Titan and its crew would need two and a half hours to sink 13,000 feet to the ocean below.

The pilot and four passengers sat awkwardly against the inside of the submersible’s tiny confines, engineers fastening the boat closed from the outside. The five of them would be encapsulated, fully secluded from the world’s water and air, from now until the end of their dive.

On June 18, 2023, they departed from the Canadian port city of St. John’s, Newfoundland, at 8 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. They were now about 375 nautical miles to the east, ready to begin their mission: to dive to the Titanic. Stockton Rush, president and founder of OceanGate, the firm that operated the sub, was on board, as was British billionaire Hamish Harding, French deep-sea explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet, and British-Pakistani industrialist Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman.

They and their craft descended from the mothership, the Canadian research icebreaker Polar Prince, into the rough waters of the North Atlantic via a floating platform. The sub’s white, tubelike form immediately vanished beneath the waves, signaling the start of its long journey through the dark ocean depths to the world’s most renowned disaster.

Titan’s communications were lost one hour and 45 minutes later. The crew would run out of oxygen in around 94 hours if their vessel was still intact, regardless of where they were. An worldwide search-and-rescue mission, working against the clock, was about to get underway.

The rescue mission was completely operational by the morning of June 19. The US Coast Guard has begun a search 900 miles east of Cape Cod with the Canadian armed forces and commercial vessels in the area. “It is a remote area and a challenge, but we are deploying all available assets to make sure we can locate the craft,” Coast Guard rear admiral John W. Mauger said during a press briefing.

Time was already working against them. “You’re roughly a half-week to a week out from help,” says Peter Girguis, an oceanographer at Harvard University, while diving deep into the ocean. And, perplexingly, it had taken nearly eight hours for the crew aboard the Polar Prince to notify the US Coast Guard that Titan had gone missing. Not only were US and Canadian authorities entrusted with identifying a 22-foot-long submersible in an area twice the size of Connecticut, with waters two and a half miles deep, but the sub had around 63 hours of oxygen left by the time Mauger’s press conference.

There were other difficulties. Titan lacks a separate recovery system as well as an emergency radio beacon. “There was no way for its surface vessel to send anything down, assist in locating the sub, or pull them up,” Girguis explains. Titan could be floating on the surface unseen if there is no beacon.

But the structure of the vessel was the most concerning. Titan was an experimental carbon-fiber vessel, as opposed to typical submersibles, which have a spherical pressure hull built of steel or titanium. Its hull may have been weakened if it went dark. It is possible that the craft will be vulnerable during recovery. It could imply that it has completely failed.

With seemingly little information to go on, the search teams divided their efforts between the ocean’s surface and its depths. By June 20, commercial deep-sea firms, private vessels, military planes, and a submarine had joined the hunt alongside US and Canadian authorities. Ships and planes probed the surface for traces of the white hull of the sub. Rescue ships pounded the seas with sonar in the hope of discovering the vessel, and acoustics experts were called in to study underwater noises.

Because the Polar Prince lacked a recovery mechanism, France’s sea ministry redirected its Atalante vessel, which was outfitted with a subsea remote-operated vehicle, to assist with the operation. The ROV, with its deep-diving capabilities and remote-controlled cutting arms, could try to free the sub from any entanglements and assist in bringing it to the surface if it came across it. However, the Atalante was still a day away.

The clock is ticking away.
The search parties confirmed their initial lead on June 21. Rescuers revealed that monitoring vessels had detected underwater sounds every 30 minutes for two days. Periodic banging is a technique taught to stranded submariners to aid in rescue searches, and experts assumed Nargeolet, a former French naval diver, would be familiar with it. “This is a search-and-rescue mission, 100 percent,” Captain Jamie Frederick of the First Coast Guard District stated, dismissing the notion that the crew had already died and that the goal was to recover the sub. “We will continue to use every available asset to locate the Titan and its crew members.”

As the day progressed, five surface vessels and two ROVs searched for Titan in the ocean. More underwater robot vehicles were scheduled to arrive on June 22. They were, however, far too late to join the hunt. “Authorities had to airlift them to Newfoundland,” Girguis claims. “They had to then place them on ships and sail them out before they could even begin searching underwater.” By the time the underwater search for the Titan had gained traction, with the ROVs crisscrossing the ocean floor systematically to comb for the Titan, the sub would have less than 12 hours of oxygen left.

On June 21, a special navy salvage system designed to raise up to 27 tons of machinery out of the water arrived in St. John’s, but it needed an extra 24 hours to be ready for deployment. “We just don’t have the resources to deploy a massive arsenal of rescue equipment because it can only get there by ship,” Girguis explains. The salvage system’s participation in any rescue was now on the line. Titan was expected to run out of oxygen about 7 a.m. Eastern time on June 22.

But, by 11:45 a.m. Eastern time on June 22, that question had been answered. The US Coast Guard said that a ROV launched from the offshore vessel Horizon Arctic, which had arrived at the search site the night before, had discovered Titanic remains 1,600 feet from the Titanic’s bow on the seafloor, at a depth of 12,500 feet. The vessel’s nose cone was located initially, as part of a vast debris field containing the front end of the pressure hull. “The debris is consistent with a catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber,” Mauger explained.

“We now believe that our CEO Stockton Rush, Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman Dawood, Hamish Harding, and Paul-Henri Nargeolet have sadly been lost,” OceanGate said in a statement. “These men were true explorers who shared a distinct spirit of adventure as well as a deep passion for exploring and protecting the world’s oceans.”

While many entrepreneurs saw space as the next frontier, Stockton Rush saw adventure at the ocean’s depths.

The “Must-Do Dive”
Rush had a long history in the aerospace and aviation industries. According to his website’s history, at the age of 19, he became the world’s youngest jet-transport-rated pilot before becoming a test-flight engineer for the McDonnell Douglas F-15 fighter jet program in 1984. Over the next 20 years, he served on the board of Seattle sonar technology firm BlueView Technologies and as chairman of Washington wireless-remote-control-device manufacturer Remote Control Technology.

When Rush and Argentine American businessman Guillermo Söhnlein created OceanGate in Everett, Washington, in 2009, they were looking to the deep sea rather than the skies. “The ocean is a scary thing,” Rush said to the BBC in 2022. “As a result, what I’ve wanted to do with this business is simply move the needle and get people excited about the ocean, so they can explore it and discover what’s out there.”

Although OceanGate’s purpose was to investigate the deep ocean and make it simpler for scientists, researchers, and wealthy visitors to visit, Rush’s primary goal was to visit the Titanic’s underwater graveyard. “People are so enthralled with the Titanic that it became a must-do dive,” he told the BBC. “There are three English words that are known all over the world: Coca-Cola, God, and Titanic.”

Rush felt that developments in materials science could lead to the development of a new sort of submersible that was lighter, roomier, and more cost-effective than industry-standard deep-sea vehicles, which tended to be spherical and entirely built of metal. These, while effective, have limitations. “If you want to fit more than two or three people into a steel-titanium sphere, you have to build a submersible the size of the Death Star,” says Sal Mercogliano, a maritime historian and professor at North Carolina’s Campbell University. “So, the next evolution was a new hull form.”

Cyclops 1, OceanGate’s initial prototype, debuted in 2015. (Söhnlein left the company in 2013 when it entered its engineering phase.) Cyclops 1, a five-person submersible capable of reaching 500-meter depths, served dozens of research projects, expeditions, and training dives, including a September 2018 expedition that Rush piloted alongside researchers and scientists to Washington’s San Juan Islands. Many of its design cues, such as an automated control system that monitored oxygen, power management, navigation, and other critical system diagnostics, were implemented in Titan, as was commercial off-the-shelf technology—exterior 4K cameras, a laser scanner, and a large digital display to view the Titanic wreckage.

Cyclops 1, on the other hand, had a steel hull. OceanGate’s Titan submersible, which can carry five people down to depths of little over 13,000 feet, was developed with a carbon-fiber pressure hull and a titanium dome on each end. In 2021, OceanGate began its first voyage to the Titanic onboard the Titan, the deepest voyage ever undertaken by a carbon-based vessel.

That voyage was a success, but questions about Titan’s safety were voiced long before the ship’s final, disastrous expedition to the Titanic in June 2023. These came to the fore as the rescue mission progressed.

Warning Signs
OceanGate’s head of marine operations, David Lochridge, was sacked in 2018 after raising concerns about Titan’s experimental carbon-fiber hull before its first voyage. In a subsequent lawsuit over his dismissal, he stated that the hull posed “potential extreme danger” to passengers, and that he had noticed evident faults in the hull’s carbon fiber. He contended that they could grow into larger tears after several dives, increasing the chance of the hull failing.

OceanGate had an answer. It had created an acoustic monitoring system to listen for sounds of the carbon-fiber shell breaking down. If these warning sounds were heard during a dive, the system would signal the submarine to return to the surface. Lochridge was unconvinced. “This type of acoustic analysis would only show when a component is about to fail—often milliseconds before an implosion—and would not detect any existing flaws prior to putting pressure onto the hull,” he claimed in his wrongful-termination suit.

During a 2022 lecture at a Seattle tech conference, Rush noted how several submarine safety projects were “over the top in their rules and regulations.” In his opinion, OceanGate was pioneering groundbreaking new technology, and departing from industry norms was part of that process. “You’re not innovating if you’re not breaking things.” They don’t break things if you operate in a known environment, as most submersible manufacturers do.”

Rush defied marine engineering conventions by creating a one-of-a-kind submersible with a carbon-fiber hull. “It’s an atypical design,” says Jennifer Waters, a naval architect and ocean engineer at the State University of New York Maritime College. “Keeping people alive in the ocean depths under extremely high pressure is no easy task.” That is why the strongest shape for a pressure hull is spherical, and why steel and titanium are commonly used—most other materials brittle over time.”

According to Waters, carbon fiber exposed to repeated pressurizations can develop brittle fractures. These repeated pressures, strains, stress intensities, and exposures to high and low temperatures, known as cyclic loading, cause fatigue over multiple dives. Carbon fiber breaks, as opposed to a steel or titanium hull, which may bend over time, signalling the need for maintenance. “And that’s dangerous,” she continues. “When a structure made of brittle materials fails, the consequences are usually disastrous.” It might not be the first time diving, but it could be the hundredth. That is why nondestructive testing is required to ensure its integrity.”

Lochridge claims in court documents that this is exactly the type of testing he requested, but that OceanGate declined to undertake it on the experimental design of the hull, instead relying on its in-house acoustic monitoring system. Furthermore, Titan was not industry-certified: a 2018 letter from professional trade association the Marine Technology Society (MTS) criticized OceanGate’s marketing materials in which the business claimed its submersible would achieve or surpass a DNV-GL certification. The certification, issued by the independent Norwegian foundation Det Norske Veritas (DNV), is regarded as the gold standard for marine equipment.

However, MTS stated that “it does not appear that OceanGate has the intention of following DNV-GL class rules,” and that claiming that the craft would still pass such standards would be “misleading to the public and breaches an industrywide professional code of conduct we all strive to uphold,” according to the letter.

Previous passengers have offered information on Titan’s difficulties. During a test trip on board the vessel off the coast of the Bahamas in April 2019, submersible expert Karl Stanley detected loud cracking sounds that indicated pressure was crushing a hull issue. Rush later modified Titan, created a new hull, and postponed explorations. However, since Titan’s maiden voyage in 2021, individuals on board have experienced significant communication, navigation, and buoyancy challenges during their 12-hour round visits to the Titanic.

Mercogliano speculates that the prior concerns could explain why it took the crew of the Polar Prince eight hours to inform the US Coast Guard that Titan was missing. “The sub had lost communications before,” he explains. “As a result, they may not have anticipated a disaster at all.”

OceanGate was effectively permitted to operate without laws because Titan dived in international waters, according to Mercogliano. “There is no real international standard for submersibles,” he explains. “In the end, there was no regulatory body that could act on people’s concerns.”

WIRED reached out to OceanGate and DNV for comment, but neither company responded. MTS refused to comment.

Titan had further problems, according to experts, that went beyond its experimental hull. Girguis cites the sub’s unusually bolted surface escape hatch, the lack of an independently powered recovery system that could have been deployed from its surface vessel, and the sub’s use of text-based communications with its mothership rather than industry-standard acoustic beacons. “If Titan had had the full array of beacons, safety measures, and a robust communications system, all of that information would have helped authorities understand the situation better—and potentially saved the submersible,” he says.

Titan’s basic interior and obviously makeshift, off-the-shelf components have also been called into question, particularly the modified Logitech F710 game controller used to operate the spacecraft. “The minimalist design arguably is what you want from a submersible: simplicity and robustness,” Girguis explains. “However, submersibles rely heavily on mechanical and electromechanical controls, which is why most have a bank of switches, allowing the pilot direct control—rather than a computer that could fail.” So, while a game controller and graphical interface are simple to use, they are not robust.”

Submersible accidents are relatively rare—and the vessels are built to last. Girguis references the Alvin, a deep-ocean research submersible that was commissioned in 1964 and was the first crewed vessel to survey the Titanic debris in 1986. It is still in use, having completed over 5,000 dives. “I feel safer in a research submersible than I do on the highway,” Girguis says, adding that he has done more than 100 deep-sea research dives in the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. “Research submersibles have been diving for half a century—and they’ve never wavered in their commitment to safety.”

Girguis claims that some research submersibles can complete 150 dives each year. Titan, on the other hand, was only on its 14th voyage on June 18.

Unresolved Issues
Following the discovery of Titan’s wreckage, the US Navy reported that on June 18, it received an acoustic signature consistent with an implosion in the general area where the vessel was diving and lost contact with Polar Prince. Despite the fact that this information was conveyed to on-scene commanders conducting the search effort, the sound of a possible implosion was not assessed to be definitive, and hence the search-and-rescue action was initiated.

The US Coast Guard is leading the inquiry. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board, as well as French and British marine agencies, have joined the investigation. So far, five significant Titan pieces have been discovered 12,467 feet below the ocean’s surface and are being hauled to shore. The Coast Guard believes it may have discovered human remains among the debris.

According to Jai Sharma, a maritime solicitor at Clyde & Co, the probe would be thorough and time-consuming. When finished, it will be able to propose either civil or criminal charges. “In this case, you have wealthy passengers’ families who have suffered devastating losses, so there could be significant claims in civil court,” he says.

The fact that the collision occurred in international seas complicates the issue of liability. The release signed by all passengers before to the dive by OceanGate indicates that any issues would be controlled by the laws of the Bahamas, where the company is registered—its legal system is based on English Common Law. However, it is unclear if the case will be handled in the Bahamas, the United States, or Canada, where the Polar Prince was registered.

OceanGate was the only travel company offering trips to see the Titanic. On its website, it offered passengers to “follow in Jacques Cousteau’s footsteps and become an underwater explorer.” It mostly targeted to wealthy customers, with seats on its final, disastrous journey costing $250,000 per person. It is part of a tiny but expanding extreme tourist business. “Although it’s a small part of the overall adventure tourism market, these kinds of experiential trips and expeditions to the most remote regions are growing in popularity,” says John Lennon, a tourism lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Although OceanGate may be an aberration in that it broke professional rules, these types of activities are inherently risky, according to Lennon. “People are becoming more interested in extreme adventures.” There appears to be a craving for extraordinary and unusual expeditions that may not have a long track record of rescuing people—that may even be part of the motivation to go.” As people continue to look for limits to push and companies look for new ways to make money, there is a risk that the Titan and OceanGate stories will not be isolated.

“When I found out the submersible was missing, I started wondering things like, did they turn on the emergency beacon?” Was an undersea beacon present?” Girguis says. “As I learned more about Titan, I went through its list of safety features and found them all wanting, right down to the haphazard approach to assembling and operating the vessel,” he continues. “It was an entirely avoidable tragedy.”


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