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The disappearance of the ‘Titan’ submersible, the second sinking of the ‘Titanic’

The fate of the vessel in the depths of the Atlantic raises many questions about insufficient regulation and the risks of extreme tourist activities

Un barco con el logo de OceanGate, varado junto a la sede de la empresa en Everett (Washington), este jueves. Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS/LAPRESSE | Video: EPV
María Antonia Sánchez-Vallejo

Stockton Rush, the pilot of the Titan submersible who, along with the other four passengers, met his death this week in the cold waters of the North Atlantic, tempted fate by disguising it as progress. In a video that today has a rather macabre quality, the CEO of OceanGate, the company that offered exploration missions to the remains of the Titanic, argued that regulations -safety controls, even the certification of the apparatus- impede scientific progress and that therefore it was necessary to skip them. To push forward.

With a genuinely American self-confidence, imbued with the spirit of visionaries, Rush, whose wife is the great-great-granddaughter of a couple who drowned on the Titanic - another ominous nod - explained in the video: “I’d like to be remembered as an innovator. I think it was General [Douglas] MacArthur who said, ‘You’re remembered for the rules you break. And I’ve broken some rules to make this. I think I’ve broken them with logic and good engineering behind me... The carbon fiber and titanium – there’s a rule you don’t do that,” Rush continued, referring to the materials used to construct the sub. “Well, I did.”

It may be that the epic that surrounded the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 would not have gone beyond mere noise in the age of social media. But the accumulation of questions raised today by the Titan’s demise reverberates with more intensity than any virtual clamor, destined to die down. There are questions, doubts, suspicions and even calculations of the probability of errors, which led to launching an almost handcrafted vessel that lacked too many safety controls. That is why the first of all the questions is how, despite the warnings of potentially catastrophic risks involved in the exploration, five people accepted them - signing a consent form that mentioned the possibility of death three times on the first page - to embark in a device the size of a cell and descend almost 13,000 feet. Verne himself would have been overcome by the plot.

The issue stemming from the first question is obvious: whether or not the booming industry of extreme or adventure tourism (a definition rejected by OceanGate, who presented its services as scientific in nature, and who also denies the insufficient safety of the vessel) is sufficiently regulated. Who will foot the bill for the colossal deployment, with the participation of human and material resources from the US, Canada, France and the United Kingdom. Why, in the end, was it coordinated from the Coast Guard command in Boston, and not from St. John’s Newfoundland (Canada), the port where the Titan was moored last month, more than 430 miles from the wreck.

The easiest question to answer, however, is a rhetorical one: whether it was really worth the risk. The Titan’s sad fate carries something of an unhappy revenge: unlike the sinking of the ocean liner on its maiden voyage, when first-class passengers had a better chance of being saved, this time the wealth of the passengers, who paid $250,000 a head to look through a tiny window into the wreckage of the Titanic, was of no use to them. The Titan has made a tabula rasa of fortune and misfortune.

At least 46 people successfully traveled in OceanGate’s submersible to the Titanic wreck site in 2021 and 2022, according to letters the company filed with a federal District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, which oversees all matters related to the Titanic wreck. But both former company employees and passengers have raised doubts about the safety of the submersible. Add to that the lack of regulation of underwater exploration activities - compared to space travel, the underwater sector is much more lax, according to experts - and the result could only be fatal, as the Titan’s implosion has shown.

David Lochridge, OceanGate’s former director of marine operations, denounced in 2018 that the method the company devised to ensure the hull’s integrity - acoustic monitoring that could detect cracks and pops as the hull strained under pressure - was inadequate and could “subject passengers to extreme potential danger in an experimental submersible.” The company rejected those allegations, as it did again Friday, about the lack of safety on board, and dismissed Lochridge’s claim, noting that Lochridge was fired for refusing to accept the chief engineer’s assurances that the monitoring protocol was better suited to detect failures than a method proposed by Lochridge (who, moreover, was not an engineer, according to the company).

In addition to Lochridge’s lawsuit, which was settled in late 2018, OceanGate was approached by representatives of the submersible industry that same year to warn of potential “minor to catastrophic” risks following an industry symposium. It is not known whether the company that owns the Titan ever acknowledged the warnings.

One of the company’s first customers, German entrepreneur Arthur Loibl, compared his dive two years ago to a suicide mission. “Imagine a metal tube a few meters long with a metal plate for a floor. You can’t stand. You can’t kneel. Everybody is sitting almost on top of each other. You can’t be claustrophobic.” Mexican youtuber and adventurer Alan Estrada, who went down to the Titanic last year, enjoyed the trip (“it was spectacular”), although he would not repeat it: “I was aware that I was risking my life, I knew what could happen”.

Director James Cameron, who has been down to the Titanic some 20 times, told the BBC on Thursday that he knew there had been an extreme catastrophic event as soon as he heard the news that the submersible was missing. “For me, there was no question,” Cameron said. " When they finally lowered a robot [Thursday], they found it within hours, maybe minutes,” said the Oscar-winning filmmaker, for whom reports of 96 hours of breathable air on board and the detection of underwater noises on Tuesday and Wednesday were “a prolonged charade, a nightmare” that gave false hope to the families.

Mike Reiss, a screenwriter for The Simpsons who took part in a 2022 expedition, recalled on Thursday the risk acceptance that passengers were required to sign, assuming that on the voyage they would be “subjected to extreme pressure and that any failure of the vessel could cause serious injury or death.” “I will be exposed to risks associated with high pressure gases, pure oxygen, high voltage systems that could cause injury, disability and death,” Reiss recited from memory to the AP. “If I am injured, I may not receive immediate medical attention.”

Risk acceptance

For experts, the signing of the waivers by those who died on the Titan may invalidate the families’ claims for damages. “If those waivers are good, and I imagine they probably are because they will have been drafted by a lawyer, [the families] may not be able to get damages,” explained Thomas Schoenbaum, a maritime law specialist at the University of Washington. Manslaughter and negligence claims could be successful. But legal action will face other challenges in determining liability: as Rush testified in 2021, OceanGate, the parent company, is American, while OceanGate Expeditions, which operated the Titanic dives, was based in the Bahamas. On the liability side, there is also the question of whether the Titan was insured or whether a claim could be made on the insurance of the Canadian mother ship, the icebreaker Polar Prince, which took it on board to the dive site. The home countries of the victims could also file claims, perhaps also for the cost of the colossal search and rescue deployment.

In deepwater exploration, laws and conventions can be more easily circumvented than in other fields. The Titan was not registered as a U.S. vessel or with international bodies that regulate safety, Salvatore Mercogliano, a professor at Campbell University in North Carolina who specializes in maritime history and policy, told local media. Nor did it have the maritime industry classification that sets standards on issues such as hull construction. “Deepwater submersible operations are at a point that resembles the aviation situation in the early 20th century,” Mercogliano explained. “Aviation was in its infancy, and you had to wait for accidents to happen before decisions were translated into law. There will come a time when you won’t have to think twice about getting into a submersible and descending to 4,000 meters (13,000 feet). But we’re not there yet.”

These types of activities attract less scrutiny than those of space travel companies. In the case of the Titan, that was partly because it operated in international waters, far from the jurisdiction of the United States or other nations. And that was because Rush didn’t want to be constrained by regulations. “Having an outside entity up to date on every innovation before testing it in the real world is anathema to rapid innovation,” he wrote on the OceanGate web blog.

Race against the clock, titanic effort, colossal deployment of human and technological resources: no epic has been skimped on these days, as if the world were witnessing the second sinking of the Titanic. However, this has nothing to do with the majesty of the transatlantic liner, a prodigy in its time, which was eventually defeated by an iceberg. The Titan was a narrow cylinder, resembling a metal tube, with no room to stretch one’s legs; almost a toy, piloted with a video game console remote control, at the mercy of the tempestuous ocean. Its five occupants have garnered for four days the attention denied to the castaways of other seas, but a hundred years from now, they will be at best a footnote in the Titanic’s history.

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