Marine enthusiasts warned the CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, Stockton Rush, back in 2018. They felt he was playing with fire by not seeking certification for his submersibles. This came from a written caution signed by dozens of insiders.
CBC News had a chat with two folks who signed the warning, one of them being Will Kohnen. He’s the big boss of the Marine Technology Society’s submarine group.
Here’s a fun fact: in the U.S., where OceanGate Expeditions has its HQ, there’s no rule that says a submersible must get a thumbs up from any official group. Even so, Kohnen highlighted that this company stands out from the crowd.
“There are only 10 submarines in the world that can go 4,000m or deeper and all of them are certified except the OceanGate,” he told CBC News. “Out of the entire population of submersibles, 90 to 95 per cent are certified. There’s a five to 10 per cent fringe, so in that aspect they are an outlier, but sure, in the deep submersibles they really stand out.”
The letter laid bare worries from over thirty scientists, adventurers, and industry bigwigs.
“Our apprehension is that the current ‘experimental’ approach adopted by OceanGate could result in negative outcomes (from minor to catastrophic) that would have serious consequences for everyone in the industry,” it stated.
The letter also pointed out that the company’s promotional stuff was, at the very least, leading the public on a merry dance and breaking an unwritten industry rule of being straight-up.
Kohnen mentioned the letter never officially reached Rush. However, the two chatted about these worries face-to-face. Rush confessed he’d seen a sneak-peek draft of the letter. They “agreed to not agree” about the need for certification. But Kohnen noted that OceanGate Expeditions did switch up their marketing and put a note in their paperwork to stress that the submersible was a try-it-and-see model and didn’t have any official certification.
Can Too Much Innovation Stifle Itself?
Back in 2019, OceanGate had something to say on their blog about why their subs aren’t “classed” or checked by any independent group. They were all about how too many rules can slow down clever new ideas.
“Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation,” the blog post said.
OceanGate mentioned that the agencies which give the classes often need “multi-year approval cycle due to lack of pre-existing standards, especially, for example, in the case of many of OceanGate’s innovations.”
On Wednesday morning, the government of Newfoundland and Labrador told CBC News it doesn’t have a say in what happens with the Titan. It’s still a mystery whether Transport Canada — the team in charge of keeping transport safe — has to check or give the okay to the craft.
Bart Kemper, an engineer who signed the 2018 warning, doesn’t think it’s up to governments to set the rules for the industry. He’s cool with folks taking their own risks — as long as they know what they’re getting into.
OceanGate Expeditions did switch up its ads after the 2018 letter, but Kemper wonders if folks really understood this wasn’t a sightseeing sub.
“Tourist subs are all under jurisdictions. They all follow rules,” he told CBC News. “They chose to say no [to regulation]. They wholesale rejected codes and standards.”
Kemper is worried that some passengers might have been swayed by the company’s own confidence that this was safe, and didn’t do their own homework.
“They believed in their own stuff. I mean the CEO is down there right now,” he said.
Fired Boss Spills Safety Worries: NYT
Just a couple of months before that letter from the industry bigwigs, OceanGate’s head honcho of marine operations whipped up a biting report. He flagged “possible risks to the Titan’s passengers as the sub plunged to crazy depths,” says the New York Times.
OceanGate then took their director, David Lochridge, to court, claiming he had spilled company secrets. They gave him the boot, and he fired back by suing OceanGate for kicking him out unfairly.
As per the New York Times, court papers from the lawsuits reveal that Lochridge found out the viewing window for passengers to gawk at the Titanic was only safe up to 1,300 meters. Yet, the Titanic is resting 3,800 meters under the sea.
The lawsuits wrapped up with a settlement in 2018.