Missing Submersible Near Titanic Wreck Has Dwindling Oxygen, Official Warns

OceanGate Expeditions/Handout via REUTERS
The Titan submersible, operated by OceanGate Expeditions to explore the wreckage of the sunken SS Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland, dives in an undated photograph.

Time is running out for crews looking for the submersible vessel that vanished in the North Atlantic on a five-person expedition to see the Titanic’s remains. The four passengers and the pilot operating the 22-foot vessel thousands of feet underwater have up to 41 hours of emergency oxygen left, the Coast Guard said Tuesday afternoon.

“The search efforts have not yielded any results,” said Capt. Jamie Frederick, the Coast Guard’s response coordinator in the search. He added that U.S. and Canadian crews are working around-the-clock to support the complex effort, pulling together a fleet of ships and aircraft to comb a search area about the size of Connecticut.

The vessel, called the Titan, was piloted by Stockton Rush, chief executive of OceanGate, which operates the submersible, the company said. The four guests on the expedition are an English businessman, a retired French navy commander, and a British-Pakistani businessman and his teenage son.

Choppy seas and rolling fog have complicated the search, said Chief Petty Officer Robert Simpson, a spokesman for the Coast Guard’s First District, which is heading the effort. Another factor making it difficult is the distance to the search area, which is about 900 miles east of Boston.

Simpson and other defense officials have declined to say when the search-and-rescue effort will transition to a recovery operation, and whether the military will keep looking for the vessel past the point when they determine oxygen has run out.

It is also unclear what the plan is when and if the submersible is found.

“If the sub is located, then it’s up to the experts to tell us the next steps for salvaging and recovery,” Frederick said. “Right now, our effort is on searching.”

The Navy dispatched a system designed to haul up objects like planes and small vessels from the deep ocean floor, a spokesperson said. The Flyaway Deep Ocean Salvage System will arrive in Newfoundland on Tuesday evening, but it is unclear how long it will take to set up and arrive at the search area.

For it to be used, the crew would first need to find the vessel if it is resting on the sea floor. Few remotely operated vehicles can operate at such depths. One, the Curv-21, can work as far down as 20,000 feet underwater. Multiple systems worked in tandem to recover a helicopter off the coast of Japan in 2021 at a depth of more than 19,000 feet. The remains of the Titanic are nearly 13,000 feet underwater.

It is unclear if the Navy has dispatched a search vehicle like the Curv-21. One complication is getting it to the search area; it needs specialized ships to drop it into the water and recover it. The Navy has only a handful of those fleet ocean tugs, and in August it deactivated one such ship that operated in the Atlantic, the USNS Apache. It is also unclear if civilian ships with that capability have been mobilized.

The search continued Tuesday after the Titan lost contact with its mother ship, the Canadian research vessel Polar Prince, during a dive Sunday morning.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Mauger, who is leading the search by the Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Air Force, said Tuesday that rescuers “have been working around-the-clock to bring all capabilities that we have to bear” to find the submersible and the people onboard.

The Titanic dive was organized by OceanGate Expeditions, a private research and tourism company that has conducted more than a dozen underwater expeditions since 2010. The company had completed Titanic dives in the past two years.

“We pray for the safe return of the crew and passengers,” Andrew Von Kerens and Jim Wilkinson, spokespeople for OceanGate, said in a statement to The Washington Post.

In addition to the pilot, Rush, Mauger said those onboard include four “mission specialists” who paid to take part in the expedition.

Among them is Hamish Harding, a British businessman and seasoned adventurer, who posted on social media before the trip that he was on the vessel.

“This mission is likely to be the first and only manned mission to the Titanic in 2023,” he wrote on social media before the dive.

Harding added that “a couple of legendary explorers” were onboard, including retired French navy commander Paul-Henri Nargeolet.

Nargeolet is the director of underwater research for E/M Group, a media and exhibition company whose affiliate, RMS Titanic, researches the Titanic and runs Titanic-focused exhibitions. His company did not immediately confirm whether Nargeolet was onboard the Titan.

British-Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his son, Suleman, 19, were also on the expedition, their family confirmed in a statement.

“[They] had embarked on a journey to visit the remnants of the Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean,” the family said. “As of now, contact has been lost with their submersible craft and there is limited information available.”

Ofer Ketter, a submersible pilot, told The Washington Post that one of his concerns is the passengers’ psychological well-being.

Ketter said that if he were piloting a submersible stuck at the bottom of the ocean, he would lower the flow of oxygen to a point that it’s safe but less than standard, assess battery power, and monitor carbon dioxide exhalation as well as temperature and humidity. But before all that, he would ensure that his passengers were remaining calm.

“You have to manage the mental system,” he said. “No one is trained to be in that condition.”

OceanGate has explored the Titanic wreck and documented its rate of decay in trips over the past two years. Rush told CBS News in 2022 that OceanGate’s eight-day expeditions cost $250,000 for every person who joins a dive to see the wreckage.

OceanGate alerted the Coast Guard of the Titan’s disappearance Sunday afternoon after contact was lost roughly an hour and 45 minutes into its dive. After the news of the vessel’s disappearance broke, OceanGate said in a statement that it was “mobilizing all options” to rescue those onboard and that its “entire focus is on the crew members in the submersible and their families.”

Finding the submersible that far underwater has been described by experts as a monumental task. The wreckage of the Titanic, a ship that was touted as unsinkable before hitting an iceberg and sinking in April 1912, lies on the ocean floor under 12,500 feet of water, roughly 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. More than 1,500 passengers and crew perished in the disaster.

Canadian P-3 Aurora aircraft arrived on the scene to conduct sonar searches, while the Polar Prince and another Canadian research vessel, Deep Energy, are continuing their surface searches, according to the Coast Guard. Mauger told ABC that the P-3 Aurora has been dropping sonar buoys and listening for any sign of the submersible.

“So, if they are making sound, that’s certainly one of the ways we’re going to use to locate them,” he said.