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Titanic Tourist Sub: 3 Key Questions In Aftermath Of ‘Catastrophic Implosion’

What caused it? Will OceanGate be held liable? And what’s next?

Dylan Stableford and Christopher Wilson

The tourist submersible that disappeared while exploring the Titanic shipwreck experienced a “catastrophic implosion” that probably 𝓀𝒾𝓁𝓁ed all five people on board, U.S. officials said Thursday, a tragic end to the massive international search and rescue mission that captured the world’s attention this week. But lingering issues about the tragedy remain.

“I know there’s also a lot of questions about how, why and when did this happen,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Mauger, who led the search, told reporters. “But I’m confident that those questions will begin to get answered.”

The five passengers aboard the Titan were identified as OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, 61; British billionaire and explorer Hamish Harding, 58; Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his 19-year-old son, Suleman; and Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a 77-year-old French explorer.

What caused the implosion?

An undated photo shows OceanGate’s tourist submersible as it begins a descent. (OceanGate handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

It’s not clear exactly when or where the implosion occurred, or what caused it.

The Titan, operated by OceanGate, a private exploration company based in Everett, Wash., launched early Sunday morning to tour the Titanic wreckage. The Polar Prince, a Canadian research vessel and support ship for the expedition, lost contact with the submersible approximately 900 miles east of Cape Cod, about an hour and 45 minutes after launch.

A senior military official said Thursday that the U.S. Navy, which began listening for the submersible shortly after it lost contact with its surface vessel, detected an “anomaly” that was likely to have been the Titan’s fatal implosion.

“The U.S. Navy conducted an analysis of acoustic data and detected an anomaly consistent with an implosion or explosion in the general vicinity of where the Titan submersible was operating when communications were lost,” the official told the Wall Street Journal in a statement.

While the Navy couldn’t say definitively that the sound came from the Titan, the official said the information was “immediately shared” with the Coast Guard to assist with the search.2.1kDylan 

The tourist submersible that disappeared while exploring the Titanic shipwreck experienced a “catastrophic implosion” that probably 𝓀𝒾𝓁𝓁ed all five people on board, U.S. officials said Thursday, a tragic end to the massive international search and rescue mission that captured the world’s attention this week. But lingering issues about the tragedy remain.

“I know there’s also a lot of questions about how, why and when did this happen,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Mauger, who led the search, told reporters. “But I’m confident that those questions will begin to get answered.”

The five passengers aboard the Titan were identified as OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, 61; British billionaire and explorer Hamish Harding, 58; Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his 19-year-old son, Suleman; and Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a 77-year-old French explorer.

What caused the implosion?

An undated photo shows OceanGate’s tourist submersible as it begins a descent. (OceanGate handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

It’s not clear exactly when or where the implosion occurred, or what caused it.

The Titan, operated by OceanGate, a private exploration company based in Everett, Wash., launched early Sunday morning to tour the Titanic wreckage. The Polar Prince, a Canadian research vessel and support ship for the expedition, lost contact with the submersible approximately 900 miles east of Cape Cod, about an hour and 45 minutes after launch.

A senior military official said Thursday that the U.S. Navy, which began listening for the submersible shortly after it lost contact with its surface vessel, detected an “anomaly” that was likely to have been the Titan’s fatal implosion.

“The U.S. Navy conducted an analysis of acoustic data and detected an anomaly consistent with an implosion or explosion in the general vicinity of where the Titan submersible was operating when communications were lost,” the official told the Wall Street Journal in a statement.

While the Navy couldn’t say definitively that the sound came from the Titan, the official said the information was “immediately shared” with the Coast Guard to assist with the search.

 

James Cameron, who directed the movie “Titanic” and has made 33 visits to the wreckage of the luxury liner, blamed the ship’s carbon-fiber hull for the implosion in a series of interviews, calling it “completely inappropriate for a vessel that sees external pressure.”

Of Rush’s contention that certifying the craft would hinder innovation, Cameron said he agreed up to a point but added, “You can’t take that stance when you’re putting paying customers into your submersible — when you have innocent guests who trust you and your statements” about safety. The sub had a hull-monitoring system that Cameron said wasn’t sufficient for safety purposes.

“I thought it was a horrible idea,” he told Reuters of the Titan’s design. “I wish I’d spoken up, but I assumed somebody was smarter than me, you know? Because I never experimented with that technology, but it just sounded bad on its face.”

Will there be any liability for OceanGate?

Stockton Rush, Hamish Harding, Shahzada Dawood, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, Suleman Dawood and the Titan. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters; Courtesy of Jannicke Mikkelsen via Reuters; Courtesy of Engro Corporation Limited via Reuters; J. Sagat/AFP via Getty Images; courtesy of Engro Corporation Limited via Reuters; Ocean Gate/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Every passenger who went on the dive had to sign an extensive liability waiver, acknowledging that “this experimental vessel has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body, and could result in physical injury, emotional trauma, or death.”

One former Titan passenger told the BBC this week that the waiver “lists one way after another that you could die on the trip,” including mentioning “death three times on page 1, and so it’s never far from your mind.”

Depending on the specifics of the waiver and what is found during the investigation of the sub’s implosion, there could still be potential liability for OceanGate. However, it’s unclear if any of the victims’ family members will sue, or the extent of the company’s assets to pay damages.

“If there were aspects of the design or construction of this vessel that were kept from the passengers, or it was knowingly operated despite information that it was not suitable for this dive, that would absolutely go against the validity of the waiver, ” Matthew D. Shaffer, a personal injury attorney and maritime law expert, told Reuters.

In 2018, more than three dozen oceanographers and deep-sea explorers wrote a letter to OceanGate warning that its “experimental” approach could lead to “catastrophic” consequences for its Titanic dives. Last year, while a CBS News crew was filming on the support ship, OceanGate lost contact with the Titan for two and a half to five hours, and the submersible was unable to make it to the wreckage.

What’s next?

An undated photo of OceanGate’s tourist submersible afloat on the sea. (OceanGate handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

While the search and rescue mission for the Titan is over, the investigation into what happened is already underway and would continue in the area around the Titanic where debris from the submersible was found, Mauger said. Deep-sea robots will continue to scour the area miles beneath the ocean’s surface for additional wreckage and additional clues to what happened to the Titan.

The sub implosion is also shining a spotlight on the murky regulations surrounding deep-sea exploration, where laws can be sidestepped by wealthy entrepreneurs.

The Titan wasn’t registered as a U.S. vessel or with international agencies that regulate safety, the Associated Press noted, nor was it classified by a maritime industry group that sets standards on matters such as hull construction.

“We’re at a point in submersible operations in deep water that’s kind of akin to where aviation was in the early 20th century,” Salvatore Mercogliano, a history professor at Campbell University in North Carolina who focuses on maritime history and policy, told the AP. “Aviation was in its infancy — and it took accidents for decisions to be made to be put into laws. There’ll be a time when you won’t think twice about getting on a submersible and going down 13,000 feet. But we’re not there yet.”

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