(CNN) — The massive operation to find a missing submersible with five people aboard is focused on areas where more banging sounds were picked up Wednesday in the remote North Atlantic Ocean, sparking hope in some quarters even as the craft’s oxygen wanes.
The operation was still a “search and rescue mission, 100%,” US Coast Guard Capt. Jamie Frederick stressed Wednesday. It remains unclear whether the noises are from the missing submersible, he said. Naval experts were analyzing tapes of the sounds in an attempt to determine their origin.
“I can’t tell you what the noises are,” he said.
Meanwhile, the surface search has broadened to about two times the size of Connecticut, and about two and a half miles deep in the area where the noises were detected Tuesday and Wednesday, Frederick noted.
The underwater sounds were detected by sonar devices deployed to find the 21-foot vessel that lost contact Sunday while descending 13,000 feet to the bottom of the ocean on a tour of the Titanic’s wreckage. The banging on Tuesday first came every 30 minutes and was heard again four hours later, according to an internal government memo update on the search.
The noises were detected by a Canadian P-3 aircraft and prompted the relocation of resources to explore their origin, but “searches have yielded negative results,” the US Coast Guard tweeted early Wednesday.
“Additional acoustic feedback was heard and will assist in vectoring surface assets and also indicating continued hope of survivors,” according to a Coast Guard update Tuesday night.
It was unclear when exactly the banging was heard Tuesday or how long it lasted, based on the memo. Rolling Stone was first to report news of the banging.
The banging noises offered a ray of hope in an increasingly bleak situation. The submersible, known as “Titan,” begins each trip with 96 hours of life support and has been missing since Sunday, setting up Thursday morning as a key deadline for finding the vessel and those on board.
Frederick said the oxygen level is “just one piece of data” rescuers are analyzing. He also said officials believe the submersible crew has “limited rations” of food and water.
“We just have to remain optimistic. We have to keep working until we find the submersible,” Joyce Murray, minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, told reporters Wednesday. “We will continue to double down and to figure out where the submersible is and how it can be brought to the surface.”
The Titan was operated by OceanGate Expeditions and was carrying a pilot, three wealthy adventurers and the company’s CEO when it lost contact with its mother ship about 1 hour and 45 minutes into its dive. The trip was part of a trip to see the Titanic’s wreckage for prices starting at $250,000, an archived version of its website shows.
The expedition was part of the growing business of wealthy adventure tourism, along with the space flights of Blue Origin and the rise of guided tours to Mount Everest, and reflects the ongoing fascination with the Titanic more than a century after it sank on its maiden voyage, killing more than 1,500 people.
As the search for the Titan continues, CNN has learned of at least two former OceanGate employees who expressed safety concerns about the vessel’s hull years ago, including the thickness of the material used and testing procedures. The 23,000-pound craft is made of highly engineered carbon fiber and titanium.
But the central focus now is the massive search: The US is moving in military and commercial assets as aircraft from the Canadian Armed Forces, the US Coast Guard and the New York Air National Guard continue to look above and below water, and France’s president has dispatched a research ship with an underwater robot to join the search Wednesday.
If crews do find the missing submersible deep in the ocean, authorities would face a highly complex mission to recover it and any survivors, said retired Navy Capt. Ray Scott “Chip” McCord, whose 30 years of experience includes overseeing several salvage operations.
“There’s very few assets in the world that can go down that deep,” Scott said.
What the banging might mean
The discovery of the banging offered hope but little clarity.
“We don’t know the source of that noise, but we’ve shared that information with Navy experts to classify it,” US Coast Guard First District Commander Rear Admiral John Mauger told “CBS Mornings” on Wednesday.
He described there being a lot of metal and other debris in the water around the Titanic site, adding, “That’s why it’s so important that we’ve engaged experts from the Navy that understand the science behind noise and can classify or give us better information about what the source of that noise may be.”
Three vessels arrived “on scene” Wednesday morning to join the effort, according to a tweet from the US Coast Guard’s First District.
One of the vessels – the John Cabot – has “side scanning sonar capabilities,” and joins the Skandi Vinland and the Atlantic Merlin on the search, USCG said.
Side scan sonar is a system used for “detecting and imaging objects on the seafloor,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, side scan sonar cannot measure depth, so it is frequently used in coordination with other tools to create a more extensive survey of the ocean floor, NOAA said.
Aboard the Titan are OceanGate CEO and founder Stockton Rush, a source with knowledge of the mission plan said, along with British businessman Hamish Harding, Pakistani billionaire Shahzada Dawood and his son Sulaiman Dawood, and French diver Paul-Henri Nargeolet, according to relatives and social media posts. Officials have not publicly named those aboard.
Learning of the underwater banging “raised my hopes through the roof,” David Gallo, senior adviser for Strategic Initiatives, RMS Titanic, which owns the exclusive salvage rights to the 1912 wreck site. “PH Nargeolet, my very good dear friend, is the kind of person that if he were in that submarine that he would think this thoroughly through and would do something like that every 30 minutes.”
If the sounds came from the submersible, it could be an indication the hull of the vessel is intact, Gallo said. But, he warned, “time is of the essence.”
The US Navy is sending subject matter experts and a “Flyaway Deep Ocean Salvage System” that can lift heavy undersea objects to assist in the search and rescue, a spokesperson said Tuesday.
Still, the five people onboard face a dire situation, Gallo said. If the submersible is intact, the passengers would be dealing with dwindling oxygen levels and fighting cold, he told CNN.
Hypothermia would be an issue “if the sub is still at the bottom, because the deep ocean is just above freezing cold,” Gallo said. “It’s like a visit to another planet, it’s not what people think it is. It is a sunless forever, cold environment – high pressure.”
Chilly conditions and lack of light means those onboard will need to conserve energy, said Joe MacInnis, a physician and renowned diver who’s made two trips to the Titanic wreck.
“Resting, breathing as little as possible, and trying to keep calm – that is the most important thing,” he told CNN early Wednesday.
US Coast Guard Capt. Jamie Frederick didn’t know Tuesday if there was enough time to save the five people onboard, but “we will do everything in our power to affect a rescue,” he said.
Already, more than 10,000 square miles have been searched, Mauger said Tuesday, across a zone that covers an area about 900 miles east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and 13,000 feet deep.
Ex-employees expressed safety concerns
Court filings reveal OceanGate years ago was confronted with safety concerns about the vessel.
Two former OceanGate employees separately raised similar safety concerns about the thickness of submersible’s hull when they were employed by the company.
David Lochridge, who worked as an independent contractor for OceanGate in 2015 and as its employee between 2016 and 2018, said he brought up concerns about the Titan’s hull, according to court documents.
Lochridge said no non-destructive testing had been performed on the Titan’s hull to check for “delaminations, porosity and voids of sufficient adhesion of the glue being used due to the thickness of the hull,” according to a countersuit filed after Lochridge was sued by OceanGate in 2018 for allegedly sharing confidential information.
When Lochridge raised the issue, he was told no equipment existed to perform such a test, the suit states. The lawsuit was settled and dismissed in November 2018; its terms were not disclosed, and Lochridge could not be reached for comment.
There was much additional testing after Lochridge’s time at OceanGate, and it’s unclear whether any of his concerns were addressed as the vessel was developed, court filings from the company indicate.
Another former employee of OceanGate who worked briefly for the company during the same period as Lochridge became concerned when the carbon fiber hull of the Titan arrived, he told CNN on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly.
The hull had only been built to 5 inches thick, while he said company engineers told him they had expected it to be 7 inches thick, he told CNN, echoing Lochridge’s concerns about its thickness and adhesion.
When more concerns were raised by contractors and employees during his time at OceanGate, Rush, the CEO, got defensive and shied away from answering questions during all-staff meetings, the other former employee said.
When he raised directly to Rush concerns OceanGate could potentially be violating a US law relating to Coast Guard inspections, the CEO outright dismissed them, the former employee said, and that’s when he resigned.
CNN has reached out to OceanGate for comment on the former employee’s claims.
Safety concerns were also raised by The Manned Underwater Vehicles committee of the Marine Technology Society, which penned a litter to OceanGate in 2018 expressing concern over what it referred to as the company’s “experimental approach” of the Titan vessel and its planned expedition to the site of the Titanic wreckage, the New York Times reported Tuesday.
“Our apprehension is that the current experimental approach adopted by Oceangate could result in negative outcomes, (from minor to catastrophic) that would have serious consequences for everyone in the industry,” the letter, obtained by the Times, reads in part.
Specifically, the letter expressed concern over the company’s compliance with a maritime risk assessment certification known as DNV-GL.
“Your marketing material advertises that the TITAN design will meet or exceed the DNV-GL safety standards, yet it does not appear that Oceangate has the intention of following DNV- GL class rules,” the letter says. “Your representation is, at minimum, misleading to the public and breaches an industry- wide professional code of conduct we all endeavor to uphold.”
OceanGate has not responded to a request for comment on the letter.
Cramped vessel has limited oxygen supplies
The last communication between the vessel and its mother ship, the Polar Prince, came in at 11:47 a.m. Sunday. The vessel was expected to resurface at 6:10 p.m. but did not do so, and authorities were notified at 6:35 p.m., according to Polar Prince co-owner Miawpukek Maritime Horizon Services.
The mother ship communicates with the vessel by text messages, and it’s required to communicate every 15 minutes, according to OceanGate Expeditions’ archived website. “All those things we’re used to now – GPS, Wi-Fi, radio links – do not work under the ocean,” former Navy submarine officer Capt. J. Van Gurley said.
Some parts of Titan are decidedly low-tech. Unlike a submarine, a submersible needs a mother ship to launch it, has fewer power reserves and can’t stay underwater as long.
“It is operated … by a gaming controller, what essentially looks like a PlayStation controller,” said CNN correspondent Gabe Cohen, who sat in Titan in 2018 while reporting on OceanGate Expeditions for CNN affiliate KOMO.
It’s a “tiny vessel, quite cramped and small,” Cohen said. “You have to sit inside of it, shoes off. It can only fit five people.”
The Titan is held underwater by ballast built to be automatically released after 24 hours to send the sub to the surface, said Aaron Newman, an investor in OceanGate who went down to Titanic on the Titan in 2021.
“It is designed to come back up,” he told CNN.
“It’s a very stressful situation,” John “Danny” Olivas, a retired astronaut who has completed two stays on NASA’s underwater habitat and trained on underwater space walks, told CNN.
“There probably wouldn’t be any cabin air circulation, which could also pose a lot of potential hazards with just breathing the air. The oxygen is important, but also CO2 generation by five people in a small, confined vessel is going to be very challenging and potentially creating a poisonous environment for the crew members,” Olivas told CNN’s Victor Blackwell.
In case of an emergency, the submersible is equipped with basic emergency medical supplies and pilots have basic first aid training, according to OceanGate Expeditions’ website.
“Every step possible is being taken to bring the five crew members back safely,” OceanGate in a statement on Monday said. “We are deeply grateful for the urgent and extensive assistance we are receiving from multiple government agencies and deep-sea companies as we seek to reestablish contact with the submersible.”
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.