After days of frantic searching the Atlantic waters for signs of the sub that went missing, the US Coast Guard has now confirmed that it found debris “consistent with a catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber.”
In other words, the Titan submersible operated by OceanGate that carried five people onboard instantaneously imploded as the sub couldn't handle the immense pressure on its hull. All passengers were killed instantly.
This wreckage was found approximately 500 meters away from the bow of the Titanic, which the submersible was supposed to visit on a touristic mission. These findings align with earlier accounts that the US Navy had detected an acoustic signature "consistent with an implosion" on the very day the Titan commenced its descent.
Although we may surmise that the implosion likely occurred on the first day of the dive, the exact moment it transpired remains elusive. But what led to this devastating event?
Why did the Titan submersible suffer a catastrophic implosion?
A submarine can implode when there's a pressure differential between the inside and outside of the submarine. This implosion happens at an astonishing speed, and the collapsing hull is drawn inward by the overwhelming forces acting upon it. Subsequently, the sub and everything inside are crushed.
Most, if not all, submersibles and submarines designed for deep-sea exploration possess a pressure vessel made of titanium, a metal with extremely high yield strength. Steel is the preferred choice for relatively shallow depths, while titanium takes the reins for greater depths.
A thick titanium pressure vessel should be able to withstand the crushing forces encountered at the daunting depth of 3,800 meters—the very location where the Titanic rests in eternal slumber. At this depth, the pressure is about 80 times greater than the atmospheric pressure at the surface.
However, the Titan diverged from the norm. Its pressure vessel consisted of a blend of titanium and composite carbon fiber—a combination seldom seen in the realm of structural engineering, especially when navigating the abyssal depths.
Titanium possesses elasticity, enabling it to flex and adapt to various stresses without sustaining permanent damage upon returning to atmospheric pressure. It dutifully contracts under pressure and expands as those forces alleviate. Carbon-fiber composites, on the other hand, lack such compression elasticity, boasting a far stiffer composition.
The dissimilar behaviors they exhibit under pressure would have inevitably compromised the integrity of the vessel. The Titan had made three previous expeditions to the Titanic wreck site, the first of which was in July 2021. It is likely that this previous exposure to the Titanic depths weakened and compromised the hull's strength, collapsing in tragedy on its fourth dive mission.
The unforgiving underwater pressure triggered an instantaneous implosion. In the blink of an eye, the vessel, burdened by the weight of a 3,800-meter column of water, would have crumpled from all directions, sealing the fate of those on board.
The people on board were killed within a mind-boggling one milliseconds. That's much too quick for the brain to react. This a tragedy but the fact that the implosion resulted in a quick and painless death may offer rare solace to the victims' families.
The victims include:
- Hamish Harding, a British billionaire and aviator. Harding had previously traveled to space on a Blue Origin mission.
- Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a French deep sea explorer and Titanic expert.
- Shahzada Dawood, a British-Pakistani businessman, and his 19-year-old son Suleman Dawood.
- Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate and the pilot of the submersible.
The tourists embarking on the deep-sea tour had to sign a waiver that describes the Titan as “experimental” and warns of possible death three times on the first page.
The Titan submersible was uncertified and should have never been allowed to dive
The tragedy of the Titan's implosion has revealed just how reckless OceanGate, the company operating the deep-sea tour, had been. There are many "red flags" about the design of this submersible, but somehow despite the lack of certification, passengers were allowed to board this metal coffin.
All certified deep-sea submersibles have hulls made of titanium. The 21-foot, 23,000-pound Titan was the only submersible in the world coated with carbon fiber, something which experts have pointed out as a flaw.
For a company charging $250,000 a seat, OceanGate was very stingy with its component sourcing. It used handles from Camper World and the entire sub was controlled with a $30 Logitech game controller.
These flaws were no secret to OceanGate. But the company went ahead nevertheless, mostly out of the hubris of OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, who died in the tragic Titan implosion. Mr. Rush called certification an impediment to innovation.
In 2018, 38 members of the Marine Technology Society's Manned Underwater Vehicles signed a letter pleading with Stockton Rush and expressing "unanimous concern" about the way Titan had been developed.
“While this may demand additional time and expense, it is our unanimous view that this validation process by a third party is a critical component in the safeguards that protect all submersible occupants," the letter said.
It's perhaps ironic that this occurred just a few hundred feet from the Titanic wreck. The captain and crew of the Titanic thought the ship was unsinkable, and this false sense of security and pride endeared them to perform dangerous maneuvers around the fait-sealing iceberg.
"I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel,” said Captain Edward Smith, commander of the Titanic (1912). “Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
In a recent interview, James Cameron explains that deep-sea diving is actually very safe -- as long as the submersibles go through extensive testing and certification. Cameron is famous as the director of the blockbuster movie Titanic. However, he doubles as one of the world's foremost authorities in deep-sea diving.
In 2012, the Canadian filmmaker traveled to Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, the world's deepest point, achieving a record-breaking solo dive at 10,908 meters (35,787 feet) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The depth is at least three times greater than that of the Titanic wreck and he did so on a submersible he co-designed that was extensively stress tested beforehand.
David Lochridge, OceanGate’s former director of marine operations, brought the Titan's flaws to the attention of the company's leadership, but he was subsequently dismissed. He claimed in an August 2018 court document that he was wrongfully fired after flagging worries about the company’s alleged “refusal to conduct critical, non-destructive testing of the experimental design”.
Another former OceanGate employee who worked briefly for the company during the same time period as Lochridge had similar concerns. The employee complained that the hull had only been built to five inches thick -- when the initial design plan called for seven inches.
The untimely death of the five passengers aboard the Titan submersible is by all means tragic. However, it is exceedingly frustrating that all of this could have been averted with proper oversight. Undoubtedly, the sub's implosion will trigger more regulation in the field. Hopefully, no other deep-sea company like OceanGate will ever be allowed to operate.