Willard's unveiled 'Project Name Them All: Naming the unknown victims in Halifax' at the British Titanic Society Convention in Southampton, Hampshire, England earlier this month.

His plan is to open 43 nameless graves and look for DNA that could be used to identify the people who are buried in them.

Willard told NEWS 95.7's The Rick Howe Show, he has the support of over 130 families who want to find out if their loved one's final resting place is here in Halifax.

"I was at the British Titanic Society Convention a week ago Saturday. A lady walks up to me and says, 'I support your project. My family has been looking for my great-grandfather since 1912. We have always wondered if he is one of the ones that are buried there,'" he said. "With tears in her eyes, she embraces me and she thanks me because it gives her family some hope that we may identify one of the victims as her great-grandfather."

"We're doing it because the families seek this."

He has also heard from an 87-year-old man whose grandfather died in the disaster.

"He said, 'If one of those victims is my grandfather, it would be the first time in my life I've had a chance to go to where he lays and honour him."

Of the 1,500 people who died in April, 1912 when the Titanic sank on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, 209 victims were brought back to Halifax.

Some of those were returned to their home communities, but 150 were buried in three local cemeteries; Mount Olivet, Baron de Hirsch and Fairview Lawn.

Willard has contacted all three in hopes he could explain his proposal and share the stories of the families he's talked to, but he has yet to get a reply from any of them.

He understands the resistance. He said those who are responsible for the graves can't just let anyone come in and dig them up. 

"Our request to the cemeteries was to meet face-to-face so we could share the project, we've never really shared the project. They asked for a small synopsis about what we wanted to talk about, and that's all we heard from them," he said. "Nobody would talk with us at all."

There has also been public opposition to the proposal.

Both Darryll Walsh of the Titanic Society of Atlantic Canada, and local historian and author of Titanic Victims in Halifax Graveyards, Blair Beed, have spoken out against it. But Willard says he's also heard from people in Halifax who want the project to go forward.

He made it clear he has no plans to remove the bodies from their graves.

"We're not exhuming. That word 'exhumation' is not a word we've ever used. That's a word that's volatile ... we're not taking anything out except for a small, viable sample if we find one, from which we can extract some DNA. The bodies will stay in the ground, so it's not an exhumation, it's a recovery of a sample."

Willard said all the families he's spoken with are aware there may not be any remains left to sample.

In 2001, the graves of three Titanic victims were opened at Fairview Lawn Cemetery -- where 121 victims are buried -- in an attempt to identify them, including an unknown child.

Prior to that, it was thought the grave belonged to 2-year-old Gosta Palsson, who was travelling on the Titanic with his mother and three siblings. 

However, DNA testing in 2002 suggested the child was in fact Eino Viljami Panula, a 13-month-old Finnish boy.

In 2007, a second DNA test was done, which has led researchers to now believe 19-month-old Sidney Leslie Goodwin from England is the unknown child.

Geologist and author of Titanic Remembered: The Unsinkable Ship and Halifax, Alan Ruffman, participated in the project.

In an earlier interview, he told NEWS 95.7 he had to obtain authorization from the Palsson family before getting permission to open the grave.

After extensive research, he was also able meet with who he believed were the likely relatives of two more unidentified victims, then get their approval for exhumations.

The researchers got lucky with the "unknown child," who Ruffman said was in a shallow grave. They were able to find a small piece of bone and three teeth.

"The two other graves were at the lower part of the graveyard with massive amounts of water and no organic material could be found," Ruffman explained. "Our conclusion was that the movement of water through the grave over a 90 year period had simply dissolved all of the organic material."

Willard acknowledges if he project were to get a green light, he could run into the same issue, but he believes some of the victims may be buried above the water table at Fairview Lawn, and the situation at Mount Olivet and Baron de Hirsch would be completely different.

"There is a possibility, and we've shared this with all the families, the window of opportunity may be closed," he explained. "All of them tell us, if you've got one chance, take it, because it's better to say we tried and could not find anything, then to never try and always wonder, could we have named these people."

Willard plans to make a documentary about the project, but he said, "if anybody is going to make money off it, it's probably not going to be me."

"Anyone that has ever worked on a Titanic project knows, if someone tends to break even, they're happy. We have no guarantees we're going to make a profit at all," he said. "I have not received any money from this, and I've already put in two years of work on it, how can we make money off this?"

"There is going to be a small book that we hope to publish on it, but ask any Titanic author how much money they make off their books. It's not something they can survive on."

Willard said his motivation for the project is the history and the families.

"For us it's not about the show, it's not about the media circus or the glimmer, it's about solving mysteries for these families," he explained. "Those 43 people deserve their names."

Willard is planning a trip to Halifax later this year. He isn't making his plans public, but is offering up an open invitation to meet with cemetery officials. If that falls through, it appears he has a plan B.

"There are other higher up entities that we've had conversations with who feel the ... families deserve a say in this," he said. "Our current plans are that we will be meeting with these people in Halifax some time in near future."

"These people are big decision makers. They do have the authority."

- HalifaxToday.ca/Rogers Media




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Meghan Groff

About the Author: Meghan Groff

Born in Michigan, raised in Ontario, schooled in Indiana & lives in Nova Scotia; Meghan is the community editor for HalifaxToday.ca.
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