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OceanGate CEO Dismissed Safety Risks, Emails Show

Photo: Ocean Gate/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, repeatedly dismissed safety concerns over the Titan submersible years prior to its failed expedition, according to the BBC. Rush was one of the five people onboard the vessel when it imploded following a launch to explore the Titanic shipwreck on Sunday.

The BBC reviewed emails between Rush and Rob McCallum, a expert on expeditions, where McCallum raised concerns about the safety of the Titan. “I think you are potentially placing yourself and your clients in a dangerous dynamic,” McCallum wrote in one March 2018 message.

Rush responded in defense, writing that “industry players” were trying to use an argument of safety to halt innovation.

“Since Guillermo and I started OceanGate we have heard the baseless cries of ‘you are going to kill someone’ way too often. I take this as a serious personal insult,” Rush said, referring to his OceanGate co-founder Guillermo Söhnlein.

Söhnlein defended his company’s actions amid mounting criticism after news that one of its submersibles, Titan, had likely imploded this week.

Among the most prominent critics was James Cameron, director of Titanic and experienced sea explorer, who gave a series of interviews following the news of the Titan’s fate. He seemed to place the blame on the submarine’s design, which had a carbon-fiber hull, telling Reuters that he “never believed in that technology.”

“I thought it was a horrible idea. I wish I’d spoken up, but I assumed somebody was smarter than me because I’d never experimented with that technology. But it just sounded bad on its face,” Cameron said.

Söhnlein, who is no longer with OceanGate, said in an interview with the U.K.’s Times Radio, said it’s “impossible for anyone to really speculate from the outside.”

“I was involved in the early phases of the overall development program during our predecessor subs to Titan, and I know from firsthand experience that we were extremely committed to safety and risk mitigation was a key part of the company culture,” he said.

OceanGate Expeditions, the company that operated the Titan, said on Thursday that all five passengers onboard “have been sadly lost.”

The U.S. Coast Guard confirmed the losses during a press conference Thursday afternoon. Rear Admiral John W. Mauger said a remotely operated vehicle discovered a field of debris including the tail cone of the Titan located 1,600 feet from the bow of the Titanic, consistent with earlier reports. After consulting with internal experts, the agency notified the passengers’ families.

The debris, Mauger said, was “consistent with a catastrophic implosion of the vessel,” he said. When asked about the chance of recovering the bodies of crew members, Mauger said, “this is an incredibly unforgiving environment down there,” and “I don’t have an answer for prospects at this time.”

“These men were true explorers who shared a distinct spirit of adventure and a deep passion for exploring and protecting the world’s oceans,” OceanGate said in a statement. “Our hearts are with these five souls and every member of their families during this tragic time.”

The U.S. Navy heard what they believed to be the implosion of the submersible Titan not long after it vanished on Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported. Though it couldn’t confirm the origin of the sound, the Navy alerted the Coast Guard promptly, and the information likely narrowed the field of the search.

On Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard said that a remotely operated vehicle had found a debris field near the Titanic and that experts were “evaluating the information.” A rescue expert told Sky News that part of the debris is “a landing frame and a rear cover from the submersible.” CNN, citing a memo, reports the debris is believed to be from the “external body of the sub” and was found Thursday morning approximately 500 meters from the Titanic’s bow.

The people aboard the submersible have been identified as OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, British billionaire Hamish Harding, French explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet, and British Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and his son.

Harding, 58, posted an enthusiastic message on social media about the upcoming dive over the weekend, explaining that a “weather window has just opened up and we are going to attempt a dive tomorrow.” The aviation executive and Explorers Club member is no stranger to high-risk adventures, having already traveled to space aboard a Blue Origin rocket last year and to the deepest part of the Mariana Trench aboard a two-man submersible in 2021 — setting two new Guinness World Records in the process.

The BBC reports that Nargeolet, 73, had earned the nickname “Mr. Titanic” for apparently spending more time at the wreck than any other person.

The U.S. Coast Guard had announced that the Canadian vessel Horizon Arctic and the French vessel L’Atalante had both deployed remotely operated vehicles to scour the ocean floor near the site. The Horizon Arctic was mobilized by Horizon Maritime, the company that operates the Titan’s mothership, the Polar Prince. Sean Leet, the company’s CEO, said during a press conference on Wednesday that Horizon Maritime has been supporting expeditions to the Titanic for several years.

There was one glimmer of hope earlier this week: The U.S. Coast Guard said in a statement posted to social media on Wednesday that Canadian aircraft involved with the search had detected “underwater noises,” which were heard the next day as well. But additional searches “yielded negative results,” and the agency confirmed it was unclear what those sounds were.

When asked during a Thursday interview with the Today show about the chance that the vessel’s limited oxygen supply could somehow be extended, Mauger said, “People’s will to live really needs to be accounted for as well.”

“We’re continuing to search and proceed with rescue efforts by bringing this new capability online this morning,” he said, referring to the newly deployed ROVs.

The 22-foot submersible Titan was operated by a Washington-based research and tourism company called OceanGate Expeditions, which designed and built the vessel and has in recent years been offering trips to visit the famous wreck for as much as $250,000. The Canadian research vessel MV Polar Prince lost contact with the Titan during its dive about 900 miles east of Cape Cod on Sunday morning, according to the Coast Guard, which was alerted that afternoon and sent two C-130 aircraft, joined by a Canadian C-130 and P-8 submarine hunter, to help search for the submersible. Three tugboats were also headed to the site. On Monday, Mauger told reporters, “We are doing everything we can do.”

According to OceanGate’s website, the Titan submersible was “designed to take five people to depths of 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) for site survey and inspection, research and data collection, film and media production, and deep-sea testing of hardware and software” and could provide life support for that number of people for up to 96 hours. The Titan was an hour and 45 minutes into its dive when MV Polar Prince lost contact with it.

The wreckage of the Titanic lies at a depth of about 12,500 feet, roughly 370 miles from the coast of Newfoundland. More than 1,500 people died when the massive ocean liner sank after striking an iceberg on April 14, 1912.

This post has been updated.

OceanGate CEO Dismissed Safety Risks, Emails Show