“I mean if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed, don’t get in your car, don’t do anything,” Rush said in a 2022 podcast with CBS reporter David Pogue. “At some point, you’re going to take some risk, and it really is a risk-reward question.”
That mindset is now coming into focus as rescuers race to find the Titan, which has Rush and four other passengers on board and is likely running out of oxygen, with estimates of about 16 hours left. Ocean scientists and at least one former employee of Rush’s company, OceanGate, have been sounding alarms about its safety procedures for at least five years.
Founded in 2009, Everett, Washington-based OceanGate has been leading chartered expeditions on the Titan to the wreckage of the Titanic, 4,000 meters below sea level, since the summer of 2021 at a cost of $250,000 per person.
The company declined to comment when contacted by Bloomberg News.
But the experimental Titan craft, designed to explore a part of the Earth that few people have ever visited, is subject to little regulatory oversight and made passengers explicitly aware of the mortal risks they would face on board.
Passengers planning to board the Titan signed safety waivers that repeatedly mentioned the possibility of death. The craft, a cylindrical carbon-fiber and titanium tube that operates with a rudimentary video game controller and lacks even a GPS system, has been missing since Sunday.
British-born sea adventurer Rob McCallum, who has visited the wreck of the Titanic, consulted for OceanGate in its earlier years but parted ways with the company for several reasons, including concern that Chief Executive Officer Rush was moving too quickly, Bloomberg reported in 2017.
“I know Stockton well and think the world needs more Stocktons prepared to take a chance,” McCallum said at the time. “But he’s a full-speed-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes kind of guy, and in the submersible industry, extreme depth is all about precision and control. Nothing can be left to chance.”
McCallum declined to comment on the Titan mission Tuesday.
In a claim on its website that was visible last month, OceanGate said that Boeing, Nasa and the University of Washington had collaborated on the design and engineering of the Titan. The mention of the three are no longer visible on the page. Another section of the website thanks various industry partners, including Boeing and Nasa, for the help they provided in designing and engineering the Titan.
In a promotional video on OceanGate’s YouTube page, the company describes the Titan’s safety, and explains that it “partnered with aerospace experts at the University of Washington, Nasa and Boeing on the design of our hull”.
A spokesperson from Boeing declined to comment and deferred to OceanGate for any information.
In a 2020 release posted on the company’s website, OceanGate said that “Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, will serve as the facility where the development and manufacturing of a new aerospace-grade hull is completed” for its latest submersible.
In a statement Wednesday, Nasa said it consulted on the materials and construction process for the Titan but didn’t conduct testing or use its workforce or facilities for manufacturing.
“We regret to hear the Titan submersible is missing, and we remain hopeful the crew will be found unharmed,” said Lance Davis at Nasa’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Kevin Williams, a spokesperson for the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory told CNN that the laboratory didn’t help design or engineer the Titan vessel.
In March 2018, the Marine Technology Society, a group of ocean technologists and engineers, sent a letter to OceanGate asking the company to adopt recognized safety standards for the Titan, saying the company’s “experimental’ approach” could result in “negative outcomes (from minor to catastrophic)”.
Submersibles, unlike boats and other vessels, are largely unregulated, particularly when they operate in international waters, according to the New York Times.
A former OceanGate employee, David Lochridge, raised concerns about the company’s safety practices, according to documents filed in a 2018 federal case. OceanGate sued Lochridge for disclosing confidential business information about its technology, and court documents show Lochridge argued in a counterclaim that he’d been wrongfully terminated from his position with OceanGate “because he raised critical safety concerns regarding OceanGate’s experimental and untested design of the Titan”.
In 2019, in an unsigned blogpost on its website explaining why the Titan wasn’t regulated, OceanGate said such approvals could be lengthy and wouldn’t address operational risks.
“Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation,” the post said.
Since the Titan’s disappearance, several former passengers who have boarded the submersible said they’d signed a waiver before embarking that clearly delineated the extreme risks.
“Before you even get on the boat, there’s a long, long waiver that mentions death three times on page one,” Mike Reiss, a producer for The Simpsons television show who took a voyage on the Titan last summer to visit Titanic wreckage, told the New York Post.
And in a CBS broadcast aired last summer on the Titan’s voyages, Pogue read aloud from a passenger waiver he signed before riding in the craft that described the Titan as an “experimental submersible vessel that has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body and could result in physical injury, disability, emotional trauma or death”.
Some have questioned why OceanGate representatives waited so long after losing contact with the Titan to alert the US Coast Guard that the ship had gone missing. The surface ship lost contact with Titan an hour and 45 minutes into the dive, at 9.45am New York time on Sunday, but the company waited until 5.40pm to alert the Coast Guard.
One possible explanation? It wasn’t the first time the Titan had lost contact with the surface on a long dive to the sea floor.
Pogue said in a tweet this week that during his trip the submersible lost contact with the surface for five hours. Pogue was in the control room of the research vessel overseeing the trip at the time.
The surface ship could still send short texts to the Titan during the trip, but the crew was unsure of where the submersible was, Pogue said. OceanGate even shut off the ship’s internet connection, which he said OceanGate told him was done to keep all communications channels open in case of an emergency. There was no way to confirm whether this was the case, he said.
(With assistance from Loren Grush and Alan Levin.)