Thrill-seekers don’t travel to the bottom of the ocean or to the top of a mountain because it’s the safe thing to do. But even by adventure travel standards, the now-missing OceanGate Titan submersible was surrounded by extreme danger.
The experimental vessel took tourists to the crushing depths of the ocean. And while OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush − who is on board the missing vessel − maintained the craft was safe, even “pretty much invulnerable,” he did not seek to hide that the vessel skirted established norms as it catered to wealthy thrill seekers.
“At some point, safety just is pure waste. I mean, if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed. Don’t get in your car. Don’t do anything. At some point, you’re going to take some risk, and it really is a risk/reward question. I think I can do this just as safely by breaking the rules,” he told CBS reporter David Pogue last year.
Rush’s own comments — along with lawsuits, expert warnings and a reporter’s concerns — show the vessel took on extreme risks. Now U.S. and Canadian crews are searching for the missing submersible with five people aboard who may have only hours of oxygen left.
Extreme tourism comes with inherent dangers
Step into a row boat at a lake, ride a zip line on vacation or even rent a scooter to tool around town and you’ll sign a waiver making clear you’re taking your life in your hands.
But some extreme – and extremely expensive – once-in-a-lifetime adventures take things to a whole new level.
Every year six people on average die climbing Mt. Everest, this year the number was 13 with four still missing. About 30 astronauts have either died in space or training to get there, and with space tourism becoming a thing, that will likely soon include regular people. At least 180 and possibly as many as 400 wingsuit flyers have died since 1981.
People know they’re taking their life in their hands when they engage in these extreme experiences but it doesn’t stop them, said Alan Fyall, chair of tourism marketing at the University of Central Florida.
“It’s just really, really unfortunate and horrible situation, but it won’t stop people from going down. It will probably encourage even more people to go down. That’s the irony,” he said.
Many safety concerns over Titan submersible
OceanGate operates three, five-person submersibles and says it has completed at least 14 expeditions and more than 200 dives in the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, according to its website. Unlike submarines, which are fully autonomous, submersibles have limited power reserves so they require a support ship that can launch and recover them.
There have been previous concerns about the company.
In July 2018, OceanGate sued a former director of marine operations, David Lochridge, over an engineering report he wrote saying the craft under development needed more testing and that passengers might be endangered when it reached “extreme depths,” according to a lawsuit filed that year in U.S. District Court in Seattle.
According to court documents, Lochridge identified numerous issues that posed serious safety concerns, expressed concern about the potential danger to passengers as the Titan reached extreme depths and offered corrective action and recommendations for each.
He was especially concerned about the vessel’s 12-inch viewport. The lawsuit stated the viewport was only built to a certified pressure of 1,300 meters, although OceanGate intended to take passengers down to depths of 4,000 meters and that the viewport manufacturer would only certify to a depth of 1,300 meters due to the experimental design of the viewport.
After meeting with the company about his concerns, Lochridge said he was fired and given ten minutes to clear out his desk and exit the premises. Lockridge and his wife filed a counterclaim and the suit was dismissed after the parties settled in November 2018.
In a lawsuit filed in February by Marc and Sharon Hagle, the couple sought a refund of the money they paid OceanGate to dive to the Titanic in the submersible after their trip was canceled multiple times between 2017 and 2020 due to problems with the vessel.
Pogue said he signed a release form that explained Titan was “an experimental submersible vessel that has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body and could result in physical injury, disability, emotional trauma or death.”
During an attempt to view the Titanic last summer when Pogue was aboard, the submersible couldn’t find its way to the Titanic.
“The ship on the surface, never lost contact with them and was trying to guide them to the ship, but they never found it. And after three hours, they gave up and rose to the surface without ever having seen the ship,” he said.
Another high-profile would-be adventurer pulled out of a trip. Chris Brown, a digital marketing tycoon and friend of British billionaire Hamish Harding who is on the Titan now, pulled out of the mission due to safety concerns, he told Good Morning America Wednesday
Brown is an avid adventurer who was initially intrigued about getting to see the Titanic wreckage in person and said he was one of the first people to sign up for the mission but ended up deciding it sounded too dangerous, he told GMA.
When asked about his concerns with the safety of the mission, Brown declined to elaborate, saying “the focus right now has to be on trying to rescue these people.”
During his ocean engineering career, Nikolas Xiros has been in a submersible maybe two or three times. The professor of engineering and chairman of the Bollinger School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at the University of New Orleans said he would not go down in a submersible that wasn’t tethered to the mothership – which the Titan was not.
He’s not aware of any other submersible operation that takes tourists to such great depths. Most Navy submarines only travel at depths of about a half-mile below the surface, he said. And even surface vessels that have operated for decades still pose problems. To go down so deep with so many people on board is a perilous mission, Xiros said.
In the end, Xiros said the passengers who boarded the vessel “seem like smart people and they knew what they were doing.”
“I’m feeling very sorry for them, especially if it doesn’t end well for them,” he said. “I don’t think they were trapped or misled or whatever. I think they were very well aware of the risks that they were getting into.”
In the end, the danger – and a mind-set that somehow sees things done on vacation as different – is possibly part of the appeal of such experiences, said Fyall.
“There was just an announcement a few days ago about Richard Branson and his space tourism exploits. People will be queuing up paying vast sums of money, but it’s inherently dangerous. Does it stop people from doing it? No,” he said.