James Cameron says Titan sub warnings ‘went unheeded’

LOS ANGELES, United States (AFP) —
director and renowned deep-sea explorer James Cameron said many warnings were ignored about the safety of the tourist submersible that imploded near the famous shipwreck, killing five people.

Cameron said the sub had been the source of widespread concern in the close-knit ocean exploration community, and drew parallels to the 1912 ocean liner sinking, in which around 1,500 people died.

“I’m struck by the similarity of the Titanic disaster itself, where the captain was repeatedly warned about ice ahead of his ship, and yet he steamed at full speed into an ice field on a moonless night, and many people died as a result,” Cameron told ABC News.

“And for a very similar tragedy, where warnings went unheeded, to take place at the same exact site, with all the diving that’s going on all around the world, I think it’s just astonishing.

“It’s really quite surreal.”

The US Coast Guard confirmed Thursday that the small sub, operated by OceanGate Expeditions, had suffered a “catastrophic implosion” in the ocean depths, ending a multinational search-and-rescue operation that captivated the world.

Cameron — who in 2012 became the first person to make a solo dive to the very deepest part of the ocean in a submersible he designed and built — said the risk of a sub imploding under pressure was always “first and foremost” in engineers’ minds.

“That’s the nightmare that we’ve all lived with” since entering the field of deep exploration, he said, pointing to the sector’s very strong safety record over recent decades.

But “many people in the community were very concerned about this sub”, he said.

“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.”

The Hollywood director added that he had personally known one of the lost submersible passengers, French ocean explorer Paul-Henri “PH” Nargeolet.

“It’s a very small community. I’ve known PH for 25 years. For him to have died tragically in this way is almost impossible for me to process.”

Cameron has visited the Titanic shipwreck many times in the course of — and since — directing his 1997 epic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, which won a joint-record 11 Oscars.

“I know the wreck site very well… I actually calculated that I spent more time on the ship than the captain did back in the day,” he said.

Cameron has also directed underwater disaster movie The Abyss and multiple deep-sea documentaries.

A “catastrophic implosion”, such as that believed to have destroyed the Titan submersible, would have happened with incredible force and speed, given the crushing water pressure on the floor of the ocean.

The remains of the Titanic rest on the seabed in the North Atlantic at a depth of some 3,800 metres (12,400 feet).

At sea level, atmospheric pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi).

Water pressure at the depth where the ocean liner lies is equivalent to around 400 atmospheres, nearly 6,000 psi.

As a comparison, the bite of a large great white shark exerts a force of nearly 4,000 psi, according to Scientific American.

In an implosion caused by a defect in the hull or for some other reason, the submersible would collapse in on itself in milliseconds, crushed by the immense water pressure.

Death would be virtually instantaneous for the occupants of the pressurised chamber.

The Titan, built by OceanGate Inc of Everett, Washington, was designed to sustain the extreme water pressure at the depth of the Titanic and had made previous dives to the wreck.

But safety concerns had been raised, most notably in a lawsuit involving OceanGate’s former director of marine operations, David Lochridge, who was fired in 2018 after warning about the Titan’s “experimental” carbon fibre hull.

Roderick Smith, an engineering professor at Imperial College, London, said the accident was likely due to a “failure of the pressure hull”, but debris will need to be recovered to carry out a full investigation.

And even then it may be difficult to pinpoint the cause.

“The violence of the implosion means that it may be very difficult to determine the sequence of events,” Smith said.

On Thursday, the US Coast Guard announced that all five people aboard the submersible — Nargeolet, British explorer Hamish Harding, Pakistani-British tycoon Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, and Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate Expeditions — likely died in an instant.

Rear Admiral John Mauger told reporters in Boston that analysis showed debris found on the seafloor, 1,600 feet (500 metres) from the bow of the Titanic, was consistent with the implosion of the sub’s pressure chamber.

“On behalf of the United States Coast Guard and the entire unified command, I offer my deepest condolences to the families,” Mauger said.

OceanGate said its “hearts are with these five souls and every member of their families during this tragic time”.

“These men were true explorers who shared a distinct spirit of adventure and a deep passion for exploring and protecting the world’s oceans,” it said in a statement.

“We grieve the loss of life and joy they brought to everyone they knew.”

The Coast Guard announced earlier on Thursday that an underwater robot had discovered a “debris field” in the search area.

Authorities said they later learnt the pieces included the sub’s tail cone and front and back ends of its pressure hull.

Mauger said the Coast Guard could not be sure when or why the vessel imploded and declined to be drawn on whether remains of the men would be retrieved.

“This is an incredibly unforgiving environment down there on the seafloor,” he said.

The process of demobilising personnel and vessels from the scene will soon begin, but unmanned robots will continue operations on the seabed for now, Mauger added.

“We’ll collect as much information as we can,” he said.

The small sub disappeared on Sunday as it descended to the Titanic.

OceanGate Expeditions charged US$250,000 for a seat on the sub.

Harding was a billionaire and keen explorer with three Guinness Records to his name, while the Dawoods belonged to one of Pakistan’s richest families. Nargeolet was nicknamed “Mr Titanic” for his frequent dives at the site.

The British and Pakistani governments expressed their “deepest condolences” to all the men’s families.

The 21-foot (6.5-metre) Titan had been due to resurface seven hours after beginning its descent at 8:00 am on Sunday.

But the craft lost communication with its mothership less than two hours in.

Ships and planes from the US and Canadian coast guards, as well as a robot sent from France, scoured 10,000 square miles (around 20,000 square kilometres) of surface water — roughly the size of the US state of Massachusetts — for the vessel.

The search honed in on areas where underwater banging noises were detected late Tuesday and Wednesday. But Mauger said that ultimately the sounds did not appear to have any relation to the site of the debris.

The Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in 1912 during its maiden voyage from England to New York with 2,224 passengers and crew on board. More than 1,500 people died.

The wreckage was found in 1985 and remains a lure for nautical experts and underwater tourists.

Marine scientist and oceanographer David Mearns, who specialises in deep water search and recovery operations, said earlier the debris discovery indicated a rapid break-up of the submersible.

“The only saving grace about that is that it would have been immediate, literally in milliseconds, and the men would have had no idea what was happening,” Mearns, who was friends with two of those onboard, told Sky News.