Speak to anyone who has sailed on the Titan submersible and they will likely mention a technical failure: the propulsion system has failed or there has been a loss of communication with people on the surface. There may have been problems with the weight balance on board.
You’ll also likely mention Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, who died on the deadly voyage this week. Past passengers have described him as both a meticulous planner and a high-spirited pioneer.
After Titan’s deadly implosion near the Titanic shipwreck on Sunday, some people involved in the company’s deep-sea expeditions described experiences that heralded the tragedy and, looking back on their decision to dive, were “a bit naïve”.
But others were confident, saying they felt “in good hands” at nearly 13,000 feet (3,962 meters) below the sea.
“HOW TO PLAY RUSSIAN ROULETTE”
“I knew 100% that this was going to happen,” said Brian Weed, cameraman for Discovery Channel’s Expedition Unknown, who has had a stomach ache since the sub’s disappearance on Sunday.
Weed undertook a Titan test dive in Puget Sound, Washington state in May 2021 as it prepared for its first expeditions to the sunken Titanic. Weed and his colleagues were preparing to join OceanGate Expeditions to film the famous shipwreck later that summer.
They quickly encountered problems: the drive system no longer worked. The computers didn’t respond. The communication was interrupted.
Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, attempted to restart and troubleshoot the ship using its touchscreens.
“You could tell he was nervous and not really happy with the performance,” said Weed. “But he tried to take it lightly and make excuses.”
They were barely 30 meters down in calm water, which begs the question: “How is this thing supposed to get to 12,500 feet – and do we want to be on board?” Weed said.
After the aborted voyage, the production company hired a US Navy consultant to review the Titan.
He presented a mostly positive report, but cautioned that there wasn’t enough research on Titan’s carbon fiber hull, Weed said. There were also technical concerns that the hull would not maintain its effectiveness across multiple dives.
Weed said Rush was a charismatic salesman who truly believed in submersible technology – and was willing to risk his life to get it.
“It was starting to look like we wouldn’t be the first to film the Titanic – we might be the 10th,” Weed said of the potential Titanic expedition. “I felt like every time the ship went down, it got weaker and weaker. And that’s a bit like playing Russian roulette.”
For work projects, Weed has swum with sharks, abseiled into remote caves, and snowshoeed across Siberia. But he and his colleagues withdrew from the dive to the Titanic.
“I didn’t have a good feeling about it,” he said. “It was a really tough decision.”
“I always felt like I was in good hands”
Mike Reiss, author of The Simpsons television show, said he’s had positive experiences on the dives he’s had with OceanGate, including to the Titanic wreck site.
“When my wife first came to me with this[idea]I said to her, ‘Well, that sounds like a fun way to get killed,'” Reiss said. “I knew (the risks) of going in there. I have always felt in good hands.”
Reiss said he’s made three trips on OceanGate in waters near New York City — and that the company takes safety seriously.
“Most of the time it was just amazing how well everything went,” Reiss said of his 2022 dive on the Titanic. “It’s a 10-hour trip. And I went down from sea level to two and a half miles and then back down to sea level. And the pressure in my ears never changed. I didn’t have the same feeling as in the New York elevator. For me, this is a remarkable achievement.”
Reiss said he was in a “different state of mind” during the expedition because he was so committed.
“You’re never hungry. You are never thirsty. You have a bathroom on board. It was never used,” he said. “You just become a different type of person. You even know you could die and it doesn’t bother you.”
Reiss said he’s noticed some issues with the Titan, although he’s not sure if it’s all a bug.
For example, communication did not always work, like a mobile phone that loses service. Titan’s compass also began to “act frantically” as they reached the seabed near the sunken Titanic.
“I don’t know if that’s an instrument error or because the magnetism is different two and a half miles down,” he said.
“The fatal mistake is what will be remembered for”
Arnie Weissmann, editor-in-chief of Travel Weekly, has never sailed the Titan, although he spent a week aboard the support ship in late May, waiting for the weather to clear. He briefly climbed into the submersible, but the dive was ultimately abandoned.
Wind, fog and waves were given as reasons, but Weissmann wondered whether the operational readiness of the submersible also played a role.
One night, over a cigar, Rush told Weissmann that he got the carbon fiber for Titan’s fuselage at a big discount because it was past its shelf life for use in aircraft, Weissmann said. But Rush assured him it was safe.
“I really felt like there were two Stockton rushes,” Weissman said. “There was someone who was a good and efficient team leader and got the job done. And there was this cocky, confident guy who fucking said, “I do it my way.” And I saw that as we got off the back of the boat and drank our cigars.”
But he was also a strong leader, said Weissmann, who recalled Rush chairing lengthy planning meetings and urging anyone interested to read a book called The Checklist Manifesto: How to Do Things Right, which he wrote left in the ship’s lounge. If a repair was complex, Weissmann said, Rush would instruct those assigned to do the repair to pause for five minutes after the repair was complete to ensure it was done correctly.
In retrospect, Weissmann believes Rush made a fatal mistake: overconfidence in his technical abilities and a perception that he was a pioneer in a field that others weren’t because they stuck to the rules.
“But in the end he will certainly be remembered for his fatal mistake – even if he was a three-dimensional human like everyone else,” Weissmann said.
Arthur Loibl, a retired businessman and adventurer from Germany, was one of OceanGate’s first customers dive to the sunken ocean liner.
“You have to be a little crazy to do something like that,” he said.
His diving buddies included Rush, French diver and Titanic expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet, and two passengers from England.
“Imagine a metal tube a few meters long with a metal sheet for the bottom. You can’t take it you can’t kneel “Everyone sits close together or on top of each other,” said Loibl. “You can’t be claustrophobic.”
During the 2.5-hour descent and ascent, the lights were turned off to save energy and the only illumination came from a fluorescent lightstick.
The dive was repeatedly postponed to fix an issue with the battery and balance weights. The journey took 10.5 hours in total.
He described Rush as a tinkerer trying to make do with what was available to conduct the dives, but in retrospect he said, “It was a bit iffy.”
“Looking back, I was a bit naïve,” Loibl said.