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A year after the Titan submersible implosion, investigators still don't have answers

U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Mauger, commander of the First Coast Guard District talks to the media on June 22, 2023, at Coast Guard Station Boston.
Steven Senne
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AP
U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. John Mauger, commander of the First Coast Guard District talks to the media on June 22, 2023, at Coast Guard Station Boston.

Updated June 18, 2024 at 14:43 PM ET

A year after a deep-sea submersible headed for the Titanic wreckage imploded, sparking a frantic, dayslong search that ended with all five passengers declared dead, authorities still can’t say for sure what exactly went wrong — and need more time to be able to do so.

The U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation (MBI) said Friday that its investigation into the contributing factors “remains active but will take longer than initially projected to complete.”

Investigators were charged last year with determining not only the cause but also whether any acts of misconduct contributed to it, whether the evidence indicates any criminal acts that may be referred for prosecution and whether there is a need to change laws or regulations to avoid repeats.

“The investigation into the implosion of the Titan submersible is a complex and ongoing effort,” MBI Chair Jason Neubauer said in a statement. “We are working closely with our domestic and international partners to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the incident.”

OceanGate’s Titan submersible began and, we now know, ended its journey in the North Atlantic on June 18, 2023.

It lost contact with its support ship some 900 miles east of Cape Cod nearly two hours after it began its nearly 2.5-mile descent, spurring a massive search-and-rescue operation involving four countries, fueling round-the-clock media coverage and capturing the world’s attention.

Teams combed a search area that grew to more than twice the size of Connecticut, detecting underwater noises as they raced against the submersible’s purported 96-hour supply of oxygen.

The search ended on June 22, when the Coast Guard announced that a vessel had discovered a debris field “consistent with the catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber” on the seafloor, about 1,600 feet from the bow of the Titanic. The U.S. Navy confirmed at that point that its sensors had detected the Titan’s likely implosion hours before the Coast Guard had even declared it missing.

Officials said all five people on board died: OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, who was piloting the vessel; Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and his 19-year-old son Suleman Dawood; British businessman Hamish Harding; and French deep-sea explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet.

As the search for the submersible dominated headlines, reports emerged that experts within and beyond OceanGate had raised concerns about the safety of its submersible as far back as 2018, citing a lack of oversight and adherence to industry standards.

The now-shuttered company, which charged Titan passengers $250,000 each, was upfront about the fact that its vessels were not certified by any independent marine agency, and Rush said publicly that he considered regulations to be at odds with innovation.

A number of its previous missions had been scrapped or were otherwise unsuccessful: The submersible reached the depth of the Titanic wreckage on just 13 of its 90 dives since it started in 2021, according to the company’s passenger waiver.

Former passengers and industry experts (as well as social media onlookers) have criticized OceanGate for everything from making the submersible’s hull out of carbon fiber to using a video-game controller to steer it.

But the work of determining the actual cause of the implosion falls primarily to the Coast Guard and, to some extent, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), according to the June 2023 memorandum convening the MBI.

It says the six-person board must complete and submit a report “with the collected evidence, the established facts, and its conclusions and recommendations” to their commandant within 12 months — or provide a written explanation for the delay and the expected completion date.

The MBI statement blamed the delay on several factors, including the “need to contract two salvage missions to secure vital evidence and the extensive forensic testing required.”

A spokesperson for the Coast Guard’s public affairs office told NPR over email that the investigation is currently in its fact-finding phase and does not have a projected completion date. The latter part of that phase will include a public hearing, which requires at least 60 days’ notice.

The MBI says it intends to hold that session “by the end of the year.”

In this photo provided by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, U.S. Coast Guard marine safety engineers survey the aft titanium endcap from the Titan submersible, in the North Atlantic Ocean in October 2023.
AP / U.S. National Transportation Safety Board
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U.S. National Transportation Safety Board
In this photo provided by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, U.S. Coast Guard marine safety engineers survey the aft titanium endcap from the Titan submersible, in the North Atlantic Ocean in October 2023.

What else has happened in the past year

This is the Coast Guard’s first Titan-related public update of 2024, though it has issued a handful of press releases about the investigation since last summer.

It announced on June 28, 2023, that it had received debris and evidence that a Canadian vessel recovered from the seafloor and intended to transport it back to the U.S.

“United States medical professionals will conduct a formal analysis of presumed human remains that have been carefully recovered within the wreckage at the site of the incident,” it said, adding that it would also continue evidence collection and witness interviews.

Several months later, in October, the Coast Guard said that marine safety engineers had recovered the remaining Titan submersible debris — including more presumed human remains — from the seafloor in a “follow-up to initial recovery operations.”

The additional evidence was transferred to the U.S. for cataloging and analysis. The MBI said it was coordinating with the NTSB and other international investigative agencies to schedule a “joint evidence review” of the debris, which would help determine the next steps for forensic testing.

That review took place in Newport, R.I., in early November and involved the U.S. Coast Guard, NTSB, Transportation Safety Board of Canada and the French Marine Casualty Investigation Authority.

Neubauer said at the time that those partnerships enabled a “thorough examination of the international incident, promoting safety and transparency.” Investigators issued no other updates until last week.

OceanGate for its part, suspended its commercial and exploration in early July 2023. Its website currently displays just one page, with that message.

In a statement shared with NPR, OceanGate said it is "continuing to cooperate with authorities, including the U.S. Coast Guard, in their investigations.”

"On the anniversary of the tragic implosion of the Titan, we remember the five remarkable individuals who perished: Shahzada Dawood, Suleman Dawood, Hamish Harding, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, and Stockton Rush," the company said. "We express our deepest condolences to their families and loved ones, as well as everyone impacted by this tragedy."

The submersible implosion raised a multitude of safety concerns about both deep-sea exploration and the troubled adventure tourism industry more broadly.

But despite the unanswered questions, ocean explorers are confident their work will continue. Several told The Associated Press this week the tragedy underscores the importance of following rigorous safety standards — but doesn’t represent the industry’s solid track record or dampen explorers’ desire to keep venturing into the depths.

The OceanGate logo is seen on a vessel stored near its Everett, Washington offices on June 21, 2023.
David Ryder / Getty Images
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Getty Images
The OceanGate logo is seen on a vessel stored near its Everett, Washington offices on June 21, 2023.

More trips to the Titanic site are on the horizon

The century-old appeal of the Titanic wreckage site, in particular, continues to endure.

This spring, the U.S.-based company that owns the salvage rights to the shipwreck announced it will undertake a research and imaging expedition — using remotely operated vehicles — in early July.

RMS Titanic Inc., which has recovered artifacts from the site in seven of its eight expeditions over the years, says the focus of July’s mission is to assess the state of the site and debris field and identify which artifacts are at highest risk of deterioration to recover in future expeditions.

“By utilizing the latest imaging and deep-sea technologies, we will get an accurate assessment of some of the most cherished artifacts, including the Marconi Radio, identify new artifacts, and we hope to shine a light on new discoveries that have never been seen before,” RMST Inc. President Jessica Sanders said.

And just last month, an Ohio-based real estate mogul announced his plan to venture to the shipwreck site in a new submersible.

The Wall Street Journal reported that shortly after the Titan implosion, billionaire Larry Connor, 74, contacted Patrick Lahey, the co-founder of Triton Submarines, asking him to build a submarine that could reach the Titanic safely and repeatedly.

Connor — a record-holding skydiver who has flown to the International Space Station with SpaceX and made multiple dives to the Mariana Trench (with Lahey, in fact) — told the New York Times that the two aim to conduct scientific research at the site in a two-person submersible to be designed in the summer of 2026.

He said he's concerned that "people associate diving subs ... with danger or tragedy," and that their mission will be twofold.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.