On June 18, 2023, the Titan submersible, owned and operated by OceanGate Expeditions, encountered an incident where its whereabouts became unknown in the North Atlantic Ocean near Newfoundland, Canada.
The submersible, specifically engineered to accommodate a maximum of five occupants, was engaged in a tourist expedition to observe the remains of the Titanic wreck.
Approximately one hour and 45 minutes into its descent, all communication with the submersible was abruptly lost, prompting authorities to be alerted when it failed to resurface as scheduled later that day.
The mission to discover the submersible is a race against time, as the breathable air supply within the submersible is projected to run out by the morning of June 22, 2023.
Prelude to a Disaster: What is the Titan Submersible and What is it Doing in the Middle of the Atlantic?
The Titan is the submersible that was on the lookout for the Titanic, an ocean liner that met its tragic fate on April 15, 1912, when it sank in the North Atlantic following a collision with an iceberg.
The wreckage of the ship was located in 1985, resting on the ocean floor at a distance of approximately 400 nautical miles (740 km) from the coast of Newfoundland. The depth of the wreckage is estimated to be around 3,810 meters.
Titan, a submarine capable of accommodating five individuals, is operated by OceanGate, Inc. The vessel is specifically designed to reach depths of up to 4,000 meters (13,000 feet). It serves various purposes such as site surveying, inspection, research, data collection, film production, media production, and conducting deep-sea hardware and software tests.
Constructed using carbon fiber and titanium, Titan submersible measures approximately 22 feet (6.7 meters) in length. Its steering controls have modified joysticks integrated into a Logitech G F710, a wireless PC game controller.
To ensure the crew’s safety, the vessel incorporates monitoring systems that constantly assess the hull’s integrity. Additionally, Titan is equipped with life support systems capable of sustaining five crew members for a duration of 96 hours.
In June 2023, OceanGate announced via Twitter that their expedition to the Titanic was being facilitated by internet access provided by SpaceX’s Starlink satellite system.
Typically, a dive in the Titan submersible involves a pilot, three guests, and a guide. Customers who choose to travel to the Titanic with OceanGate, referred to as “mission specialists,” pay a fee of US$250,000 to participate in the eight-day expedition.
Once inside the submersible, the hatch is securely closed and can only be opened from the outside. The descent from the surface to reach the Titanic takes approximately three hours, while the entire dive lasts around eight hours.
Throughout the journey, the submersible emits a safety ping every 15 minutes to be monitored by the crew above the water. Short text messages also allow communication between the vessel and the surface crew.
In 2022, technology writer and reporter David Pogue joined the expedition as part of a feature for CBS News Sunday Morning. Pogue mentioned that all passengers boarding the Titan submersible are required to sign a waiver acknowledging that it is an “experimental” vessel that lacks approval or certification from regulatory bodies and that there are potential risks of physical injury, disability, emotional trauma, or even death.
Another individual, Mike Reiss, who completed the expedition, commented that the waiver explicitly mentions death three times on the first page.
OceanGate initially planned to conduct multiple expeditions to the Titanic in 2023. However, only one expedition has been launched due to unfavorable weather conditions in Newfoundland, including the worst storm in 40 years.
Why the Titan Submersible is Unsafe for Public Use?
Previous concerns were raised in 2018 when the Marine Technology Society sent a letter expressing unanimous concern about the development of the Titan and the planned Titanic expedition. The letter indicated that the current experimental approach could lead to negative outcomes with serious consequences for the industry. Video of the Titan submarine is available here.
A former OceanGate submersible pilot and director of marine operations filed a lawsuit in the same year, alleging wrongful termination for raising concerns about the Titan’s ability to safely operate at extreme depths, specifically pointing out that the vessel was only certified for a depth of 1,300 meters, a third of the depth required to reach the Titanic.
OceanGate countersued for alleged disclosure of confidential information, and the parties settled a few months later.
In 2019, an article published in Smithsonian magazine referred to OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush as a “daredevil inventor” and quoted him criticizing the U.S. Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 1993, stating that it prioritized passenger safety over commercial innovation.
The Titan submersible has completed three expeditions to the Titanic wreck site, with the first one taking place in July 2021. In 2022, during a dive, communication with the Titan was lost, and reporter David Pogue, who was onboard the support ship, raised questions about the safety of the submersible in a December 2022 report for CBS Sunday Morning.
This report gained significant attention on social media after the major loss of contact between the submersible and its support ship in June 2023. Pogue commented to Rush that the submersible seemed to have elements of makeshift improvisation, comparing it to the resourcefulness of the fictional character MacGyver.
Pogue also mentioned that a modified $30 Logitech F710 Bluetooth game controller was used for steering and pitch control, and construction pipes were used as ballast.
During a 2022 dive to the Titanic, one of the thrusters on the Titan was mistakenly installed backward, causing the submersible to spin in circles when attempting to move forward near the sea floor. The BBC documentary Take Me to Titanic documented that the issue was temporarily resolved by steering with the game controller held sideways.
According to court filings from November 2022, OceanGate reported that during a dive in the same year, the submersible experienced battery problems and had to be manually attached to a lifting platform, resulting in damage to external components.
What Happened to the Titan Submersible?
On June 16, the expedition to the Titanic embarked from St. John’s, Newfoundland, aboard the research and expedition ship MV Polar Prince.
The crew included Shahzada Dawood, a Pakistani businessman and trustee at the SETI Institute, along with his 19-year-old son Suleman Dawood, Hamish Harding, a British businessman, aviator, and space tourist, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a former French Navy commander and renowned expert on the Titanic wreck, and Stockton Rush, the CEO and founder of OceanGate, Inc. who piloted the ship using the Xbox controller.
After arriving at the dive site on June 17, the dive operation commenced the following day, June 18, at 9:00 ADT. During the initial phase of the descent, the Titan submersible maintained regular communication with the Polar Prince every 15 minutes.
However, communication ceased after a recorded transmission at 11:47 ADT. The submersible was scheduled to resurface at 18:10 ADT, but authorities were alerted about the incident at 18:35 ADT. The submersible initially carried a breathable air supply for its five passengers that were expected to last up to 96 hours, with the estimated expiration time being the morning of June 22, 2023.
Several possible explanations for the incident include potential failures in the Titan’s communication equipment, hindering their ability to communicate with the surface crew while still allowing them to navigate.
Another possibility is a problem with the ballast system, which controls the vessel’s buoyancy. It is also conceivable that the Titan became entangled or obstructed by debris, impeding its ascent. Additionally, damage or mechanical failure could have occurred, leading to a catastrophic implosion of the submersible.
Why Is It So Hard to Find the Titan Submersible?
The submersible was equipped with a supply of 96 hours’ worth of oxygen for the five people on board.
As of 1 p.m. ET on Tuesday, the US Coast Guard estimated that there were approximately 40 hours of oxygen remaining, providing a window until early Thursday for authorities to locate and recover the submersible.
However, several challenges complicate the rescue efforts. These include the remote location of the incident, local weather conditions, the condition of the submersible itself, and the immense ocean depth in the area where it went missing.
It is worth noting that the deepest successful underwater rescue on record occurred in 1973 when Roger Chapman and Roger Mallinson were rescued from the Pisces III submersible at depths of 1,575 feet. They had been trapped for 76 hours before being brought to the surface.
In contrast, the Titanic wreckage is much deeper, nearly 13,000 feet below sea level. The exact depth of the submersible is uncertain. Some experts have suggested that it might be closer to the surface since submersibles are typically capable of shedding weight to increase buoyancy.
However, even if the submersible manages to reach the surface, the hatch is bolted from the outside, posing the risk of oxygen depletion unless rescuers locate and free the occupants.
The Race Against Time to Find the Missing Titan Sub
Crews from the Northeast Sector of the United States Coast Guard, stationed in Boston, initiated search operations at a distance of 900 nautical miles (1,700 km) from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre Halifax reported the involvement of a Royal Canadian Air Force Lockheed CP-140 Aurora aircraft and CCGS Kopit Hopson 1752 in response to a request for assistance made by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Boston on 18 June at 21:13 ADT.
The U.S. Coast Guard has acknowledged the challenging nature of the search-and-rescue mission due to the remote location but has assured that they are deploying all available resources. The operation is hindered by factors such as adverse weather conditions, limited visibility at night, sea conditions, and water temperature.
While many submersibles are equipped with acoustic devices known as pingers that emit sounds detectable underwater, it remains uncertain whether the Titan possesses such a device.
The search efforts involve three C-130 Hercules aircraft (two from the United States and one from Canada), a P-8 Poseidon aircraft from the United States, and sonar buoys. However, neither country possesses underwater vessels capable of easily assisting in search-and-rescue operations.
The U.S. Navy possesses a submarine rescue vehicle, but it is unable to reach the potential depth of the Titan submersible. The Navy also deploys remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs), but their arrival at the site may be time-sensitive. Poor weather conditions also impeded the search-and-rescue operations, which improved on Tuesday.
On 20 June, the pipe-laying ship Deep Energy, operated by TechnipFMC, arrived at the location with two ROVs and other equipment suitable for the seabed depths in the area. By 10:15 ADT, the U.S. Coast Guard had conducted searches covering an area of 10,000 square miles.
The U.S. Navy announced their dispatch of experts and a Flyaway Deep Ocean Salvage System (FADOSS) ship lift system designed to retrieve large and heavy objects from the deep sea. Support was expected to arrive on Tuesday evening.
An Air National Guard C-130 also joined the search-and-rescue mission, with plans to add two more by the end of the day.
The U.S. Coast Guard reported that additional ships and ROVs were en route to aid in the search, including CCGS John Cabot, CCGS Ann Harvey, CCGS Terry Fox, CCGS Atlantic Merlin (ROV), MV Horizon Arctic, Commercial Vessel Skandi Vinland (ROV), French Research Vessel L’Atalante (ROV), and HMCS Glace Bay, which carries medical personnel and a mobile decompression chamber.
Titan Submersible Banging Noises
According to an internal memo from the American government, a Canadian P-3 aircraft’s sonar detected banging sounds while searching for the submersible. The U.S. Coast Guard acknowledged the noise early the following morning but reported that initial investigations did not yield conclusive results.
According to reports, a Canadian P-3 aircraft detected underwater noises on Tuesday, but the U.S. Coast Guard could not determine the sound’s source. An internal government memo mentioned that search teams had heard banging sounds at 30-minute intervals, and subsequent updates indicated that “acoustic feedback” provided some hope of the possibility of survivors.
There has been no official comment from OceanGate, the U.S. Coast Guard in Boston, or Canadian authorities regarding these developments.
Parks Stephenson, director of the USS Kidd Veterans Museum and Titanic researcher, expressed his concerns about the disappearance of the Titan submersible on Facebook, emphasizing the seriousness of the communication loss.
Stephenson, who has extensive experience in deep-sea explorations, including visits to the Titanic, later added that the divers’ presence was driven by the public’s demand for information regarding the wreck.
Is it Possible to Rescue the Titan Submersible in Time?
Though I pray that the crew is found safe and sound, the statistics, unfortunately, paint an extremely grim picture indeed. As of the writing of this article, the Titan submersible is yet to be located, much less for rescue efforts to be underway.
And the oxygen level of the crew (provided they did not suffer a catastrophic decompression) is predicted to last a mere 40 hours, which gives the rescue team a very narrow window to locate the submarine, bring in the necessary tools and crafts required for such a deep underwater rescue, dive to the very bottom of the Atlantic, assess the situation, and make the necessary arrangements to rescue the crew.
In short, finding the Titan submersible is much harder than finding a needle in a haystack.
It is to be noted that the submersible can, under no circumstance, be opened. At the same time, in the water and at such depths, which further means that it has to be successfully raised to the surface for a meaningful rescue operation. The ascend from such depths requires an extremely controlled ascend and is estimated to take at least 4 hours.
The lack of oxygen in the final hours can also make the crew delirious, which makes the rescue efforts much more complicated, as the crew might be in an incapacitated position due to prolonged oxygen starvation to carry out any meaningful orders.
By all means, if the rescuers are not prepared to unconditionally lift the Titan submersible from the depths of the Atlantic, the results would be catastrophic.
What the world can do right now is hold its breath and pray for a miracle.
The Remains of the Titan Submersible is Discovered (Update)
The US Coast Guard has determined on June 22nd, that the five crew men aboard the missing Titan submarine perished in a “catastrophic implosion.”
On Sunday, June 18, the Oceangate Expeditions CEO Stockton Rush, the Pakistani industrialist Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, the British billionaire Hamish Harding, and the French explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet were on a dive to the Titanic shipwreck.
Before the “catastrophic implosion” was officially announced on Thursday, a desperate search for the lost submersible lasted four days.
If you’re interested in reading about the depths, try my article on The Horrible History Behind the Byford Dolphin Disaster. Next, read about the Desperate Story of Carl McCunn in the Alaskan Wilderness. And if you’re interested in some dark history and human-made catastrophes, read about the Real Cause Behind the Glendale Train Crash.
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