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Rescue teams in frenzied search for submersible by Titanic wreck

Rescue operations have intensified as the missing vessel's oxygen supply passed critical point

Rescue teams in frenzied search for submersible by Titanic wreck
[Source photo: OceanGate; Altered by: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

Hope was fading on Thursday for the five people aboard a submersible that went missing in the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday while en route to the Titanic wreckage, located 12,500 feet (3,800 meters) beneath the sea.

The Titan, a submersible owned and operated by Washington-based OceanGate, was equipped with an oxygen supply expected to last until 10 am GMT (3:30 pm IST).

The vessel began its descent toward the Titanic wreckage early Sunday morning but lost contact with its command ship, the Polar Prince, just one hour and forty-five minutes into the dive. The Polar Prince had transported the Titan to the dive site.

The US Coast Guard received a distress call from the Polar Prince on Sunday, stating that it had lost contact with the submersible approximately 900 miles (1,450 km) east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Search and rescue operations were promptly initiated.

Who are the passengers?

The five people onboard the vessel included Stockton Rush, the founder and CEO of OceanGate, who was piloting the vessel. Rush had expressed a deep fascination with the Titanic wreck, describing it as “an amazingly beautiful wreck”. Following the vessel’s disappearance, concerns have been raised about Rush’s apparent disregard for safety regulations. 

In an earlier interview, he said, “At some point, safety just is pure waste… if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed. Don’t get in your car. Don’t do anything.” In another interview to a YouTuber, Rush also boasted he had “broken some rules” in his career.

The Titan also carried Hamish Harding, a British billionaire and chairman of aviation company Action Aviation; Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman; and Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a 77-year-old French explorer and former French Navy commander.

Race against time

As the search for the missing submersible entered a critical stage, rescue teams were working tirelessly to locate the vessel before its oxygen supplies run out. The United States Coast Guard has expanded the search area and rerouted resources to focus on specific locations.

During aerial searches, banging sounds were detected and reported by Canadian aircraft, prompting the deployment of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to investigate further. The initial searches yielded no results, leaving search teams puzzled about the nature and source of the mysterious sounds.

If located deep beneath the ocean, the retrieval of the submersible will present an intricate and complex challenge for the authorities. 

To aid in the recovery efforts, a US Navy salvage system, known as the Flyaway Deep Ocean Salvage System (FADOSS), has been deployed. This cutting-edge technology can retrieve objects or vessels from depths of up to 20,000 feet. However, the system must first be welded to a suitable vessel, a process that could take time.

As the search enters a critical phase, every passing moment reduces the chances of a successful rescue. The passengers had limited rations on board, and are likely enduring freezing temperatures at extreme depths. 

The Titan

The “Titan” vessel is owned by OceanGate, based in Everett, Washington. While often referred to as a submarine, the correct marine terminology for this vessel is submersible. Unlike a submarine, which is capable of independent launches from a port, a submersible descends into the depths of the ocean from a support ship, also called a command ship. 

The Titan is described by the company as a Cyclops-class manned submersible designed to take five people to depths of 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) for “site survey and inspection.” Made of carbon fiber and titanium, the vessel has life support of 96 hours for a 5-member crew. According to the company, the Titan also has a real-time hull health monitoring System.

On its website, OceanGate says its crew has focused on increasing access to the deep ocean through innovation of the next generation of crewed submersibles and launch platforms. The company claims that its five-person submersibles are capable of reaching 4,000 meters below sea level and provide unique platforms for exploring the deep ocean. 

“OceanGate has successfully completed over 14 expeditions and over 200 dives in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico,” it says on the website. “Following every mission, the team evaluates and updates the procedures as part of a continued commitment to evolve and ensure operational safety.”

Amid the frantic search, questions have been raised regarding the safety protocols surrounding the submersible. OceanGate faced allegations that they declined a voluntary, rigorous safety inspection prior to the mission. The incident has brought attention to the risks involved in deep-sea exploration and the importance of stringent safety measures in such operations.

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