On Sunday, 18 June, 5 tourists dived down to the bottom of the ocean aboard an OceanGate Expeditions submersible, reaching for the wreckage site of the Titanic ship. About 1h and 45 minutes after the submarine started descending, it lost contact with the crew above water and a 5-day rescue mission ensued.
Experts estimated that the 5 passengers, Stockton Rush, OceanGate’s CEO, British billionaire explorer Hamish Harding, renowned French diver Paul-Henri Nargeolet, Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, had 70 to 96 hours’ worth of oxygen on board.
The US and Canadian Coast Guards, military services as a well as commercial vessels had been scouring the area in hope of finding the missing Titan ship and its passengers. A ray of hope came on Tuesday when radars detected some loud intermittent banging around the wreckage site. Despite search efforts intensifying, no clues were found.
Although oxygen was estimated to have run out, some there was still a little optimism towards the tourists’ chances of survival, as it was believed they could still survive with the lack, or rather scarcity of oxygen of several extra hours.
However, a few hours after the 96-hour estimate, a robotic, remote operated, diving vehicle found some debris close to the Titanic wreck on the bottom of the ocean, which OceanGate confirmed was part of the Titan. Unwilling to give up hope, experts put forward the option of the ship discarding those parts intentionally in an effort to resurface. But as more debris was being recovered, OceanGate and coast guard experts concluded Titan must have imploded as soon as contact was lost. “The debris field here is consistent with a catastrophic implosion of the vehicle”, confirmed US Coast Guard Rear Admiral John Mauger.
The only positive out of it is that it was instantaneous and they didn’t know anything.Ryan Ramsey, former Royal Navy submarine captain
Even though Rush had previously described Titan as “rock solid”, it seems the ship’s structural integrity was not as solid as he believed. Under the immense pressures at such depth under water, the smallest imperfection can lead tot the submersible giving in.
“Either the hatch with the 17 bolts they used to seal them in has had a failure, which has then caused the hull to collapse at pressure because there’s huge amounts of pressure, even halfway down, or the pressure hull itself had a defect in it when they sailed and that’s fractured from the pressure, and caused the same result”, explained former Royal Navy submarine captain Ryan Ramsey.
Unfortunately for the families of the victims, the bodies are unlikely to be recovered.
An avoidable tragedy?
Titan’s structural integrity has been questioned before, with at least two former employees having expressed safety concerns over the past few years, before the ship ever took its first dive. The thickness of the material for the submersible’s hull as well as safety procedures were brought into question.
Moreover, OceanGate declined to have a certification safety review according to international standards and, since Titan’s dives were taking place in international waters, not falling under any government’s legislation, it was allowed to continue its expeditions without a rigorous expert inspection.
I’m struck by the similarity of the Titanic disaster itself, where the captain was repeatedly warned about ice ahead of his ship and yet he steamed at full speed into an ice field.James Cameron, Movie Director of Titanic
Even after the vessel had already suffered some damage on previous dives, the company chose to continue its operations. According to a November 2022 court filing, the ship had a battery issue on its first dive and had to be manually attached to its lifting platform. Additionally, “in the high sea state, the submersible sustained modest damage to its external components and OceanGate decided to cancel the second mission for repairs and operational enhancements”, the filing stated.
Like the Titanic, the Titan came to a tragic end, not least due to safety issues that could have been avoided. Hopefully, like the “unsinkable ship”, the “rock solid” submarine catastrophe will prompt stricter regulation in the submersibles field.