Lessons From a Deep-Sea Disaster

The tragic incident of the Titan submersible underscores the need for robust risk assessment, safety measures and a culture of transparency in pursuit of innovation.

by Jane Rhodes
Polar Prince towing an OceanGate submersible vessel on a barge as it leaves from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada for the Titanic wreck site.

As dawn broke on June 18, 2023, the team aboard the Titan, a small deep-sea vessel owned by American company OceanGate, embarked on a journey to the depths of the ocean. The Titanic wreckage was their destination, a symbol of a past maritime disaster that was to eerily echo their own impending fate.

The submersible carried five occupants: Stockton Rush, chief executive of OceanGate; French deep-sea explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet; British billionaire businessman Hamish Harding; Pakistani-British billionaire Shahzada Dawood; and his son, Suleman.

A ticket to the ocean’s floor, about 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) below sea level, cost $250,000. The 22-foot-long (6.7-meter), 23,000-pound (10,430-kilogram) vessel was constructed from carbon fiber and titanium. The Logitech F710, originally designed for PC gaming and priced at around $30 on Amazon, was reportedly used to control the submarine.

Passengers would set sail from Newfoundland, Canada, and return aboard a dedicated support ship, immersing themselves in an approximately five-day experience above the ocean where the historic wreck lay. During each excursion, there were usually two planned dives, although occasional cancellations or interruptions occurred due to weather conditions or technical issues.

The crew would board the submersible and securely seal the hatch, which could only be reopened from the outside. The descent from the surface to reach the Titanic’s resting place typically spanned two hours, while the entire dive encompassed approximately eight hours.

Throughout the expedition, the submersible emitted a safety ping every 15 minutes, which was monitored by the crew on the surface. Additionally, communication between the vessel and the above-water crew was reportedly facilitated through text messages.

Titan’s communication was lost around 1 hour 45 minutes into its dive. What followed was a wide-ranging search and rescue mission, facilitated by numerous agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Coast Guard.

Despite their combined efforts, the operation was fraught with challenges, not least the glaring absence of an acoustic beacon on Titan, a standard safety feature used to locate submerged vessels in emergency situations. The search was the subject of intense global media coverage, while it remained unclear whether the vessel was intact but without power, or whether it had imploded due to a sudden catastrophic loss of pressure.

After four days, the United States Navy’s remotely operated underwater vehicle discovered a debris field containing parts of Titan. Sonar detection suggested the hull had imploded during descent, killing all onboard instantaneously. “The debris is consistent with the catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber,” Rear Admiral John Mauger of the U.S. Coast Guard told reporters. The announcement signaled a deeply disheartening conclusion to a vast international air and sea search for the submarine and its crew.

Prior Concerns

OceanGate was founded in 2009 by Stockton Rush and Guillermo Söhnlein. The company had previously taken paying customers on deep-sea expeditions to various shipwreck sites.

Titan, previously known as Cyclops 2, had shown signs of cyclic fatigue, and its hull was repaired or rebuilt in 2020 and 2021. The submersible was purportedly equipped with monitoring systems, backup ascent mechanisms and life support for five people for 96 hours. It had completed successful dives to the Titanic during the summers of 2021 and 2022.

However, Titan’s lack of safety certification raised alarms, and passengers were required to sign a waiver acknowledging the vessel’s “experimental” nature, and the risk of potential injuries, disabilities, emotional trauma or death. The voyage in which Titan was destroyed was OceanGate’s only mission launched in 2023.

The Titan was not certified as seaworthy by any regulatory body or third-party organization. It operated in international waters and therefore was not subject to safety regulations. Rush, the inventor, was portrayed as a “daredevil inventor” who stated safety often limits innovation.

Over recent years, numerous experts had voiced apprehensions about the Titan. In 2018, David Lochridge, OceanGate’s former director of marine operations, composed a report outlining his apprehensions about the submersible. He emphasized the need for Titan to undergo assessment and certification by a reputable agency. However, OceanGate declined this recommendation, citing financial constraints as the reason for their reluctance to pursue certification.

One of Lochridge’s concerns centered around the transparent viewport located at the forward end of the vessel. Due to its nonstandard and experimental design, it was only certified to a depth of 4,300 feet (1,300 meters), insufficient to reach the depths required to explore the Titanic wreckage.

Lochridge expressed reservations about the reliability of the Real-Time Monitoring (RTM) system, noting it could only detect imminent component failures moments before implosion, rather than identifying pre-existing flaws in the hull before it was too late.

OceanGate countered Lochridge’s claims by asserting that he, as a non-engineer, refused to acknowledge safety approvals provided by the company’s engineering team. They argued that their internal evaluation of the Titan’s hull exceeded any third-party evaluation Lochridge thought necessary.

In response to these conflicts, OceanGate filed a lawsuit against Lochridge, accusing him of breaching a confidentiality contract and making fraudulent statements. In turn, Lochridge countersued, alleging wrongful termination as a whistleblower for bringing up concerns about the submersible’s safety. The two parties eventually reached a settlement a few months later, resolving their legal disputes.

In a subsequent development in 2018, the Marine Technology Society addressed Stockton Rush in a letter, conveying their unanimous concern regarding the development of the “TITAN” and the proposed Titanic Expedition.

The society expressed apprehension about the current experimental approach, highlighting the potential for adverse outcomes ranging from minor incidents to catastrophic events that could have far-reaching consequences for the entire industry.

One of the signatories of the letter later recounted to The New York Times that Rush personally contacted him after reading the letter. During their conversation, Rush expressed his thinking that industry standards were impeding innovation, reflecting his perspective on the matter.

In 2022, Ross Kemp, the British actor and television presenter, had planned to document a dive to the Titanic using Titan. However, the project was canceled after the production company found the submersible to be unsafe.

Additionally, in 2022, reporter David Pogue highlighted Titan’s safety issues during a CBS Sunday Morning report. Pogue questioned the safety of the Titan and made note of its unconventional control system. Titan also experienced several operational issues, including a misinstalled thruster, battery problems and becoming lost during a dive, raising further safety concerns.

Lessons for Businesses

The tragedy highlights the necessity for a thorough risk assessment and robust safety measures in a rapidly evolving technological landscape. Innovation must not be pursued at the expense of potential risks.

It also serves as a harsh lesson about the delicate balance between pursuing innovation and ensuring safety. Companies need to foster an open culture where safety concerns can be raised without fear of retaliation. Regular audits, contingency planning and the employment of independent experts to assess safety measures are critical.

The incident also demonstrates that communication and transparency are key. The disjointed response to the crisis indicates a lack of effective communication within the team. In today’s complex business landscape, ensuring everyone understands their roles, responsibilities and the larger picture can save lives and manage public trust in times of crisis.

Leadership bears the responsibility of striking a balance between ambition and caution. The 21st-century executive must create an environment that values learning and accountability, where issues are proactively addressed, and failures are seen as opportunities for improvement.

Another key lesson from the tragedy is the importance of accepting criticism, no matter where it comes from. Rush exhibited a visionary entrepreneurial spirit but consistently dismissed any criticism directed at the submersible. Business Insider characterized Rush as someone who was motivated rather than discouraged by criticism of his creation.

Why was he so resolute in disregarding criticism? Because he thought people were criticizing him for misguided reasons. In an email to a dissenting expert, Rush said that “industry players” were attempting to obstruct individuals like him, aiming to hinder new entrants from joining their limited existing market.

Had he been willing to look beyond their (presumed) motives, perhaps he would still be alive today. While most of us don’t face life-or-death decisions, none of us can escape criticism. When people criticize us, we often become defensive and question their intentions.

James Cameron, the Academy-Award-winning director of the 1997 film Titanic, one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and who has visited the ship’s wreckage site 33 times, said he was “struck by the similarity” between the submersible’s implosion and the events that led to the Titanic’s sinking in 1912.

In addition to sharing the same location of their sinking, he said both vessels had captains who disregarded the apparent red flags. Despite repeated warnings about ice ahead, the Titanic’s captain chose to navigate at full speed through an ice field on a moonless night, resulting in significant loss of life.

Cameron also criticized the choice of carbon-fiber composite material for the pressure vessel of the submersible, highlighting its lack of compression strength under immense depths. According to Cameron, pressure hulls should be constructed with contiguous materials such as steel, titanium, ceramic or acrylic. He expressed skepticism about the use of wound carbon fiber for the Titan’s hull, recognizing its vulnerability to water ingress, delamination and progressive failure over time.

He expressed regret for not vocalizing his concerns prior to the accident and criticized the presentation of false hopes to the families of the victims. Cameron and his colleagues recognized early on that simultaneous loss of communication and tracking indicated a probable catastrophic implosion, contrary to any optimistic prospects offered.

The OceanGate tragedy serves as a stark warning of the catastrophic outcomes of neglecting risk management and safety protocols. It underscores the need for businesses to foster a culture of transparency, accountability and continual improvement. In the wake of this disaster, it is imperative for businesses to acknowledge these lessons. As we push the boundaries of what’s possible, the price of progress should not be paid in human lives or environmental harm. This tragic incident should serve as a sobering reminder for companies across all sectors.