By Joe Ax and Steve Gorman
(Reuters) – The race against time to find a vanished submersible near the Titanic’s resting place intensified on Wednesday. Rescuers honed in on a distant stretch of the North Atlantic, chasing underwater noises, although they cautioned these sounds might not be linked to the lost craft.
With the submersible’s life-giving air supply dwindling, an international brigade scoured a massive swath of sea for the Titan. The vessel disappeared on Sunday, ferrying five souls on an exclusive underwater tour to the iconic, hundred-year-old shipwreck.
The U.S. Coast Guard announced that remotely controlled vehicles (ROV) dove into the depths near where Canadian aircraft picked up the noises with sonar buoys on Tuesday and Wednesday. Yet, they’ve found no trace of the Titan.
In a press briefing, Coast Guard Captain Jamie Frederick admitted that the analysis of the sounds has remained “inconclusive.”
“When you’re in the middle of a search-and-rescue case, you always have hope,” he said. “With respect to the noises specifically, we don’t know what they are.” Officials refrained from providing a depiction of the sounds.
In a significant new development, the French research vessel Atalante set off late on Wednesday. Its mission? To deploy a robotic diver capable of plumbing the depths well beyond the Titanic’s final berth, the Coast Guard revealed.
The French robotic submarine, nicknamed the Victor 6,000, was summoned by the U.S. Navy. They’re sending their own unique salvage system designed to hoist bulky, weighty underwater objects like sunken planes or small boats.
The Titanic’s remains, a British liner that collided with an iceberg and sank on its first voyage in 1912, rest on the ocean floor at roughly 12,500 feet (3,810 meters). It’s located about 900 miles (1,450 km) east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and 400 miles south of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Those on the submersible, part of a luxury adventure that comes with a $250,000 price tag per individual, included British tycoon and explorer Hamish Harding, 58, and Pakistani-born entrepreneur Shahzada Dawood, 48, along with his 19-year-old son Suleman. Both are British nationals.
French marine scientist and Titanic specialist Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77, and Stockton Rush, founder and CEO of OceanGate, were reportedly also aboard.
The Titan, a 22-foot (6.7-meter) submersible run by U.S.-based OceanGate Expeditions, started its dive at 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) on Sunday. It lost touch with its topside support ship towards the end of what should’ve been a two-hour journey to the Titanic.
The Titan departed with a 96-hour air supply, according to the company, which implies oxygen could be depleted by Thursday morning. But experts remind us the air supply’s longevity depends on various factors, including the power status of the submersible and the occupants’ calmness.
‘HOPE STILL ALIVE’
Sean Leet, who manages the company co-owning the support ship, the Polar Prince, assured reporters on Wednesday that “all protocols were followed,” but wouldn’t give a thorough account of how communication was lost.
“There’s still life support available on the submersible, and we’ll continue to hold out hope until the very end, Leet, CEO of Miawpukek Horizon Maritime Services, told reporters in St. John’s Newfoundland.
A friend of Harding, Jannicke Mikkelsen, who has accompanied the British entrepreneur on other expeditions, told Reuters she was hoping for good news but was not optimistic. “It would be a miracle if they are recovered alive,” she remarked.
Locating the Titan is only the beginning; its recovery poses enormous logistical challenges.
Even if the Titan managed to resurface, spotting it in the vast ocean would be like finding a needle in a haystack, experts shared. Furthermore, the submersible is sealed with external bolts, making it impossible for anyone inside to exit without help.
If the Titan is stranded on the ocean bed, a rescue mission becomes infinitely trickier due to the immense pressure and pitch-black conditions at a depth exceeding 2 miles. Titanic specialist Tim Maltin mentioned that a submarine-to-submarine rescue at these depths would be “almost impossible.”
The French submersible en route could be instrumental in freeing the Titan if it’s wedged on the sea floor. However, the robot alone can’t lift the hefty 21,000-pound (9,525-kg) craft. It could potentially help connect the sub to a surface ship capable of hoisting it, the operator suggested.
Doubts about the Titan’s safety surfaced back in 2018 during a symposium of submersible industry professionals and a lawsuit filed by OceanGate’s former marine operations head, David Lochridge. Lochridge alleged he was dismissed for expressing concerns that the hull couldn’t withstand extreme depths.
In a counter-claim against Lochridge, OceanGate contended that he rejected assurances from the company’s lead engineer and accused him of leaking confidential information.
Both parties settled the case in November 2018, and neither has spoken about the dispute since.