All Killed after Missing Titanic Sub Suffered ‘Catastrophic Implosion’

Atlantic/Magellan via AP
In this grab taken from a digital scan released by Atlantic/Magellan on Thursday, May 18, 2023, a view of the bow of the Titanic, in the Atlantic Ocean created using deep-sea mapping.

The search-and-rescue mission for the underwater vessel that went missing while descending to the wreckage of the Titanic ended Thursday with the discovery of the craft’s destroyed parts on the ocean floor and the conclusion that its five occupants were killed, the Coast Guard said.

The submersible vessel underwent a “catastrophic implosion,” Rear Adm. John Mauger said at a news conference, and a piece of its pressure chamber was found 1,600 feet away from the bow of the Titanic.

A remotely operated underwater vehicle that reached the seafloor Thursday – four days after the vessel went missing during its dive – found five major pieces of the submersible in two areas of debris near the Titanic wreckage, which sits 12,500 feet underwater hundreds of miles off the coast of Newfoundland.

The Coast Guard will continue searching the area, but authorities could not say what the prospects were for recovering the passengers’ bodies, Mauger said. They did not yet know exactly when the vessel imploded or why but said it probably happened before rescue efforts began.

“Our most heartfelt condolences go out to the loved ones of the crew,” Mauger said. “This was an incredibly complex case, and we’re still working to develop the details for the timeline.”

A spokesman for OceanGate Expeditions, the private company that operated the submersible, confirmed the deaths of the occupants, who included chief executive Stockton Rush, 61, who acted as the vessel’s pilot.

Other passengers were retired French navy commander and Titanic dive expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77; British businessman and adventurer Hamish Harding, 58; and British Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his son Suleman Dawood, 19.

“These men were true explorers who shared a distinct spirit of adventure, and a deep passion for exploring and protecting the world’s oceans,” OceanGate spokesperson Andrew Von Kerens said in a statement. “This is a very sad time for the entire explorer community, and for each of the family members of those lost at sea.”

The dramatic and complex search for the missing vessel, in a remote patch of the North Atlantic, gripped the attention of people across the world this week.

The submersible disappeared Sunday as it descended on a tourist trip to the Titanic – the famed shipwreck whose story holds an appeal that has endured for more than a century. The vessel, named the Titan, lost contact with its mother ship, setting off an aerial and water search that required the work and equipment of multiple international agencies.

U.S. Navy acoustic sensors detected the vessel’s likely implosion just hours after it began its voyage, officials revealed Thursday. They said they shared the information with those leading the search but considered it an unconfirmed data point about the Titan’s fate.

For the public, worry mounted as searchers raced against time, aware that the passengers, if they had still been living, would be facing a dwindling oxygen supply. Meanwhile, evidence of safety concerns about the OceanGate vessel dating back to 2018 surfaced, including indications that industry experts and others had been concerned the company could be cutting corners.

A purveyor of underwater excursions, OceanGate first took regular citizens to the Titanic site in 2021 and had begun charging $250,000 a person for the expedition.

No certification was required for the trip because it occurred in international waters, outside any country’s jurisdiction, and the operation did not require a permit or a specialized pilot’s license, experts told The Washington Post.

“I know there’s a lot of questions about why, how, when this happened, and the members of the unified command have those questions too, as professionals and experts that work in this environment,” Mauger said Thursday. “Those questions about the regulations that apply and the standards, that’s going to be, I’m sure, a focus of future review.”

The search mission required planes and ships from multiple nations that faced choppy seas and changing weather between Sunday and Thursday, as they desperately raced against time to find the Titan. The Coast Guard worked closely with Canadian authorities to scour the area by air, sea and sonar. But getting deep-sea equipment to the remote area presented a challenge.

Only on Thursday was a remotely operated underwater vehicle able to reach the ocean floor. It was brought to the area by two aircraft and launched from a Canadian vessel. It then had to be operated in an unforgiving area of the seafloor, thousands of feet in the depths of the ocean, where sunlight cannot reach and the pressure is 378 times greater than at the surface.

“This is an incredibly complex operating environment,” Mauger said. “We were able to mobilize an immense amount of gear to the site in just a really remarkable amount of time” given the conditions.

Nearly every factor complicated the challenging search: The location was remote, and the search required heavy equipment that took time to arrive and launch. The changing weather and sea conditions meant the search area kept expanding because of the possibility that currents had pushed the Titan away from the spot of its disappearance.

Searchers were also contending with the possibility that the vessel could be at the surface, at the bottom of the sea or anywhere in between. And a rescue at the ocean floor would be thousands of feet deeper than any successfully attempted before.

The Coast Guard had been working off an estimate that the passengers had about 96 hours of oxygen when the vessel lost contact, holding out the possibility that the submersible could be found intact before the oxygen supply ran out. Hopes were lifted after sonar picked up underwater noises on Tuesday and Wednesday.

But Mauger said Thursday that those noises now appear to have been unrelated to the Titan. What’s more, he said, had the implosion occurred after the sonar equipment had been deployed, the noise would have been detected – meaning the catastrophe probably occurred earlier.

The remotely operated vehicle found part of the vessel’s pressure chamber first and then came upon “a large debris field,” said Paul Hankins, director for salvage operations with the U.S. Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving.

In a second area of debris, he said, searchers found the other end of the pressure chamber. The vehicle will continue canvassing the floor.

“We will do the best we can to fully map out what’s down there,” Hankins said.

The area where the debris was found, off the bow of the Titanic, is a smooth part of the ocean floor without pieces of the ship’s wreckage, Carl Hartsfield of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said at the news conference.

On Saturday, the day before the dive, Rush had emailed with friend Arthur Loibl, who went on an OceanGate expedition in 2021. Rush said the weather conditions were “very, very bad” and mentioned that the rough seasonal weather in Newfoundland had worsened conditions for the dives, Loibl said in an interview.

The Titanic site has been visited by researchers dozens of times since being discovered in 1985. Nargeolet had been to the site 37 times, and Titanic historians who knew him told The Post he had visited it more times than anyone else in the world.

OceanGate, however, had only begun taking paying passengers on the journey in 2021.

Rush had touted his vessel’s technology, saying it would be able to explore 98 percent of Earth’s oceans and would be “one of the great moments of submersibles.” He had also been concerned with “innovation” and had said industry regulations held back growth; the Titan didn’t appear to use the same design and technology as other submersibles that have made the dive.

He had begun meeting people in the Titanic community through Nargeolet in recent years, said Michael Findlay, the former president of the Titanic International Society. Nargeolet was a close friend of many in the research community, he said.

“We called him Mr. Titanic. He knew it better than anyone,” Findlay said of Nargeolet.

He said that he was a good friend of Nargeolet’s and that others in the Titanic community were devastated by the loss. “We can’t even comprehend it. It doesn’t seem possible.”

The Dawood family called the deaths of father and son Shahzada and Suleman an “unimaginable loss,” saying they had heard from well-wishers “from all over the world.”

“We are truly grateful to all those involved in the rescue operations. Their untiring efforts were a source of strength for us during this time,” the family said in a statement.

In 2018, a former OceanGate employee expressed concerns about the Titan’s safety and said the company should have the vessel inspected and certified, according to court filings in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Virginia. The suit was settled, and OceanGate declined to comment on it this week; in court documents, the company said the conclusions of its engineers differed from those of the former employee.

That same year, industry leaders in the Marine Technology Society became concerned that Rush was not following an industry-accepted testing and review process. One, Will Kohnen, drafted a letter, ultimately never sent, warning Rush that “a single negative event could undo” the stellar safety record of marine underwater vehicles.

OceanGate declined to comment on safety allegations this week.

A friend of Harding’s said he pulled out of a planned trip with OceanGate in 2018 because the vessel seemed “shoddy” and the company did not plan to get a certification for its trips, telling the Reuters news agency that he had safety concerns.

Loibl told the German tabloid Bild that his descent in the vessel in 2021 was delayed because of electrical problems and that a part of the vessel was damaged and had to be repaired during the descent.

James Cameron, who directed the 1997 blockbuster “Titanic” and has visited the wreckage on multiple research expeditions, echoed concerns about the Titan’s safety.

“I’m struck by the similarity of the Titanic disaster itself, where the captain was repeatedly warned about ice ahead of his ship, and yet he steamed at full speed into an ice field on a moonless night,” Cameron, who also made a documentary about the ship, told ABC News on Thursday.

Experts said the company was operating in a legal gray area out at sea, where the American-made submersible was launched from a Canadian vessel into international waters.

Loibl said there was no training before his trip down for what to do in case of an emergency. He said he agreed with some experts who have called for trips to the Titanic wreckage to stop.

“I’ve lost two friends, two people I’ve known for years,” said Loibl, referring to Rush and Nargeolet. “It’s a terrible moment.”