Titanic submersible: documents reveal multiple concerns raised over safety of vessel
The expedition that the Titan submersible and its crew were undergoing was tremendously risky, according to industry experts and former passengers. The Titan had to withstand the pressure from being almost 4,000 metres (13,100ft) below sea level – the depth at which the Titanic came to rest – and faced the threat of getting lost or losing contact with the surface.
While it is too early to say what happened to the vessel, experts have raised questions over whether all appropriate safety measures were followed.
Stockton Rush, the chief executive and founder of OceanGate, creator of Titan, is among those missing. Rush has decades of engineering experience and has been at the helm of expeditions to the Titanic since 2021 – this was his fifth. OceanGate said there were a number of innovative safety features onboard the Titan.
The potential risks were made clear to passengers. Mike Reiss, who travelled on the Titan last year, told the BBC: “You sign a waiver before you get on that mentions death three different times. They’re learning as they go along … things go wrong. I’ve taken three different dives with this company and you almost always [lose] communication.”
The Guardian understands that all standard checks and procedures were followed before the submersible set off on its voyage, but concerns over whether the vessel met industry safety standards have come to light.
On Tuesday, the New York Times published a letter written in 2018 by industry leaders in the submersible vessel field, warning Rush of possible “catastrophic” problems with Titan’s development.
The Marine Technology Society, an industry group made up of ocean engineers, technologists, policymakers and educators, expressed “concern regarding the development of Titan and the planned Titanic expeditions” and warned against the “current experimental approach adopted by OceanGate”.
At issue was whether the Titan vessel would be independently assessed by industry regulators or risk assessors.
The Marine Technology Society was critical of OceanGate issuing marketing material that stated the Titan design would “meet or exceed the DNV-GL safety standards” while apparently not intending to have the vessel assessed by that same organisation.
The DNV is an independent organisation, described as the world’s leading classification society for the maritime industry, which certifies vessels such as submersibles and issues regulations for such products.
In the case of vessels such as Titan, the DNV classification process examines whether “internationally recognised rules” were followed and includes inspections during the constructions and operations phase.
In its letter, the Marine Technology Society wrote: “We recommend that at a minimum, you institute a prototype testing program that is reviewed and witnessed by DNV-GL.”
A spokesperson for OceanGate declined to comment on the 2018 letter when approached by the New York Times.
In an unpublished interview with the Guardian late last year, Rush said the vessel had been custom built to reach and view the Titanic, describing it as capable of making a 2.5-mile drop through the water column but deft enough to be steered just inches from the wreck.
“We had to make our own sub,” he said. “So our sub weighs about half as much as any other deep diving sub, or research sub, that’s been down there. And it because it’s smaller and lighter, it’s much more manoeuvrable. And so we can get very close.”
He said the vessel had room for five people. “People come in thinking ‘oh, I’m claustrophobic,’” he said. “But it’s no more claustrophobic than taking a plane.”
Rush also spoke of the dangers of the expeditions. “One of the hardest things we have to do is get inches from the Titanic, because we’re dropping two and a half miles through the water column and we don’t know what the currents are. And they change day to day and season to season and they change at 300 metres. There’s a huge shift at the thermocline [the transition layer between warmer surface waters and colder deeper water] and we don’t have a way of tracking that.”
He added: “We’ve been fortunate that on the wreck the currents have been fairly light. If the currents are high then you change your profile and how close you’ll get to the wreck. But if it’s very calm … I can write my name in the mud with the sub. It’s that manoeuvrable.”
Almost a year after the Marine Technology Society letter was sent, OceanGate published a blogpost explaining why it would not have Titan certified. In the post, the company acknowledged that classification assures “vessels are designed, constructed and inspected to accepted standards”, but claimed it did little to “weed out sub-par vessel operators”. The company claimed “operator error” was responsible for the vast majority of accidents.
OceanGate was also concerned that the classing process could slow down development and act as a drag on innovation. “Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation,” it said.
In an interview with the Smithsonian magazine in 2019, Rush complained that the commercial sub industry had not “innovated or grown – because they have all these regulations”.
It is not clear whether the Titan has received industry certification since the blogpost was published, but in 2022 a CBS News reporter who was due to travel on the vessel reported that the waiver he signed read: “This experimental vessel has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body.”
In defending its decision not to have the Titan classed, the company highlighted what it said were safety innovations onboard, including “carbon fiber pressure vessels and a real-time (RTM) hull health monitoring system”.
The ability of the sub’s hull design to withstand such depths was questioned in a 2018 lawsuit filed by OceanGate’s former director of marine operations David Lochridge, who said he was fired after he raised safety concerns about the vessel.
OceanGate said in its breach of contract suit against Lochridge, who is not an engineer, that he refused to accept the lead engineer’s assurances and accused him of improperly sharing confidential information. The two sides settled their court case in November 2018.
The company did not respond to requests for comment from the Reuters news agency, and its attorney in the Lochridge case, Thomas Gilman, declined comment.
OceanGate said it was “mobilising all options” in the search, and the US Coast Guard Rear Adm John Mauger told NBC News the company was helping to guide the search efforts.
“They know that site better than anybody else,” Mauger said. “We’re working very closely with them to prioritise our underwater search efforts and get equipment there.”
Reuters contributed to this report