The explosion of a deep-sea submersible that wrecked the Titanic, killing all five passengers on board, has prompted questions about the regulations governing such voyages — and whether the voyages are safe. auto itself.
On Friday, the company responsible for the tour, OceanGate Expeditions, defended the decisions of its chief executive Stockton Rush, who died aboard the submersible.
“Stockton is one of the smartest risk managers I’ve met. He was very risk-averse,” Guillermo Söhnlein, co-founder of OceanGate, told the Reuters news agency. “He was very confident in safety.”
But in the days since the submersible disappeared, passengers have come forward to share their stories of glitches and misadventures on ocean floor expeditions.
What did the riders say?
Josh Gates, the host of the TV series Expedition Unknown, shared his experience aboard the same submersible, the Titan, that finally exploded on Sunday.
“Titan did poorly on my dive,” Gates wrote in a tweet on Wednesday.
The Titan, at that time, was preparing for its first trip to the Titanic, which was located 3.8 kilometers (12,500ft) below the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean.
But even in the testing phase, Gates saw cause for alarm. “We have issues with thruster control,” he told US broadcaster NBC’s Today Show on Thursday. “We had issues with the computers on board. We had issues with the comms. I felt the sub needed more time, and needed more testing, frankly.”
Mike Reiss, a comedy writer on The Simpsons, also experienced communication failures during his travels with OceanGate, one of which went down on the Titanic.
“I took four different dives with the OceanGate company,” Reiss told ABC News. “And every time they lost communication.”
But he is skeptical about the problems: “It seems like something baked into the system. I don’t blame OceanGate. I blame deep water for that.”
Safety warnings ‘ignored’
James Cameron — director of the film Titanic and himself a deep-sea explorer — was more forthright in his criticism. In an interview with ABC News, he criticized the Titan’s carbon-fibre construction as “fundamentally flawed”.
“A lot of people in the community are very concerned about this sub,” Cameron said.
“And several of the leading players in the deep-sea engineering community have even written to the company saying that what they’re doing is too experimental to carry passengers and it needs to be certified and so on.”
The Oscar-winning director drew parallels between the explosion of the Titan and the cut corners that led to the destruction of the Titanic itself.
“I was struck by the parallels with the Titanic disaster itself, where the captain was repeatedly warned about the ice ahead of his ship, and yet he steamed at full speed,” Cameron said, adding that the warnings in both cases were “ignored”.
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, there was no contact with its surface.
United States Navy officials later confirmed that underwater acoustic equipment had picked up an “anomaly consistent with an implosion or explosion” that day. It notified the US Coast Guard that day, but since the sound was not the Titan, the search continued.
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 on the Titanic’s bow.
Five people died: CEO Rush, Titanic researcher Paul-Henri Nargeolet, businessman Hamish Harding and father and son Shahzada Dawood and Suleman Dawood.
There were previous concerns about the safety of the Titan
After the first loss of the submersible, The New Republic magazine reported documents from a 2018 breach of contract case, in which OceanGate sued a former employee for disclosing private information.
However, the employee, David Lochridge, said he acted as a whistleblower to ensure the safety of OceanGate passengers and employees. In a counterclaim, Lochridge cited structural concerns, including “huge carbon tears” from “constant pressure cycling”.
The New Republic also reported that Lochridge faced “anger” when he asked for more information about the pressure test results.
Rush, the late CEO of OceanGate, responded to questions about Titan’s safety standards in a February 2019 blog post. In it, Rush opposed additional safety standards and regulations for the cruise. in the deep sea, calling it a barrier to technological progress.
“Bringing in an outside entity to accelerate every innovation before putting it to real-world testing is the bane of rapid innovation,” Rush said. He criticized the process of “bringing in outsiders who must first be educated before qualifying as ‘valid’ for any innovations”.
The Titan implosion may prompt regulation
Salvatore Mercogliano, a professor of history at Campbell University in North Carolina, believes that the Titan disaster could be a turning point in the regulation of the deep sea.
“We never have [safety standards] yet with submersibles,” Mercogliano told The Associated Press. “But I think one of the lasting implications of this disaster will be seeing that happen.”
Just as the Titanic disaster led to regulations requiring enough lifeboats for all passengers, Mercogliano speculates that the Titan implosion could also lead to higher standards.
Currently, he said, deep-sea adventures like the Titan voyage are less regulated than commercial trips to space. That is, in part, because it takes place in international waters, outside the legal authority of countries like the US.
In addition, the submersible itself is towed to the exploration site, which means that – even if it passes through US or Canadian waters – it is considered cargo, not subject to the same strict regulations as the ship carrying it.
“There was a time when you didn’t think twice about getting on a submersible and going down to 13,000ft,” says Mercogliano. “But we’re not there yet.”