OceanGate's Titan submersible
OceanGate’s Titan submersible suffered a catastrophic collapse of the pressure chamber, the U.S. Coast guard said. (OceanGate Photo)

After days of searching, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that the OceanGate submersible that went missing during a dive to the wreck of the Titanic was lost, along with its crew of five.

Rear Adm. John Mauger said during a briefing in Boston that a remotely operated vehicle found the sub’s tail cone early today about 1,600 feet from the Titanic’s iconic bow. As the search continued, the ROV came across a second debris field that included pieces of the pressure chamber.

Mauger said the arrangement of the debris field, 400 miles off the shore of Newfoundland and 12,500 feet beneath the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean, was consistent with a “catastrophic implosion of the vessel.” Next of kin were quickly notified, he said, and a survey of the site will continue.

“It is a difficult day for all of us,” Mauger said.

Everett, Wash.-based OceanGate released a statement acknowledging the loss:

We now believe that our CEO Stockton Rush, Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman Dawood, Hamish Harding, and Paul-Henri Nargeolet, have sadly been lost. 

“These men were true explorers who shared a distinct spirit of adventure, and a deep passion for exploring and protecting the world’s oceans. Our hearts are with these five souls and every member of their families during this tragic time. We grieve the loss of life and joy they brought to everyone they knew. 

This is an extremely sad time for our dedicated employees who are exhausted and grieving deeply over this loss. The entire OceanGate family is deeply grateful for the countless men and women from multiple organizations of the international community who expedited wide-ranging resources and have worked so very hard on this mission. We appreciate their commitment to finding these five explorers, and their days and nights of tireless work in support of our crew and their families. 

This is a very sad time for the entire explorer community, and for each of the family members of those lost at sea. We respectfully ask that the privacy of these families be respected during this most painful time.

OceanGate’s Titan submersible was in the midst of its third annual round of dives to the world’s best-known shipwreck. The five crew members began their dive to the Titanic on Sunday morning. Titan stayed in contact with the surface-based support team by sending out a series of “pings,” but those signals ceased about an hour and 45 minutes into the trip. The vessel was reported missing that evening, and a search led by the Coast Guard began on Monday.

The search was initially conducted by air and on the surface. ROVs capable of reaching the Titanic site joined the international effort over the past day or two. Airplanes equipped with special sensors had detected “banging” sounds from the area of the search, but today Mauger said experts determined that those sounds were not associated with Titan or its crew.

Experts said the most likely scenario is that Titan’s pressure chamber was breached and imploded during Sunday’s descent.

The Wall Street Journal reported that a top-secret U.S. Navy acoustic detection system designed to track enemy submarines picked up the sound of the implosion hours after the dive began. Although the detection was not considered definitive, the information was immediately shared with the incident commander to assist with the search, the Journal quoted an unnamed Navy official as saying.

OceanGate CEO, Stockton Rush led Titan’s crew. PH Nargeolet was a veteran of more than 35 dives to the Titanic and served as a consultant to OceanGate.

The other three crew members were mission specialists who paid as much as $250,000 to be part of the expedition. British billionaire Hamish Harding was the chairman of Action Aviation and flew to space last year on Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket ship. Shahzada Dawood was a business executive from one of Pakistan’s wealthiest families who went on the dive with Suleman, his 19-year-old son.

Asked about the prospects for retrieving the crew’s remains, Mauger said the underwater ROV operation would continue but couldn’t say whether debris or remains could be brought up. He noted that the ocean floor was an “incredibly unforgiving environment.”

Titan and the Titanic

In 2021 and 2022, OceanGate successfully conducted detailed surveys of the wreck of the Titanic, which sank in 1912 when it hit an iceberg during its first voyage from Britain to New York. More than 1,500 passengers and crew lost their lives in what became one of history’s best-known disasters at sea.

During last October’s GeekWire Summit, Rush said he wanted to bring researchers and citizen explorers to the site to further marine research and generate popular interest in the world’s oceans.

“We’ve had such amazing movies about space, and not as many about the ocean,” he said at the time. “What I wanted to do with the business was just move the needle, get people excited about the ocean, and discover what was out there.”

Last year, one of Titan’s dives documented the sea life around a previously unexplored volcanic ridge near the Titanic shipwreck — an underwater formation that was christened the Nargeolet-Fanning Ridge in honor of Nargeolet and an OceanGate mission specialist named Oisin Fanning.

Titan’s tangled history

OceanGate faced a series of setbacks during Titan’s development: The company had originally planned to begin Titanic tours in 2018, but it took longer than planned to build the submersible. Further logistical snags cropped up, and stress testing revealed that the hull, built using carbon fiber and titanium, could not be rated for Titanic depths. (Questions about hull integrity were a central issue in a legal dispute over the firing of an employee in 2018.)

The company arranged for a new hull to be built, with guidance from NASA and from Seattle-area companies that specialized in manufacturing carbon composite for aerospace applications. But complications related to the coronavirus pandemic delayed the start of Titanic expeditions until the summer of 2021.

OceanGate developed a real-time monitoring system that used sensors to detect stresses in the hull and was meant to alert the pilot in case those stresses exceeded specified limits. But it shied away from putting Titan through the full process of verifying compliance with detailed shipping standards — known as “classing.”

Representatives of the deep-sea marine engineering community wrote a letter to OceanGate’s Rush in 2018, raising concerns about the experimental nature of the company’s operations.

Oceangate defended its approach in a 2019 blog entry. “Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation,” the company said.

Crew members going on Titanic dives were required to sign waivers acknowledging that Titan’s operations were unregulated — and warning them that they faced the risk of injury or death.

“Titanic” film director James Cameron, who went on dives to the Titanic years before OceanGate’s founding in 2009, told ABC News that he saw parallels between the loss of the Titanic in 1912 and this week’s loss of the Titan.

“For a very similar tragedy, where warnings went unheeded, to take place at the same exact site, with all the diving that’s going on all around the world — I think it’s just astonishing,” Cameron said. “It’s really quite surreal.”

Update for 3:15 p.m. PT June 22: Guillermo Söhnlein, a tech entrepreneur who co-founded OceanGate along with Stockton Rush in 2009, sent along his thoughts about the loss of Titan and its crew:

“All five crew members were true explorers, passionate about expanding humanity’s understanding of the world’s oceans. They died doing what they loved, so we should look to preserve their legacies as we begin the mourning process. 

“I know that everyone wants answers about what happened, and there will certainly be a time for that. Right now, we need to give the families and the OceanGate crew time to absorb this tragic loss. After data is collected and analyzed over the coming days, weeks, and months, we will all have a better picture of what went wrong and what lessons we can take forward with us into future exploration expeditions.

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