Manned deep-sea submersibles, which are used mainly for scientific purposes, have had an impressive safety record since the 1960s, without a single fatality recorded until Sunday, 18 June, when five men are now confirmed to have died following the implosion of the tourist vessel Titan.
Because of the physical pressure and harsh conditions under which such vessels operate, their construction has long been highly regulated. However, Washington-based OceanGate’s submersible had been able to operate on its own terms as a unique venture in international waters, carrying fare-paying passengers to view the wreck of the Titanic at a depth of 3.8km and shallower sites.
Debris “consistent with the catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber” of the submersible was found by an ROV on a bare seabed about half a kilometre from the bow of the Titanic yesterday (22 June).
Those onboard the submersible had been OceanGate co-founder and CEO Stockton Rush from the USA, French veteran Titanic explorer Paul Henry Nargeolet and British passengers Hamish Harding, Shahzada Dawood and his 19-year-old son Suleman.
Investigations into what the authorities describe as an extremely complex case have already begun – complicated by the fact that a number of different nationalities were involved in an incident that occurred at extreme depth and outside territorial waters.
During the week, as international search and rescue operations intensified and captured the world’s attention, a CBS TV news report from 2022 was widely viewed. It revealed Rush showing off the fact that Titan was, unusually, constructed in part using carbon-fibre rather than titanium or steel and controlled using a Logitech gamepad, with scaffolding poles providing ballast and ship-to-sub communication breakdowns appearing to be accepted.
TV comedy writer Mike Reiss, who also took the trip, reported that communication had been lost on all three of his dives on Titan, including the one to Titanic.
Guests were required to sign a waiver accepting that: “This experimental vessel has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body, and could result in physical injury, emotional trauma, or death.”
Such recent reports are understood to have led to a request for a refund from at least one British man who, “after a few beers”, had paid a 10% deposit to join his friend Harding on a trip to see Titanic.
Dismissed by the company
David Lochridge, who was director of marine operations at OceanGate during the development phase of Titan, when it was known as Cyclops 2, was dismissed by the company after raising safety concerns ahead of the vessel’s maiden voyage in 2018.
A legal action brought against the Scot by OceanGate alleged that he had breached a confidentiality agreement by complaining to the USA’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Lochridge in turn sued OceanGate for wrongful dismissal, and the safety concerns he had raised with the company were made public in the court papers.
After Rush had asked him to carry out a quality inspection, Lochridge said he had reported back to him that constant pressure cycling would weaken existing flaws in the carbon-fibre hull, resulting in large tears.
He had expressed concern that non-destructive testing had not been carried out on the hull, but claimed to have been told that no equipment existed to perform such a test. OceanGate would rely instead on an acoustic monitoring system – prompting him to point out that this would offer a warning to the crew possibly only milliseconds before any implosion.
Lochridge also stated that he had been denied access to data concerning Titan’s forward viewport because it had been built only to a certified pressure of 1,300m, with OceanGate allegedly unwilling to install a port rated to Titanic depth at that time.
“The paying passengers would not be aware, and would not be informed, of this experimental design, the lack of non-destructive testing of the hull, or that hazardous flammable materials were being used within the submersible,” Lochridge had reported, and said that he had subsequently been given 10 minutes to leave the premises. It is not clear what changes if any were made to Titan following his departure.
Anathema to rapid innovation
Also in 2018, the manned underwater vehicles committee of the USA’s Marine Technology Society (MTS) is reported to have written to OceanGate expressing concerns that what it described as its experimental approach could lead to “negative outcomes (from minor to catastrophic)”.
There are thought to be fewer than a dozen submersibles in the world capable of diving to Titanic depths and all but Titan were certified by industry third parties, according to the MTS.
The following year, Rush made clear his own views about independent regulation when he stated in a blog that “bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation”.
Titanic film director James Cameron, who has completed 33 submersible dives to the iconic wreck besides his solo Marianas Trench exploration, and part-owns Triton Submarines, was quick to tell the BBC that he would not have dived on Titan.
He said he had suspected that a catastrophic implosion had occurred as soon as he heard that its communications and navigation systems had failed simultaneously.
“We now have another wreck that is based on unfortunately the same principles of not heeding warnings,” said Cameron, comparing Titan to the Titanic itself. “OceanGate were warned… one of the saddest aspects of this is how preventable it really was.”
‘You run the risk’
Just before the Titan wreckage was discovered, OceanGate co-founder Guillermo Sohnlein issued a personal statement, explaining that he and Rush had co-founded the company in 2009 with a mission to use crewed submersibles to “open the oceans for all of humanity”.
He had turned the company over to Rush in early 2013 but remained a minority equity-holder, leaving the other man to act as CEO, lead designer, chief test pilot and instigator of annual science expeditions to Titanic, he said.
Sohnlein later told the BBC: “Anyone who operates in that depth of the ocean, whether it is human-rated submersibles or robotic submersibles, knows the risks of operating under such pressure and that at any given moment, on any mission, with any vessel, you run the risk of this kind of implosion.”
OceanGate itself described the five men who died on Titan as “true explorers who shared a distinct spirit of adventure, and a deep passion for exploring and protecting the world’s oceans” and said that it was “a very sad time for the entire explorer community, and for each of the family-members of those lost at sea”.