(CNN) — The Titanic-bound submersible that went missing on Sunday with five people on board suffered a “catastrophic implosion,” killing everyone on board, US Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Mauger said Thursday.
The tail cone and other debris from the missing Titan submersible were found by a remotely operated vehicle about 1,600 feet from the bow of the Titanic, which rests about 13,000 feet deep in the North Atlantic Ocean.
“This is an incredibly unforgiving environment down there on the sea floor and the debris is consistent with a catastrophic implosion of the vessel,” Mauger, the First Coast Guard District commander, told reporters.
The families were immediately notified, Mauger said. “I can only imagine what this has been like for them and I hope that this discovery provides some solace during this difficult time,” he said.
Minutes before the news conference, OceanGate Expeditions, the company that operated the deep-sea submersible, issued a statement saying it believes the five men aboard the craft are dead.
“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,” OceanGate said in a statement.
“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.”
A spokesperson for Pelagic Research Services confirmed to CNN its remote-operated vehicle, which was the first to search for the submersible on the sea floor, found the debris field.
The news ends a saga that began Sunday when the submersible, known as the “Titan,” began its descent to explore the wreckage of the Titanic. The expedition was billed as “a chance to step outside of everyday life and discover something truly extraordinary” and cost each participant $250,000, an archived version of OceanGate’s website shows.
However, the cramped vessel lost contact with its mother ship about 1 hour and 45 minutes into its dive and did not surface as expected, prompting an extensive search and rescue operation in a remote area several hundred miles southeast of Newfoundland.
The expedition reflects the ongoing fascination with the Titanic’s wreckage more than a century after it hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage, killing more than 1,500 people. The journey was also part of the growing business of wealthy adventure tourism, along with the space flights of Blue Origin or the rise of guided tours to Mount Everest.
The focus on the vessel has renewed criticisms of OceanGate’s approach to safety from employees and other industry leaders. The 23,000-pound deep-sea vessel was made of an experimental combination of carbon fiber and titanium and relied on decidedly low-tech parts, such as a video game controller.
The submersible had an estimated 96 hours of life support, so Thursday morning was expected to be a “critical day” in the search, according to Guillermo Söhnlein, the co-founder of OceanGate.
Mauger said authorities would begin to demobilize the medical personnel and nine vessels involved in the search over the course of the next 24 hours, but remote operations would continue on the sea floor for an undetermined amount of time.
Search and rescue operations growing
The international search and rescue efforts kicked into high gear in the past few days.
A remotely operated vehicle was looking for the submersible on the sea floor, the US Coast Guard’s Northeast District tweeted Thursday morning. An ROV from a French vessel has also been deployed, and equipment from Magellan, the team that mapped the Titanic wreckage site last year, was headed to the site to assist.
Further, aircraft were scanning a search zone about twice the size of Connecticut and as deep as 2 1/2 miles, Capt. Jamie Frederick, the response coordinator for the First Coast Guard District, said Wednesday. Medical personnel specializing in dive medicine and a hyperbaric recompression chamber arrived on scene Thursday, according to a spokesperson for the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre Halifax of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Banging noises detected underwater Tuesday and Wednesday in the massive search area provided hope for survivors, though their origin was not clear. The underwater sounds detected by sonar devices on Tuesday first came every 30 minutes and were heard again four hours later, according to an internal US government memo update on the search.
Naval experts were analyzing recordings of the sounds to determine their origin. “I can’t tell you what the noises are,” Frederick said.
“The Coast Guard has done a very good job in putting the right tools with the right team in the right spot. So, the chances are as good as they can be,” Gallo, the senior adviser for strategic initiatives at RMS Titanic Inc., told CNN on Thursday morning.
“It’s tough because the oceans are pitch black, you can only use sound to image effectively, and you’ve got to be pretty much on top of the object to actually see it,” he added.
Harsh conditions at the bottom of the ocean
As aircraft, ships, sonar buoys and robots combed through the ocean, the brutal conditions at the depths of the ocean make it inhospitable to human life.
If the submersible is found at depth, it would take a while to bring it to the surface, and there won’t be a way to get oxygen into it, said ocean explorer Tom Dettweiler, who was part of the expedition that discovered the Titanic wreckage in 1985.
“The thing to do would be to bring it up as quickly as possible and open the hatch and get to the people. Unfortunately, it cannot be brought up all that quickly when it is on the end of a cable and dependent on the speed of a winch to bring it up,” he told CNN. “You’re still talking about hours, potentially, to get it up.”
Ret. Navy Capt. David Marquet, a former submarine captain, described Wednesday what he imagines the five passengers are experiencing in the Titan beyond hunger, thirst and discomfort.
“They’re freezing cold. The water entirely surrounding the ship is at freezing or slightly below. When they exhale, their breath condenses. There’s frost on the inside of the parts of the submarine,” Marquet told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “They’re all huddled together trying to conserve their body heat. They’re running low on oxygen and they’re exhaling carbon dioxide.”
The submersible has a “limited ability” to absorb the exhaled carbon dioxide, which at high levels could trigger headaches, confusion and nausea, Marquet said. “The oxygen and the carbon dioxide and the freezing are what they got to hold onto as long as possible to give the rescuers the time they need.”
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.
Per Wimmer, an adventurer and acquaintance of Harding and Rush, said he believed they would know to conserve oxygen.
The last communication between the vessel and its mother ship, the Polar Prince, came in at 11:47 a.m. Sunday. With no GPS underwater, the submersible is only guided by text messages from the surface ship.
Indeed, “issues with computer control” were among the reasons Discovery Channel’s “Expedition Unknown” host Josh Gates and his team decided after a 2021 test dive of Titan against filming a segment on the vessel as it “became clear to us at that time that there was a lot that needed to be worked out with the sub,” he said.
“A lot of the systems worked but a lot of them really didn’t. We had issues with thrusters and issues with computer control and things like that. Ultimately, it was a challenging dive,” Gates told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Wednesday.
“We were inside Titan for two or three hours, and there were a lot of things that weren’t really ready for prime time, it seemed,” he said, adding he couldn’t get comfortable with the Titan at that time.
OceanGate declined safety review of Titan submersible, industry leader says
The disappearance of Titan and the international dash to find it have put its operator under the microscope.
At least two former OceanGate employees years ago expressed safety concerns about the vessel’s hull, including the thickness of the material used and testing procedures, CNN has learned.
OceanGate Expeditions strayed from industry norms by declining a voluntary, rigorous safety review of the vessel, according to an industry leader. If the company had pursued a certification review “some of this may have been avoided,” Will Kohnen of the Marine Technology Society told CNN on Wednesday.
The company also faced a series of mechanical problems and inclement weather conditions that forced the cancellation or delays of trips in recent years, according to court records. The scuttled excursions led to a pair of lawsuits in which some high-paying customers sought to recoup the cost of trips they said they didn’t take. The complaints alleged that the company overstated its ability to reach the Titanic wreckage.
OceanGate did not respond to the claims in court and could not be reached for comment.
Some expeditions were delayed after OceanGate was forced to rebuild the Titan’s hull because it showed “cyclic fatigue” and wouldn’t be able to travel deep enough to reach the Titanic’s wreckage, according to a 2020 article by GeekWire, which interviewed the company’s CEO.
Rush, the CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, told a Mexican travel blogger in 2021 he wanted to be known as an innovator who broke the rules.
“I think it was (US Army) Gen. (Douglas) MacArthur who said, ‘You’re remembered for the rules you break,’” Rush told Alan Estrada, who documented his trip to the Titanic, including an aborted attempt in July 2021 before a successful visit in 2022.
“And you know,” Rush added, “I’ve broken some rules to make this.”
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