A day after revelations that the Titan submersible imploded, officials searched the ocean floor for evidence and grappled Friday with vexing questions about who is responsible for investigating the international disaster.
A formal inquiry has not yet been launched because maritime agencies are still busy searching the area where the vessel fell apart, the U.S. Coast Guard said Friday. Debris was located about 12,500 feet (3,810 meters) underwater, several hundred feet away from the Titanic wreckage it was on its way to explore. The U.S. Coast Guard led the initial search and rescue mission.
“I know there are also a lot of questions about how, why and when did this happen. Those are questions we will collect as much information as we can about now,” Rear Adm. John Mauger of the First Coast Guard District said Thursday.
It was not entirely clear Friday who would have the authority to lead what is sure to be a complex investigation involving several countries. OceanGate Expeditions, the company that owned and operated the Titan, is based in the U.S. but the submersible was registered in the Bahamas. OceanGate is based in Everett, Washington, but closed when the Titan was found. Meanwhile, the Titan’s mother ship, the Polar Prince, was from Canada, and the people on board the submersible were from England, Pakistan, France, and the U.S.
How the investigation will proceed is also complicated by the fact that the world of deep-sea exploration is not well-regulated. Deep-sea expeditions like those offered by OceanGate are scrutinized less than the companies that launch people into space, noted Salvatore Mercogliano, a history professor at Campbell University in North Carolina who focuses on maritime history and policy.
The Titan was not registered as a U.S. vessel or with international agencies that regulate safety. And it wasn’t classified by a maritime industry group that sets standards on matters such as hull construction.
OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, who was piloting the Titan when it imploded, complained that regulations can stifle progress.
“Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation,” Rush wrote in a blog post on his company’s website.
Bob Ballard, a member of the research team that found the Titanic wreck in 1985, called the lack of certification by outside experts “the smoking gun” in the Titan implosion.
“We’ve made thousands and thousands and thousands of dives... to these depths and have never had an incident,” Ballard said on ABC’s Good Morning America. “The smoking gun is that this is the first time by a submarine that wasn’t classed,” he said.
One question that seems at least partially resolved is when the implosion likely happened. After the Titan was reported missing Sunday, the Navy went back and analyzed its acoustic data and found an “anomaly” that was consistent with an implosion or explosion in the general vicinity of where the vessel was operating when communications were lost, said a senior U.S. Navy official.
The Navy passed on the information to the Coast Guard, which continued its search because the data was not considered definitive, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive acoustic detection system.
Condolences for and tributes to those who died flowed in from around the world. Killed in the implosion were Rush, two members of a prominent Pakistani family, Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman Dawood; British adventurer Hamish Harding; and Titanic expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet.
The Titan launched at 8 a.m. Sunday, and was reported overdue Sunday afternoon about 435 miles (700 kilometers) south of St. John’s, Newfoundland. Rescuers rushed ships, planes and other equipment to the site of the disappearance.
Any sliver of hope that remained for finding the crew alive was wiped away early Thursday, when the submersible’s 96-hour supply of air was expected to run out and the Coast Guard announced that debris had been found roughly 1,600 feet (488 meters) from the Titanic.
“The debris is consistent with the catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber,” Mauger said.
A flurry of lawsuits is expected, but filing them will be complex and it’s unclear how successful they will be. Plaintiffs will run into the problem of establishing jurisdiction, which could be tricky, just as it will be for the investigation, said Steve Flynn, a retired Coast Guard officer and director of Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute.
The implosion happened “basically in a regulatory no man’s land,” Flynn said.
“There was essentially no oversight,” Flynn said. “To some extent, they leveraged the murkiness of jurisdiction to not have oversight.”
James Cameron, who directed the blockbuster movie “Titanic” and has made multiple dives to the iconic ship’s wreckage, told the BBC that he knew an “extreme catastrophic event” had happened as soon as he heard the submersible had lost navigation and communications at the same time.
“For me, there was no doubt,” Cameron said. “There was no search. When they finally got an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) down there that could make the depth, they found it within hours. Probably within minutes.”
The cost of the search will easily stretch into the millions of dollars for the U.S. Coast Guard alone. The Canadian coast guard, U.S. Navy and other agencies and private entities also rushed to provide resources and expertise.
There’s no other comparable ocean search, especially with so many countries and even commercial enterprises being involved, said Norman Polmar, a naval historian, analyst and author based in Virginia.
Some agencies can seek reimbursements. But the U.S. Coast Guard is generally prohibited by federal law from collecting reimbursement pertaining to any search or rescue service,” said Stephen Koerting, a U.S. attorney in Maine who specializes in maritime law.
At least 46 people successfully traveled on OceanGate’s submersible to the Titanic wreck site in 2021 and 2022, according to letters the company filed with a U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, that oversees matters involving the Titanic shipwreck.
But questions about the submersible’s safety were raised by both by a former company employee and former passengers.
One of the company’s first customers, meanwhile, likened a dive he made to the site two years ago to a suicide mission. “Imagine a metal tube a few meters long with a sheet of metal for a floor. You can’t stand. You can’t kneel. Everyone is sitting close to or on top of each other,” said Arthur Loibl, a retired businessman and adventurer from Germany. “You can’t be claustrophobic.”
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