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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Titanic Mission a Bust As Piece Falls to Seabed

ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland -- The lines holding a 21-ton chunk of the Titanic snapped Friday morning, sending the huge piece of steel back to the bottom of the sea.

The salvage operation was abandoned until next year.

The giant section of the ocean liner's hull had been raised with flotation balloons to within 65 meters of the surface Thursday after two unsuccessful attempts earlier in the week were hampered by technical problems.

It fell back to the ocean floor at a little past midnight when the lines attaching it to five flotation balloons broke before crews could haul it aboard a salvage tug in the North Atlantic.

"One line snapped, and then they went one at a time, and the piece is gone. It went back down to the bottom," George Tulloch, president of expedition sponsor RMS Titanic Inc., said by satellite telephone. "The Titanic's not easy to bring home."

Marty Burke, a Boston-based spokesman for the expedition's sponsor, said crews had managed to attach a transponder to the huge piece of debris, which he said would make it easier to retrieve next summer.

About 1,700 passengers, including three Titanic survivors, watched the salvage operation from two cruise ships near the spot 675 kilometers southeast of Newfoundland, where the Titanic sank in 1912. The ships -- the Royal Majesty and the SS Island Breeze -- left the site Thursday evening and were not in the area when the flotation balloons burst.

The passengers, who had paid as much as $6,000 each to watch on video monitors, were gathered along the railings when the balloons popped to the surface.

Tulloch said they got their money's worth.

"We gave them coverage that would have made the Super Bowl envious, and there were no commercials," he said. "If people were disappointed, I'm disappointed."

The famous liner hit an iceberg and went down on her maiden voyage from England to New York on April 14, 1912. More than 1,500 of the 2,200 passengers and crew were killed. The wreckage was discovered in 1985 by a scientific expedition.

Salvagers used six flotation bags to lift the section of the ship's hull, which they said had been separated from the liner and was resting near the stern. The balloons were filled with diesel fuel, which is lighter than water and can withstand the pressure of the ocean's depths.

The bags were held down by tons of chains, designed to be jettisoned by remote control. But when the acoustic switches were thrown Tuesday, only four of the six lift bags released.

Former astronaut Buzz Aldrin and two crewmen descended in the French submersible Nautile and used its mechanical arms to release the ballast chains. Aldrin has a background in diving and was invited to join the expedition.