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Red Flags Surrounded The Missing Titanic Sub Years Before Disappearance

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AT SEA - (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY â" MANDATORY CREDIT - " OCEANGATE/ HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) An undated photo shows tourist submersible belongs to OceanGate begins to descent at a sea. Search and rescue operations continue by US Coast Guard in Boston after a tourist submarine bound for the Titanic's wreckage site went missing off the southeastern coast of Canada.
Photo by Ocean Gate / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As an international search continues for the missing Titanic submersible carrying five people, questions swirl around the craft’s construction and the safety procedures its company put in place. 

The submersible, named the Titan, went missing on June 18 after plunging into the depths of the Atlantic on a voyage to see the wreckage of the Titanic. The Titan belongs to OceanGate, a U.S. company that provides crewed submersibles for research, exploration, and tourism. Wealthy adventurers can pay $250,000 per ticket for the opportunity to dive more than two miles under the ocean’s surface.

The voyage aboard the Titan was never without risk, however. Those wishing to squeeze into the submersible roughly the size of a minivan had to sign waivers accepting the possibility of injury or death, and before Titan’s latest trek, OceanGate faced multiple warnings from people inside and outside the company, as well as a lawsuit from an employee flagging what he saw as massive safety issues. 

Questionable Construction

OceanGate boasts that the Titan features “off-the-shelf technology,” which “helped to streamline the construction, and makes it simple to operate and replace parts in the field.” In a CBS News report last year, OceanGate founder and CEO Stockton Rush, who is on the missing submersible, showed off an off-brand video game controller that he said “runs the whole thing and a largely empty interior except for an assortment of screens and some sort of toilet set-up.”

CBS correspondent David Pogue reported that the Titan’s hatch is sealed by an external crew with 17 bolts, and that is the only way out. The report also noted that the submersible lacks underwater GPS but instead is guided by text messages from the surface ship. Pogue, who joined Rush on a two-day journey in the Titan, said he had to sign paperwork that stated, “This experimental vessel has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body, and could result in physical injury, emotional trauma, or death.”

A millionaire adventurer who was supposed to go on the Titan voyage said he backed out over fears that the company was “cutting too many corners.” Digital marketing tycoon Chris Brown told The Sun that he paid a deposit of $10,000 to join his friend Hamish Harding after the two decided to go on the voyage after having a “few beers.” Harding is currently on the missing submersible, but Brown changed his mind after learning how the Titan was built. 

“I found out they used old scaffolding poles for the sub’s ballast — and its controls were based on computer game-style controllers,” Brown said.

“Eventually I emailed them and said, ‘I’m no longer able to go on this thing,’” he added. 

2018 Lawsuit

OceanGate’s Director of Marine Operations David Lochridge, who was also a submersible pilot, raised concerns about the underwater vehicle’s safety and refused to approve manned tests of the early models, according to court documents obtained by The New Republic. Lochridge was fired and sued by OceanGate in 2018 for disclosing confidential information about Titan. The former OceanGate employee filed a compulsory counterclaim, saying he was wrongfully terminated for being a whistleblower. 

“[R]ather than addressing Lochridge’s concerns, OceanGate instead summarily terminated Lochridge’s employment in efforts to silence Lochridge and to avoid addressing the safety and quality control issues,” Lochridge’s counterclaim states. 

The counterclaim added that Lochridge was worried about the potential danger to passengers on the submersible as it reached depths of 4,000 meters, pointing to “prevalent flaws in the previously tested 1/3 scale model, and the visible flaws in the carbon end samples for the Titan.”

Lochridge wasn’t the only OceanGate employee expressing concerns about the craft, according to the lawsuit. During a meeting at the company’s headquarters in Everett, Washington, “several individuals had expressed concerns over to the Engineering Director.” Following the meeting, Rush asked Lochridge to conduct a safety inspection on the Titan, The New Republic reported. 

While working on the report, the counterclaim alleges that Lochridge was denied “access to the necessary documentation that should have been freely available as part of his inspection process.” The counterclaim further stated that Lochridge was denied access to the viewport at the front of the submersible. 

According to the lawsuit, the viewport “was only built to a certified pressure of 1,300 meters, although OceanGate intended to take passengers down to depths of 4,000 meters. Lochridge learned that the viewport manufacturer would only certify to a depth of 1,300 meters due to the experimental design of the viewport supplied by OceanGate, which was out of the Pressure Vessels for Human Occupancy (“PVHO”) standards. OceanGate refused to pay for the manufacturer to build a viewport that would meet the required depth of 4,000 meters.”

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Lochridge and OceanGate settled the case a few months after the suit was filed. The warnings didn’t stop with Lochridge. The New York Times reported that more than three dozen people, including industry leaders, deep-sea explorers, and oceanographers, warned Rush in a letter that the “‘experimental’ approach adopted by Oceangate could result in negative outcomes (from minor to catastrophic) that would have serious consequences for everyone in the industry.”

CEO’s Comments On Hiring

Rush, the 61-year-old OceanGate CEO, once declared he didn’t want to hire “50-year-old white guys” on his team even if they were seasoned submariners. In a resurfaced Zoom interview, Rush explained why he preferred hiring younger people over “50-year-old white guys” with military experience. 

“When I started the business, one of the things you’ll find, there are other sub operators out there, but they typically have gentlemen who are ex-military sub-mariners, and they — you’ll see a whole bunch of 50-year-old white guys,” Rush told Teledyne Marine representatives before the expedition began. Teledyne Marine made the sonar systems and the navigation systems for the vessel.

“I wanted our team to be younger, to be inspirational,” he continued. “And I’m not going to inspire a 16-year-old to go pursue marine technology, but a 25-year-old who’s a sub pilot or a platform operator, one of our techs, can be inspirational. So we’ve really tried to get very intelligent, motivated, younger individuals involved because we’re doing things that are completely new.”

“We’re taking approaches that are used largely in the aerospace industry as related to safety and some of the preponderance of checklists, things we do for risk assessments, things like that that are more aviation-related than ocean-related,” he declared. “We can train people to do that; we can train someone to pilot the sub. We use like game controller so anybody can drive the sub.”

Daniel Chaitin and Hank Berrien contributed to this report. 

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