Titanic sub implosion: Was the deep ocean vehicle safe?

The death of five people onboard the Titan sub has prompted former passengers to step forward with tales of glitches.

The Titan submersible, operated by OceanGate Expeditions, is seen traveling through water, a trail of bubbles behind it
Because it operated in deep-sea international waters, the Titan was not subjected to much regulation [OceanGate Expeditions/Reuters Handout]

The implosion of a submersible touring the deep-sea wreckage of the Titanic, killing all five passengers on board, has prompted questions about the regulations overseeing such voyages — and whether the vehicle itself was safe.

On Friday, the company responsible for the tour, OceanGate Expeditions, defended the decisions of its chief executive Stockton Rush, who died on board the submersible.

“Stockton was one of the most astute risk managers I’d ever met. He was very risk-averse,” Guillermo Söhnlein, OceanGate’s co-founder, told the news agency Reuters. “He was very committed to safety.”

But in the days since the submersible first went missing, passengers have come forward to share their stories of glitches and mishaps on expeditions to the ocean floor.

What did those who have been on board say?

Josh Gates, the host of the TV series Expedition Unknown, shared his experience on board the same submersible, the Titan, that ultimately imploded on Sunday.

“Titan did not perform well on my dive,” Gates wrote in a tweet on Wednesday.

The Titan, at the time, was preparing for its maiden voyage to the Titanic, which is situated 3.8 kilometres (12,500ft) below the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean.

But even in the testing phase, Gates observed cause for alarm. “We had issues with thruster control,” he told US broadcaster NBC’s Today Show on Thursday. “We had issues with the computers aboard. We had issues with comms. I just felt as though the sub needed more time, and it needed more more testing, frankly.”

Mike Reiss, a comedy writer for The Simpsons, likewise experienced communication failures during his trips with OceanGate, one of which went down to the Titanic.

“I took four different dives with the OceanGate company,” Reiss told ABC News. “And every time they lost communication.”

But he was ambivalent about the problems: “That seems to be just something baked into the system. I don’t blame OceanGate. I blame deep water for that.”

Safety warnings ‘went unheeded’

James Cameron — director of the film Titanic and himself a deep-sea researcher — was more unequivocal in his criticism. In an interview with ABC News, he denounced the carbon-fibre construction of the Titan as “fundamentally flawed”.

“Many people in the community were very concerned about this sub,” Cameron said.

“And a number of the top players in the deep-submergence engineering community even wrote letters to the company saying that what they were doing was too experimental to carry passengers and it needed to be certified and so on.”

The Oscar-winning director drew a parallel between the Titan’s implosion and the cut corners that led to the wreckage of the Titanic itself.

“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,” Cameron said, adding that warnings in both cases “went unheeded”.

What we know about what happened

The Titan submersible began its descent to the ocean floor on June 18. But about an hour and 45 minutes into its voyage, it lost contact with the surface.

Officials with the United States Navy later confirmed that underwater acoustic equipment captured an “anomaly consistent with an implosion or explosion” that same day. It notified the US Coast Guard command that day, but as the sound wasn’t definitively the Titan, the search went on.

After four days of search-and-rescue operations, the US Coast Guard announced on Thursday that the Titan had suffered a “catastrophic implosion”, leaving debris off the bow of the Titanic.

Five people were killed: the CEO Rush, Titanic researcher Paul-Henri Nargeolet, businessman Hamish Harding and father and son Shahzada Dawood and Suleman Dawood.

There were previous concerns about Titan’s safety

In the wake of the submersible’s initial disappearance, the magazine The New Republic reported on documents from a 2018 breach-of-contract case, wherein OceanGate sued a former employee for disclosing private information.

However, the employee, David Lochridge, said he was acting as a whistleblower to ensure the safety of OceanGate passengers and employees. In a counterclaim, Lochridge cited structural concerns, including “large tears of the carbon” from “constant pressure cycling”.

The New Republic also reported that Lochridge faced “hostility” when he requested more information about pressure test results.

Rush, OceanGate’s late CEO, had addressed questions about Titan’s safety standards in a February 2019 blog post. In it, Rush objected to additional safety standards and regulations for deep-sea travel, calling it a hurdle to technological advancement.

“Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation,” Rush had said. He denounced the process of “bringing in outsiders who need to first be educated before being qualified to ‘validate’ any innovations”.

Titan implosion could prompt regulation

Salvatore Mercogliano, a history professor at Campbell University in North Carolina, believes the Titan disaster may be a turning point in deep-sea regulation.

“We don’t quite have [safety standards] yet with submersibles,” Mercogliano told The Associated Press. “But I do think that one of the long-lasting implications of this disaster may be seeing that happen.”

Just like the Titanic disaster led to regulations requiring adequate lifeboats for all passengers, Mercogliano speculated the Titan implosion could likewise lead to heightened standards.

Right now, he said, deep-sea adventures like the Titan voyage are less regulated than commercial trips to space. That, in part, is because they take place in international waters, outside of the legal authority of countries like the US.

In addition, the submersible itself is towed to the exploration site, meaning that — even if it passes through US or Canadian water — it is considered cargo, not subject to the same stringent regulations that the boat carrying it might.

“There’ll be a time when you won’t think twice about getting on a submersible and going down 13,000ft,” Mercogliano said. “But we’re not there yet.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies