On June 18, 2023, the OceanGate Titan submersible begins its two and a half mile descent to the wreckage of the RMS Titanic. It is 8 a.m. EDT in the North Atlantic, 400 miles from the coast of St Johns, Newfoundland. The 22-foot-long Titan, built in Everett, carries five passengers: Stockton Rush, CEO of the company, and four civilian "Mission Specialists." OceanGate crew on the surface support vessel Polar Prince maintain digital communication with the submersible. At 9:45 a.m., all communication between the Titan and Polar Prince is lost. By 3 p.m., when the dive is expected to be complete with the submersible back at the surface, the Titan has disappeared into the depths.
The Search Begins
At 5:45 p.m. EDT, after eight hours of trying unsuccessfully to restore communication and locate the Titan, the OceanGate support crew notified authorities of the missing submersible. This was the beginning of several days of desperate search and extensive worldwide media coverage. Search-and-rescue ships and aircraft from the U.S., Canada, and France rushed to the scene to hunt for the missing Titan, which had about 96 hours of breathable air on-board at the beginning of the expedition.
As the search went on without success, many possibilities were considered. Had the loss of communications been the result of electrical failure? Had the Titan returned to the surface several miles from the Polar Prince and could not be located? Even if it had surfaced, the crew would still be locked inside since the hatch could only be opened by people from the outside. Was the Titan somehow stuck on the ocean floor? And the worst possible scenario: Was there a structural failure that caused the Titan to implode at such depth and pressure that everyone and everything inside the vessel would be instantly crushed? Rescue efforts proceeded and media reports assumed that the implosion scenario had not occurred, leaving hope for finding survivors.
Pilot and Passengers
Expedition pilot Stockton Rush (1962-2023) was the founder and the chief executive officer of OceanGate. His goal was to perform underwater exploration and scientific research while providing the opportunity for civilians to participate in the expeditions. He hoped to take a fresh approach and revolutionize the industry with new ideas in the design and operation of submersibles. Also on board were four civilian "Mission Specialists." For legal and liability reasons they were classified as crew members rather than paying passengers. The $250,000 they each paid was classified as a donation, not a fare. They were:
Hamish Harding (1964-2023), a British businessman, explorer, and chairman of Dubai based Action Aviation. He had previously been on record-setting deep ocean dives and had flown on a space mission with Blue Origin, the space company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (b. 1964).
Paul-Henri Nargeolet (1946-2023), a French maritime expert and underwater-research director of RMS Titanic, Inc. The American company owns the controversial salvage rights to the RMS Titanic wreck. The vessel was lost on April 10, 1912, after it hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic about 1,000 miles east of Newfoundland, Canada. More than 1,500 people, including four from Washington, perished. Nargeolet had made more than 35 dives to the wreck and his company has recovered many Titanic artifacts.
Shahzada Dawood (1975-2023), a Pakastani businessman, and his 19-year-old son Suleman Dawood (2004-2023), a university student. Both resided in Britain and shared a love of science and exploration. Shahzada had a lifelong fascination with the RMS Titanic. While Suleman was initially reluctant to go on the expedition, he decided it was a good way to spend Father's Day with his dad. He was an expert at solving the Rubiks Cube puzzle in 12 seconds and hoped to set a record by solving it at 12,000 feet below the surface of the ocean.
OceanGate's Home in Everett
Stockton Rush founded OceanGate in 2009 in Seattle and moved to the Port of Everett Waterfront Center building in 2015. Its facilities at 1205 Craftsman Way, Suite 112, in Everett included office and engineering space and a shop for building and maintaining submersibles. They were the largest boatyard tenant and, according to the port's Portside magazine, a great partner with the Port of Everett in community-outreach events and education.
The company owned and operated three submersibles for exploration and tourist expeditions. The Antipodes was purchased preowned in 2009 and was certified by the American Bureau of Shipping to carry five persons to depths of 1,000 feet. The Cyclops 1 was purchased in 2014 and rebuilt as a prototype for the Titan. It was designed to carry five people to a depth of 1,640 feet and featured a large viewing window. The Titan (originally named Cyclops 2) was built by OceanGate to carry five people to the Titanic wreckage at depths up to 13,000 feet. In 2021 and 2022, the Titan safely carried 46 people to the Titanic and back. OceanGate submersibles were frequently tested in the waters of Everett's marina and underwent trials in Puget Sound.
As the search for the Titan proceeded without success, concerns were expressed in the media that the Titan design was not safe for taking humans to the depth of the Titanic. While some media focused on the use of an inexpensive videogame controller to pilot the vessel, experts in submersible design pointed out problems with the design of the submersible's basic structure. It used a carbon-fiber cylinder, capped at each end with titanium hemispherical end pieces that were glued in place. The cylindrical shape of the hull increased passenger capacity to five. Carbon fiber was chosen instead of titanium or steel to save weight. A carbon-fiber cylinder had never before been tested at extreme ocean depths.
In his book The Frontier Below, published seven weeks before the Titan accident, diving historian Jeff Maynard described in detail the history and science behind submersible design. For over 100 years, all tested and certified pressure vessels that were made to carry humans used hollow metal spheres and had a perfect safety record with no fatalities. In the 1920s Otis Barton (1899-1992) designed and built his hollow ball-shaped bathysphere, which took him to a record depth of 3,000 feet. In 1960, Auguste Picard (1884-1962) took his manned spherical-shaped bathyscape Trieste to a depth of 36,000 feet in the Mariana Trench. Even submersibles that appear to be cigar-shaped, such as the U.S. Navy submarine rescue vehicle DSRV 1 Mystic that is rated for depths to 5,000 feet, housed personnel in three spheres inside the outer shell.
At extreme depths and pressures, the forces imposed on the surface of a metal sphere are distributed evenly in the structure and compress the material, making it stronger. On the other hand, the forces on the sides of a cylinder can cause buckling of the structure. When carbon fiber is used, as in the Titan, undetected breakage of the fibers can occur. After repeated use, this breakage reduces the strength of the structure and can cause catastrophic failure. OceanGate had patented a built-in acoustic monitoring system to warn of carbon-fiber failure, but critics warned that detection would be too late to allow safe recovery during a dive. As Titan was being designed and built, apprehensions about the design and lack of testing were expressed in letters to OceanGate from experts, and there was a whistleblowing lawsuit involving a concerned employee. In its advertising, OceanGate stated that experts such as Boeing, NASA, and the University of Washington had helped in the design and testing, but their involvement was overstated.
Time Runs Out
Several times during the search, banging sounds from the depths were detected, raising hope that the Titan could be located and its passengers safely rescued. Yet four days of continuous searching by ships and aircraft turned up nothing. During this time two ships arrived on site carrying unmanned, remotely operated vehicles (ROV) that operate deep below the surface – the Pelagic Research Services ROV from the Canadian ship Horizon Arctic and the Magellan ROV from the United Kingdom that had mapped the area of the Titanic wreck in 2022.
Wreckage Found and Recovered
On Thursday, June 22, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that the Horizon Arctic ROV had found a debris field about 1,600 feet from the Titanic. It was identified as being the wreckage of the Titan. On June 28, some of the Titan debris was recovered and brought back to St. Johns by the Horizon Arctic. Once the wreckage was positively identified, the U.S. Navy announced that it had recorded sounds with the characteristics of an implosion at approximately the same time that Titan's communication had been lost on Sunday. The sounds had been picked up by the underwater hydrophones of the navy's Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS). A public announcement was delayed until there was no longer hope for rescue, but location information had earlier been provided to the ROV operators to aid in their search.
Local SOSUS Connections
The SOSUS system that located the Titan consists of hydrophones, amplifiers, and cables on the seafloor of the world's oceans to monitor movement of submarines. The equipment was installed on the ocean floor in the 1950s, then maintained, repaired, and upgraded by special cable-laying ships using machinery designed and built by Western Gear Corporation at its Seattle and Everett factories. In the 1960s, the SOSUS system recorded the sounds and helped locate the wreckage of the American submarines USS Thresher and USS Scorpion, and the Russian K-129. The existence of the system and even its name and acronym were classified military secrets until 1991, when it was made available for civilian scientific applications.
OceanGate Suspends Operations
On July 6, 2023, OceanGate announced on its website that the company had suspended exploration and commercial operations. Since then, all OceanGate web and social media content has been deleted, although a new CEO was appointed to lead the company through ongoing investigations and the shutdown of operations.