Following the implosion of the Titan deep-sea submersible while on its way to the wreck of the Titanic, a number of people will be mourning the loss of the five occupants who would have died instantly – while also reflecting on their fortune in not having made the trip themselves.
Some harboured doubts about the safety of OceanGate Expeditions’ commercial descents to the 3.8km-deep wreck, while others had simply been too busy to go – and one had sacrificed a slot for her son.
US trial lawyer and diver David G Concannon had pulled out of the dive at the last minute because of a business obligation, although he then spent the days after Titan vanished assisting in the search effort.
Divernet readers might recognise Concannon as part of the team who acted for the plaintiffs in the negligence lawsuit arising from the “drysuit-squeeze” death of teenager Leah Mills in 2020.
Training agency PADI and the other parties settled out of court earlier this year, after which Concannon explained his subsequent push to reopen the “botched criminal investigation” into Mills’ death in the hope that criminal charges would be brought.
“I was supposed to be on this expedition and, indeed, on this dive, but I had to cancel to attend to another urgent client matter,” Concannon stated on 19 June, the day after Titan went missing. “Last night, I was called and asked to provide whatever assistance I could to ensure the safe return of everyone in the sub. Of course, I immediately agreed.”
Concannon, renowned for not having lost a trial since 1995, has through his law firm provided legal counsel in many diving and undersea exploration-related cases. Through his other company Explorer Consulting, which advises clients on business aspects of exploration, he has also worked with, among many others, OceanGate Expeditions.
The former New Jersey wreck-diver is a noted underwater explorer in his own right, and has been on five trips to Titanic, once as expedition leader, as well as diving its sister-ship Britannic. But it was his experience in the field of deep-sea searches that was needed as long as it remained possible that Titan’s crew could be rescued.
He had led the 2013 mission to locate and raise Project Apollo’s Saturn V rocket engines from a greater depth than that of Titanic, which won him the same Explorers Club Citation of Merit for “an outstanding feat of exploration” that had been accorded to Robert Ballard for discovering Titanic in 1985. Two of the passengers who died on Titan were fellow Explorers Club members – Paul Henry Nargeolet and Hamish Harding.
From a succession of posts after Titan disappeared, it was clear that Concannon was pushing extremely hard to get the required 6km depth-rated ROVs and other equipment to the Titanic wreck-site as rapidly as possible.
The day before the Odysseus 6K ROV from Horizon Arctic located Titan debris some half-kilometre from Titanic’s bow on 22 June he had remained hopeful, reporting that “proper assets” were “on the move from all over… there is still time left and we continue to remain hopeful for the safe return of our friends and loved ones.”
The Titanic judge
Rebecca Beach Smith is senior judge of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, and for most of this century has held oversight over artefacts salvaged from Titanic.
Premier Exhibitions, the parent company of RMS Titanic Inc for which PH Nargeolet recovered so many artefacts over the years, asked Judge Smith in 2011 to award it sole title to those artefacts with covenants to preserve them forever – a request she granted, subject to stringent conditions.
And in what was called the most significant court ruling since Titanic was rediscovered in 1985, she agreed in 2020 that the Marconi radio-room that transmitted the stricken ship’s distress signals was historically and culturally important, and should be brought to the surface before it decayed. Because of the Covid pandemic and further legal challenges, that has yet to happen.
Judge Smith had been invited to experience Titanic first-hand this year as a guest onboard Titan by Concannon. He had dealt with her court on behalf of OceanGate following an issue that had resulted in minor damage to its submersible in 2021.
The judge declined to participate in the dive but wrote in reply that “perhaps, if another expedition occurs in the future, I will be able to do so. That opportunity would be quite informative and present a first ‘eyes on’ view of the wreck-site by the court.”
Safer than scuba diving
The day after confirmation of Titan’s implosion, US investor and real-estate developer Jay Bloom explained why he had declined to join the doomed trip – and who had taken his place onboard.
OceanGate’s CEO Stockton Rush, who died piloting the submersible he had developed, had flown to Los Vegas in his hand-built experimental aircraft in February in a bid to persuade Bloom and his 20-year-old son Sean to join the dive. It had been scheduled for May, but would be delayed until June because of bad weather.
The businessman had however expressed concerns about the safety of Titan, including its unorthodox carbon-fibre hull construction, the bolting-in of the crew and what he regarded as the lack of an escape plan.
“While there’s obviously risk, it’s way safer than flying in a helicopter or even scuba diving,” Rush had, he says, assured him. “There hasn’t been even an injury in 35 years in a non-military sub.”
“I am sure he really believed what he was saying, but he was very wrong,” said Bloom, who in the end had put off making a decision to the following year. He said that the two slots he had declined had gone instead to another father and son: British citizens Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, the latter a year younger than Sean Bloom.
18 June, the day Titan imploded, had been Father’s Day. “I look at the picture of the father and son who replaced my son and myself, and think how easily but for the grace of God that could have been our picture on the news,” said Bloom.
In one of the most tragic aspects of the Titan dive, it later emerged that Suleman Dawood had boarded the submersible only because his mother Christine had surrendered her own long-anticipated place.
Contrary to reports while the search operation was underway that her son had been reluctant to go, she told the BBC that she and her husband had originally booked the trip before the Covid pandemic, and said that Suleman had been disappointed at the time because he would have been too young to join his parents.
In the end she had decided to step down because he had “really wanted to go”, and hoped to break a Rubik’s Cube world depth record in the process. She and her daughter had been on the support ship Polar Prince as Titan descended and, until the end, had remained hopeful that its crew would survive.
Friends of Harding
Hamish Harding, the British chairman of Action Aviation, had tried to persuade several fellow-explorers to accompany him on what would turn out to be his last adventure. Nigerian senator Ned Nwoko, a business partner who first met him on a “dangerous” Antarctic expedition, posted that he had been invited “but was tied down with national duties” as a politician.
He said that his friend had been very enthusiastic about OceanGate “and always gave his support at every given opportunity”. Harding‘s last message had arrived on the morning of the day he died, to tell Nwoko they were ready to dive on Titanic, weather permitting.
“He loved adventure and challenges,” he said. “My heart bleeds for his dear wife and kids, who have become family friends over the years. We will surely miss his wealth of experience.”
However, other friends of Harding had been more sceptical about the undertaking, and had dropped out of the process at an early stage. One vocal critic, British digital marketer and extreme explorer Chris Brown, had also met Harding in Antarctica, in 2016, and while holidaying with him later in the Caribbean had, over “a few beers”, agreed to accompany him on the OceanGate trip.
He had paid his 10% deposit, but later became concerned by what he described as “an accumulation of red flags” that he alleged surrounded the operation.
He has detailed these as missed submersible-testing “milestones”; lack of redundancy; the construction materials used; the Logitec game controller used to manoeuvre Titan; external thruster cables creating a snag risk; the impossibility of self-escape even at the surface; and, ultimately, OceanGate’s reluctance to submit Titan to any form of certification. Brown had cancelled and requested the refund of his deposit.
The YouTube influencer
American James Donaldson, aka MrBeast, has six YouTube channels and presents videos based on expensive stunts and challenges. With 162 million subscribers he has wide influence, claiming to be the most subscribed individual user on the platform. On 25 June he too revealed that he had declined an invitation to take part in the Titan dive.
The call had been informal – a friend had texted to say that he was “going to the Titanic in a submarine late this month. The team would be stoked to have you along. I’m sure you’re also welcome to join…”
MrBeast declined, though he did not say on what grounds. “Kind of scary that I could have been on it,” he commented later.
The US Coast Guard has now opened an investigation into what lay behind the Titan tragedy. This is being run jointly with Canadian, UK and French authorities, reflecting the nationalities of the five people who died and the country from which they embarked. Canada has been proceeding with its own investigation onboard Polar Prince since the mothership returned to port.
The investigation’s stated priority is the recovery of debris and possible human remains. Pelagic Research Services, which owns the ROV that discovered Titan’s remains, has the task of mapping and documenting the scene before recovering debris if required.
This process will be followed by the collection of witness testimony. The investigators say they will then recommend whether any civil or criminal charges should be brought, and make recommendations with a view to preventing future such incidents. No timeframe has been given.
Also on Divernet: Lost Titan submersible crew named, Fall-out from the Titan disaster, ’Momentous' protection for dissolving Titanic, Deep dive back in time on Titanic, Wreck Tour 161 Special: The Titanic