Documents reveal that the company operating the submersible vessel that went missing during a tourist dive to the Titanic wreck had been repeatedly warned about potential safety issues during its development. The vessel, named Titan and operated by OceanGate Expeditions, had five people on board and is currently being searched for by an international fleet of ships and airplanes. OceanGate has been conducting annual voyages to the Titanic since 2021.
In a positive development since the search began, a Canadian aircraft detected underwater sounds, although the vessel has not yet been located, according to the US Coast Guard’s report on Wednesday.
According to a lawsuit filed in 2018 in the US District Court in Seattle, David Lochridge, OceanGate’s director of marine operations, wrote an engineering report stating that the craft under development required further testing and that passengers might be endangered at “extreme depths.” OceanGate sued Lochridge that year, accusing him of breaching a non-disclosure agreement, and he filed a counterclaim alleging wrongful termination for raising concerns about testing and safety. The case was settled on undisclosed terms several months after being filed.
Lochridge’s concerns primarily revolved around the company’s reliance on sensitive acoustic monitoring, which detects hull flaws through cracking or popping sounds under pressure, instead of conducting a scan of the hull. Lochridge claimed that the company informed him that there was no equipment available to perform a scan on the 5-inch-thick carbon-fiber hull.
Furthermore, Lochridge stated that while the craft was designed to reach depths of 4,000 meters (13,123 feet), matching the location of the Titanic, the passenger viewport was only certified for depths of up to 1,300 meters (4,265 feet). OceanGate declined to invest in a manufacturer-certified viewport suitable for 4,000 meters.
The counterclaim asserted that OceanGate’s choices would expose passengers to potential extreme danger in an experimental submersible. However, OceanGate stated in their complaint that Lochridge, not being an engineer, was not hired to perform engineering services on the Titan. He was terminated after rejecting assurances from OceanGate’s lead engineer regarding the superiority of acoustic monitoring and testing protocols over scanning methods, as stated in the complaint.
OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush defended the approach in a speech at a conference in Seattle, describing how he took a prototype down to 4,000 meters, where it made significant noise. Subsequently, a different hull was constructed by an aerospace supplier, replacing the one originally built by a marine manufacturer.
In 2018, OceanGate received another warning, this time from the Marine Technology Society, a professional group of ocean engineers, technologists, policy-makers, and educators. The society urged the company to subject its prototype to tests overseen by an expert third party before launching, as a safeguard for passengers. Rush refused to comply with the suggestion.
Rush had been piloting the missing vessel. The letter from the Marine Technology Society, reported by the New York Times, expressed concerns about the potential negative outcomes, ranging from minor to catastrophic, that could result from OceanGate’s experimental approach and its impact on the entire industry.
In a 2019 interview with Smithsonian magazine, Rush criticized the industry’s approach, claiming that excessive regulations hindered innovation. He pointed out that there hadn’t been any injuries in the commercial sub industry for over 35 years, attributing this safety record to the multitude of regulations. However, he also noted that these regulations had stifled innovation and hindered industry growth.