The Deep End: Analytical Overview of the «OceanGate» Titanic submarine expedition accident

On June MV «Polar Prince», a research and expedition ship, has embarked on a mission to submerge to the Titanic crash site, for exploration purposes.

01/07/2023 - 17:04

On June MV «Polar Prince», a research and expedition ship, has embarked on a mission to submerge to the Titanic crash site, for exploration purposes. The vessel departed St. John's, Newfoundland, and the ship has reached the dive site on June 17. The dive operation commenced the following day: Sunday, June 18, at 09:30 in the morning, according to Newfoundland Daylight Time (NDT; UTC−02:30) (12:00 UTC)- reports Reuters.

During the initial stage of the descent, spanning approximately one and a half hours, the «Titan», a submersible involved in the expedition, has maintained communication with the «Polar Prince» every 15 minutes. However, communication ceased after a recorded interaction at 11:15 The submersible was anticipated to resurface at 16:30- Reuters

Subsequently, at 19:10, the U.S. Coast Guard was informed about the missing vessel, reports ABC News

At the outset of the dive, the submersible carried a supply of breathable air that would have lasted up to 96 hours for its 5 passengers on-board. This would imply that, on the condition that the submersible had remained intact, the air supply would have depleted by the morning of June 22, 2023. 

The passengers of the OceanGate Titan Submersible were, sadly, announced dead two-days after the rescue mission began, as a result of an implosion on the submersible. Amongst them is the British Explorer, British-Pakistani billionaire and his son, a retired French Navy Diver and the CEO of OceanGate. 

What is inside the «Titan» Submersible?

According to the specifications provided by OceanGate, the main structural material employed in the construction of the vessel is lightweight carbon fiber, which undergoes a process of spinning to form a sturdy tube serving as the vessel's body. Additionally, two titanium caps are affixed to the either side of the carbon fiber body, with one of the caps featuring a considerably thick transparent porthole, which serves as a viewport. 

With regards to dimensions, the «Titan» affords minimal space for its occupants, with a width of approximately 2.74m and a height of about 2.44m. As evident from the graphic, the passenger would have occupied the lower platform positioned inside the carbon fiber tube, with an extremely limited capacity for movement or standing. The maximum allowed depth that the submersible is capable of diving to is 3.9km. The approximate emergency oxygen supply for a fully-boarded submersible is enough to last for 96 hours. 

How far is 3.9 km underwater? 

According to an infographic from the Washington Post, the «Titan» was capable of diving to the depths of 3,9km. It is currently impossible to tell, the exact depth at which the implosion occurred, however some US Navy and Coast Guard sources state that an “acoustic anomaly” similar to that of an implosion was heard in the first hour of the «Titan»’s dive. Some sources claim that the communication was lost when the submersive has reached the depth of 3.5km- BBC

The recommended maximum depth for commercial and recreational diving is 39.6m. At a depth of approximately 200m underwater, only a minimal amount of light passes through the surface, sufficient only for underwater predators to see. This is the beginning of the “Twilight Zone” which is followed by an “Aphotic Zone” also known as the “Midnight Zone” at approximately 1km underwater, where no sunlight passes. 
In comparison, the remains of the Titanic lie on the depth of 3.8km on the ocean floor, where the pressure is 378 times greater than at the surface.

The Rescue Procedures 

Soon after being notified by MV «Polar Prince», the US Coast Guard has commenced a search-and-rescue operation. Several countries have also sent their rescue vessels and aircraft, swarming the North Atlantic on water and in the sky. The mission was pressed for time, as the oxygen supply in the lost submersible was rapidly depleting. 

On Wednesday 21st of June, the search efforts were intensified in a specific region following the detection of peculiar auditory signals by Canadian P-3 aircraft employing sonar buoys. Carl Hartsfield, affiliated with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, referred to these sounds as "banging noises," yet the exact source of these sounds has not been determined by analysts.

As of Wednesday, the fleet of search vehicles had expanded and encompassed P-3 and C-130 aircraft conducting aerial patrols, five surface vessels navigating the water's surface, and two unmanned underwater robots known as remote-operated vehicles (ROVs), according to Captain Jamie Frederick, the response coordinator for the First Coast Guard District. The Coast Guard has further announced that a Canadian ROV has successfully reached the ocean floor on Thursday morning on the 22nd of June, with additional ships, ROVs, and other vehicles en route to the area. It was estimated that the vessel has submerged approximately, 1400 km off the coast of Cape Cod. The rescue operation was said to have been met with ‘unforgiving conditions’ during the rescue mission, such as limited visibility and extreme cold temperatures. 

Potential Reasons for Implosion

  1. Implosion from power failure or leaks in the hull
    According to Stefan Williams, a marine robotics professor at the University of Sydney, who works with unmanned submersibles, it is highly probable that the «Titan» submersible experienced a form of "catastrophic failure." This failure could have resulted from a leak, power malfunction, or even a small fire caused by an electrical short circuit, compromising the submersible's vital electronic systems responsible for navigation and control. 

The most severe scenario entails a breach in the pressure hull, leading to a "catastrophic implosion" that would occur rapidly, leaving little chance of survival, as Williams emphasised

In 2018, a submarine pilot engaged to evaluate the «Titan» submersible issued a warning stating that its hull monitoring system would only detect failure "mere milliseconds before an implosion".

  1. Tangled up in the «Titanic» Debris
    According to the information provided on the “OceanGate” website, the «Titan», equipped with electric thrusters, had the capability to transport five individuals to depths of up to 3.9km.

One possibility is that the «Titan» remained intact, with its passengers still alive, but encountered difficulties near the ocean floor. For instance, it could have become entangled in the wreckage of the Titanic, which rests at a depth of approximately 3.8km.

Frank Owen, a former official of the Royal Australian Navy and a project director for submarine escape and rescue, stated to The Guardian that the ocean floor is "surrounded by debris from the disaster that occurred over a century ago." He noted the presence of scattered components, emphasising the hazardous nature of the area.

OceanGate Safety Scandals 

In reality, OceanGate company was said to be involved in a series of safety scandals years prior to the incident. In 2018, a professional trade group Marine Technology Society (MTS) has expressed concerns about “OceanGate”s unconventional approach to designing the «Titan», cautioning that it could result in potentially "catastrophic" consequences.

The same year, US court documents show a former “OceanGate” employee named David Lochridge has raised safety issues regarding the design of the «Titan» and the company's procedures for assessing the reliability of the hull. 

The document, submitted to the US court, shows that David Lochridge, the company's director of marine operations, has indeed raised concerns about the safety of the vessel and lack of certification in an inspection report. Lochridge’s concerns and a plaintiff to government regulators and management, which has led to his termination from “OceanGate” by the company. Subsequently, “OceanGate” has also filed a lawsuit against Lochridge, alleging breach of contract.

Concerns persist regarding the disappearance of the Titan and the potential criminal liability of «OceanGate Expeditions», the entity deemed responsible for the submersible and its crew's well-being.

David Pogue, CBS correspondent and a former passenger on the vessel from last year, has informed the People magazine that he was obliged to sign a waiver prior to the dive. According to Pogue, the waiver explicitly outlined the various risks associated with permanent disability, emotional trauma, or fatality. Pogue recalled the waiver stating- "This ship has not been inspected or certified by any government agency."

However, trial attorney and former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani explained that such a waiver does not absolve OceanGate from all forms of criminal liability in the event of passenger fatalities. While one can waive claims pertaining to simple negligence, gross negligence cannot be waived under the law.

"So this is above and beyond... You can waive the known risks, but you can't waive anything more than that" - Rahmani elaborated.

He further added, "If the company is aware of the dangers and disregards warnings, fails to adhere to security protocols or industry standards... If they are not complying with the standard practices or norms, such actions can serve as evidence in any legal proceedings, be it civil or criminal, highlighting criminal negligence or recklessness."

Nonetheless, Rahmani acknowledges the challenges in determining the specific charges that the company might face at this stage. One factor that could potentially complicate potential criminal charges is the unfortunate fact that CEO of «OceanGate», Stockton Rush, was among the passengers who lost their lives as a result of the submersible's implosion.

Author: Abylay Aubakirov



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