Investigations are under way into the loss of the Titan submersible, which is thought to have imploded on its dive to the Titanic wreck site on Sunday, killing all five crew members, as questions grow about the craft’s experimental design, safety standards and lack of certification.
Hopes of finding the men alive were dashed on Thursday when the US Coast Guard said that debris “consistent with the catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber” had been found by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) scouring the seabed near the Titanic wreck site 400 miles (645km) south of St John’s, Newfoundland.
Those onboard the submersible were the British adventurer Hamish Harding, 58; the French veteran Titanic explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77; the British-Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his 19-year-old son, Suleman; and the American Stockton Rush, 61, a co-founder of OceanGate, the company that operated the lost sub.
R Adm John Mauger of the US First Coast Guard District said investigators would attempt to find out what had happened to Titan. “I know there are also a lot of questions about how, why and when did this happen. Those are questions we will collect as much information as we can about now,” Mauger said, adding that it was a “complex case” that happened in a remote part of the ocean and involved people from several different countries.
The US Navy has said it had detected an “anomaly” likely to have been the fatal implosion of the Titan, while the film director James Cameron has claimed his deep-sea exploration sources detected a “loud bang” that could have marked the moment when those on board lost their lives.
The navy analysed its acoustic data after the submersible was first reported lost on its voyage to the wreck site on Sunday morning. According to the New York Times, the data came from a secret network of underwater sensors designed to track hostile submarines.
It found an anomaly “consistent with an implosion or explosion in the general vicinity of where the Titan submersible was operating when communications were lost”, according to a statement. The navy, which did not consider the information to be definitive, passed it on to the coastguard as it continued its search for the missing men.
Cameron – who has made 33 dives himself to the Titanic wreck and claims to have spent “more time on the ship than the captain did back in the day” – said he had known the submersible was lost from the start of the four-day search. He also said his sources had reported similar information about the Titan’s fate.
“We got confirmation within an hour that there had been a loud bang at the same time that the sub comms were lost,” the director told Reuters. “A loud bang on the hydrophone. Loss of transponder. Loss of comms. I knew what happened. The sub imploded.”
Cameron became a deep-sea explorer in the 1990s while researching and making his Oscar-winning blockbuster Titanic, and is part owner of Triton Submarines, which makes submersibles for research and tourism.
He said he told colleagues in an email on Monday: “We’ve lost some friends,” and: “it’s on the bottom in pieces right now.”
The Mir submersible which was used by James Cameron to visit the wreck of the Titanic Photograph: Maximum Film/Alamy
After the deaths of those onboard the Titan were announced, Cameron said he wished he had sounded the alarm earlier, adding that he had been sceptical when he heard OceanGate was making a deep-sea submersible with a composite carbonfibre and titanium hull.
“I thought it was a horrible idea. I wish I’d spoken up, but I assumed somebody was smarter than me, you know, because I never experimented with that technology, but it just sounded bad on its face,” Cameron told Reuters.
The cause of the Titan’s implosion has not been determined, but Cameron said he presumed the critics were correct in warning that a carbonfibre and titanium hull would enable delamination and microscopic water ingress, leading to progressive failure over time.
Other experts in the industry and a whistleblowing employee raised alarms in 2018, criticising OceanGate for opting against seeking certification and operating as an experimental vessel.
Titan crew have died after ‘catastrophic implosion’ of submersible, US Coast Guard says – video
In 2019, OceanGate said it was concerned the certification process could slow down development and act as a drag on innovation. “Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation,” it said.
Earlier on Thursday, Cameron appeared on ABC News and said that many people in the submersible sector had been concerned by Titan.
“A number of the top players in the deep submergence engineering community even wrote letters to the company, saying that what they were doing was too experimental to carry passengers and that it needed to be certified and so on,” he said.
“We celebrate innovation, right? But you shouldn’t be using an experimental vehicle for paying passengers that aren’t themselves deep ocean engineers,” he added.
OceanGate submersible was not for ‘joyrides’, claims co-founder – video
However, Stockton Rush’s former business partner, Guillermo Söhnlein, pushed back at such claims, insisting that the pair had put safety first when they co-founded OceanGate.
“[Rush] was extremely committed to safety,” Söhnlein told Britain’s Times Radio. “He was also extremely diligent about managing risks, and was very keenly aware of the dangers of operating in a deep ocean environment. So that’s one of the main reasons I agreed to go into business with him in 2009.”
Söhnlein said it was too soon to say what happened to the Titan, adding that it was “tricky to navigate” to formulate global regulations for submersibles designed to go ultra deep.
Cameron, meanwhile, drew parallels between the loss of the Titanic and the Titan, claiming both tragedies were preceded by unheeded warnings. In the Titanic’s case, the captain sped across the Atlantic on a moonless night despite being told about icebergs.
“Here we are again,” Cameron said. “And at the same place. Now there’s one wreck lying next to the other wreck for the same damn reason.”
Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report