The search intensified Tuesday for the submersible that vanished two days ago in the North Atlantic Ocean, as ships and aircraft from U.S. and Canada joined the effort to locate the small vessel carrying five people to the Titanic wreckage site before it runs out of oxygen.
Capt. Jamie Frederick of the First Coast Guard District in Boston said the Titan, as the submersible is known, had “about 40 hours of breathable air left” around 1 p.m. ET Tuesday, meaning its oxygen supply could get depleted by Thursday morning.
He added that an underwater robot had started searching in the vicinity of the Titanic and that there was a push to get salvage equipment to the scene in case the sub is found. Besides that, three C-130 aircraft and three C-17 transport planes from the U.S. military have been aiding the search, and the Canadian military said it provided a patrol aircraft and two surface ships.
Still, the remote location − 900 miles east of Cape Cod and up 13,000 feet below sea level − make the pursuit “an incredibly complex operation,” Frederick said.
The carbon-fiber submersible had a 96-hour oxygen supply when it went to sea at about 6 a.m. Sunday, according to David Concannon, an adviser to OceanGate Expeditions, the deep-sea exploration company that owns the vessel.
The five-person watercraft was reported overdue Sunday night. It had lost contact with its support ship, the Canadian research icebreaker Polar Prince, about an hour and 45 minutes after submerging.
Among those aboard are OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, who was piloting the Titan, British adventurer Hamish Harding, two members of a Pakistani business family and a Titanic expert.
Jim Bellingham, a Johns Hopkins University expert on deep-sea operations, said the three possible locations for the submersible are floating on the ocean’s surface after an electrical failure or some other mishap; drifting in the water column − anywhere between the surface and the bottom − because it became buoyantly neutral; and at the sea floor, perhaps tangled with something that won’t let it float to the top.
The first one is by far the best position, Bellingham said, because even though it would be difficult to spot the 21-foot-long Titan amid the waves, “the Coast Guard is just awesome at this. They have amazing capability to see something pretty small in the ocean.’’
A challenging search operation
Rear Adm. John Mauger, commander of the First Coast Guard District, told NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday that his crews were working to prioritize underwater search efforts and get equipment there. Experts told The Associated Press the challenges are difficult.
Alistair Greig, a professor of marine engineering at University College London, said submersibles typically have a drop weight, which is “a mass they can release in the case of an emergency to bring them up to the surface using buoyancy.” A power failure would leave the vessel “bobbing” on the surface, he said.
There could also be a leak in the pressure hull, he said.
“If it has gone down to the seabed and can’t get back up under its own power, options are very limited,” Greig said. “While the submersible might still be intact, if it is beyond the continental shelf, there are very few vessels that can get that deep, and certainly not divers.”
What you need to know about sub:Maps, graphics show last location, depth and design
Experts warned OceanGate of ‘catastrophic’ outcome, report says
OceanGate, the company that operates the missing submersible, was warned its approach to the enterprise could have a “catastrophic” outcome, according to a 2018 letter written by leaders in the submersible craft industry obtained by The New York Times.
The letter was addressed to OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush − who’s on board the current voyage, according to the company − by members of the Marine Technology Society, an organization that advocates for ocean technology and education.
The 30-plus signatories said they were apprehensive about the company’s “experimental” approach to its planned exploration of the Titanic wreckage and about the vessel’s design, believing they could lead to safety problems that would have a negative impact on the industry as a whole.
The letter also says OceanGate’s claim that its watercraft design meets or surpasses safety standards is “misleading to the public and breaches an industry-wide professional code of conduct we all endeavor to uphold.”
Passengers asked to help with tasks, limit toilet use
OceanGate Expeditions’ website, accessed through the Internet Archive by USA TODAY, said all passengers on expeditions are required to be briefed on safety requirements and how to don what it described as a “survival suit.”
A survival suit can protect people from freezing water and some specialized suits can act as a raft approved for use when submerged up to 600 feet, according to the Department of Defense. OceanGate’s website didn’t specify what kind of suit passengers have access to. The Titan takes passengers down more than 13,000 feet.
Passengers on the submersible are also advised to “restrict your diet before and during the dive to reduce the likelihood that you will need to use the facilities,” the website says.
Those going on submersible diving expeditions have to be at least age 18 and able to demonstrate basic strength and balance requirements, such as climbing a ladder and carrying 20 pounds, the site says.
Passengers might assist with a variety of tasks on the submersible, the website says, including sonar operation, taking photos or videos and assisting the pilot with communications between the sub and the surface.
Organ failure a major threat as oxygen levels dip
Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, said those aboard the submersible would be experiencing organ failure as oxygen levels dip and less of it flows to the brain. This leads to weakness, confusion and loss of consciousness.
“If somebody has a pre-existing heart condition, that may precipitate a problem as those low oxygen levels develop,” Rizzo said.
Anxiety and fear, speech and a faster heart rate can increase the amount of oxygen a person uses, he added.
“There’s a lot of unknowns here as to how the oxygen is supplied in the submersible itself, but it really depends on the rate at which each individual consumes the oxygen as to how long it’s going to last,” he said.
The submersible’s ability to filter out carbon dioxide is also a concerning factor if compromised, said Dr. Alexander Isakov, Emory University emergency medicine physician and a former diving medical officer with the U.S. Navy. High carbon dioxide levels are dangerous and can lead to fatigue, hyperventilation, coma and death, he said.
Life-threatening hypothermia is also a concern, he said. The submersible’s ability to maintain a comfortable temperature is essential amid the extreme cold of the ocean’s depths.
− Nada Hassanein
Where is the search area for the submersible?
The U.S. Coast Guard in Boston is combing the ocean surface and below water in search of the submersible, using tools including sonar technology and aircraft.
The location − about 900 miles east of Cape Cod and up to 13,000 feet deep − complicates the task, as does the need to look both on the ocean surface and below, the Coast Guard said.
“We are deploying all available assets to make sure that we can locate the craft and rescue the people on board,” Mauger said.
When did the Titanic submarine go missing?
The craft launched Sunday morning, but its support vessel lost contact with it about an hour and 45 minutes later, according to the Coast Guard.
The Titan disappeared in the North Atlantic Ocean, the remote area where the massive ocean liner the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in 1912. All but about 700 of the roughly 2,200 passengers and crew died.
The Titan was being launched from an icebreaker hired by OceanGate and formerly operated by the Canadian Coast Guard. The ship ferried dozens of people and the submersible to the North Atlantic site, where the Titan makes multiple dives.
Where is the wreckage of the Titanic?
This was OceanGate Expedition’s third annual voyage to the Titanic since 2021. The ship is at a depth of nearly 2½ miles. The Washington-based deep-sea exploration company has taken archaeologists, marine biologists and tourists to the site of the wreckage.
Who is on board the submersible?
The Coast Guard said one pilot and four “mission specialists” were aboard. “Mission specialists” are people who pay to come along on OceanGate’s expeditions. They take turns operating sonar equipment and performing other tasks in the submersible.
An initial group of tourists in 2021 paid $100,000 to $150,000 apiece to visit the wreck site. OceanGate’s website described the “mission support fee” for the 2023 expedition as $250,000 a person.
British businessman Hamish Harding, who lives in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, was one of the mission specialists, according to Action Aviation, a company for which Harding is chairman.
Closer look at the people on board:Who is on the missing Titanic submersible? Passengers include Hamish Harding, Shahzada Dawood
Harding is an adventurer who holds three Guinness World Records, including the longest duration at full ocean depth by a crewed vessel. In March 2021, he and ocean explorer Victor Vescovo dived to the lowest depth of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. In June 2022, he flew into space on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket.
Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, members of one of Pakistan’s most prominent families, also were on board, according to a family statement sent to The Associated Press. The family is known for investments in agriculture, industry and the health sector. Shahzada Dawood also is on the board of trustees for the California-based SETI Institute, which searches for extraterrestrial intelligence.
French explorer and Titanic expert Paul-Henry Nargeolet also was on board, according to David Gallo, a senior adviser for strategic initiatives and special projects at RMS Titanic. Gallo identified Nargeolet, a friend who has led multiple expeditions to the Titanic, on Tuesday during an interview with CNN.
CBS correspondent describes getting ‘lost’ on previous submersible trip
CBS News correspondent David Pogue tweeted about his experience last year joining the crew and a group of tourists to see the wreck, but he said the submersible “got lost for a few hours” on that trip.
“There’s no GPS underwater,” and communications between the submersible and a surface ship guiding it broke down on part of that trip, too, Pogue said in his report, which aired in November.
“An experimental submersible vessel that has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body … could result in physical injury, disability, emotional trauma or death,” Pogue read from a form he signed on camera in the report.
The submersible has about as much room as a minivan, Pogue said. “I couldn’t help noticing how many pieces of this sub seemed improvised,” Pogue said, showing viewers what he described as a small “sort-of” toilet.
OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush showed Pogue a video game controller and said it was used to “run the whole thing.”
Rush said important components of the submersible like the pressure vessel were solidly engineered alongside NASA, Boeing and the University of Washington. “Everything else can fail. Your thrusters can go, your lights can go, you’re still going to be safe,” Rush told Pogue.
One member of that trip, bank executive Renata Rojas, said she had been booked on three Titanic dives that were all canceled.
What is a submersible?
A submersible is a vessel in the submarine family but smaller and less self-sufficient than the classic military sub.
Contributing: Francisco Guzman, Donovan Slack, USA TODAY; The Associated Press