By Jonathan Mason-June 24th, 2023.
The underwater trip that the Titan submersible and its crew embarked on last Sunday was considered extremely risky, according to both industry experts and former passengers, and the owner Stockton Rush had received many warnings, some of them in writing.
The Titan had to withstand the pressure of 5,000 pounds per square inch 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 due to minimalist and unreliable communications with the surface ship.
Stockton Rush, the chief executive and founder of OceanGate, creator of Titan, is among those lost in the accident. 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.”
However, at the same time that passengers were signing these waivers accepting that death was definitely a possibility, Rush was telling prospective passengers verbally or by text message that going down to see the wreck of the Titanic in his viewing vessel was as safe as crossing the road.
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.
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 never intending to have the vessel assessed by that same organisation to see if it really met the standard.
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 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 to within inches of 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”.
Sources: The Guardian, Sky News, news agencies.