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. Guillermo Sohnlein told Reuters that he was a risk-averse man. “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.
Gates noticed alarm even during the testing phase. “We had issues with thruster control,” he told US broadcaster NBC’s Today Show on Thursday. We had problems with computers on board. 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 went on four dives with OceanGate,” Reiss said to 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. OceanGate is not to blame. 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 reported as well that Lochridge was met with “hostility” after he asked for more information on the results of pressure tests.
Rush, OceanGate’s late CEO, had addressed questions about Titan’s safety standards in a February 2019 blog post. Rush argued that additional regulations and safety standards for deep sea travel were a barrier to technology 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 haven’t reached [safety standards] with submersibles yet,” Mercogliano said to 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. This is partly because the trips take place on international waters and are not under the jurisdiction of states like the US.
The submersible is also towed by a boat to its exploration site. This means that, even though it may pass through US and Canadian waters, it will be considered cargo. It is not bound to the same regulations as the vessel that carries it.
“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.”
The post Titanic sub implosion: Was the deep ocean vehicle safe? was first published on Al Jazeera .