A critical search and rescue operation is currently underway using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to locate a tourist submarine, known as the Titanic tourist submersible, which has vanished deep in the Atlantic Ocean. The submersible is believed to be approximately 12,500 feet below the ocean surface with an estimated 70 hours of air supply remaining.
The Joint Rescue Coordination Centre, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, is leading the mission. According to reports, the OceanGate Expeditions vessel, carrying five passengers including British billionaire Hamish Harding, disappeared around 9:13 PM on Sunday. The incident occurred roughly 435 miles (700 kilometers) south of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
The purpose of the ill-fated submersible was to transport a crew of five individuals, including OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, French explorer PH Nargeolet, and Harding, on a remarkable expedition to the renowned wreckage site of the Titanic. Participants had paid a staggering $250,000 per person for this exclusive tour.
In the event that the crew is located, this rescue operation would surpass the deepest successful undersea rescue in history by a staggering 11,000 feet. The previous record was set in 1973, when British engineers Roger Mallinson and Roger Chapman survived a harrowing incident in which their submersible, Pisces III, became trapped on the seabed at a depth of 1,575 feet off the coast of Ireland.
During a press conference on Monday, the US Coast Guard declined to comment on whether a manned vessel capable of reaching a depth of 12,500 feet was available. However, they did confirm that assistance from sub-surface resources was en route.
David Concannon, an advisor to OceanGate who had intended to be part of the ill-fated expedition, revealed that efforts were underway to swiftly deploy a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) capable of reaching depths of up to 20,000 feet to the site.
ROVs are underwater robots controlled from the surface by a crew. Equipped with aquatic thrusters, cameras, and lights as a minimum, they may also feature mechanical manipulators, sonar, and magnetometers.
Most high-capability ROVs are commonly utilized by the military and scientists and are capable of reaching depths of 20,000 feet. According to GlobalSpec, there are three US-supplied ROVs in Boston, some capable of diving up to 13,500 feet and others reaching 20,000 feet, both suitable for potential rescue operations in this scenario.
It is likely that the deployed ROV will share similarities with CURV 21, designed to meet the US Navy’s deep-water salvage requirements at a maximum depth of 20,000 feet, as stated by the US Naval Sea Systems Command.
Chief Mi’sel Joe, the leader of the Mi’kmaq band that owns the Polar Prince, the vessel from which OceanGate’s “Titan” was launched, revealed that another submersible is being flown in from the US to join the search, according to Canadian outlet CBC.
The crew embarked on their mission around 4 am on Sunday but lost communication with the mothership merely an hour and 45 minutes later. OceanGate’s website indicates that the submersible is designed to sustain underwater operations for up to 96 hours, providing oxygen for five people.
In the initial stages of the extensive rescue operation, the US Coast Guard has deployed two C-130 aircraft for the search. Additionally, they are coordinating with commercial ships in the vicinity to monitor the water’s surface in case the missing submersible resurfaces. Rear Admiral John Mauger of the US Coast Guard mentioned that the commercial vessels possess sonar buoys capable of detecting sounds at depths of up to 13,000 feet.
Addressing a gathering of journalists, Mauger acknowledged the challenges posed by conducting a search in such a remote area. Nevertheless, all available resources are being deployed to locate the craft and rescue the individuals on board. He also mentioned that there is a window of time, estimated between 70 to 96 hours, during which rescuers anticipate the possibility of finding the occupants alive.
The family of Hamish Harding, a 58-year-old British billionaire businessman and explorer, confirmed that he is among the individuals on the missing submarine.
In a social media post over the weekend, Mr. Harding expressed his pride in announcing his participation in the mission to explore the wreckage of the Titanic. He noted that due to the severe winter conditions in Newfoundland, this particular mission was likely to be the only manned expedition to the Titanic in 2023.
He later wrote: “A weather window has just opened up and we are going to attempt a dive tomorrow.”
OceanGate, the company behind the expedition, emphasized their primary focus on the well-being of the crewmembers and their families. They expressed gratitude for the extensive assistance received from various government agencies and deep-sea companies in their efforts to establish contact with the submersible.
The company describes the eight-day trip on their carbon-fiber submersible as an opportunity to escape ordinary life and uncover something truly extraordinary. Their website indicates an ongoing expedition and two additional ones planned for June 2024.
About 23 years ago, a tragic incident occurred on the Russian navy submarine Kursk, which sank after an explosion, resulting in the loss of all 118 crew members. The Kursk was located at a depth of approximately 350ft below the ocean, significantly shallower than the current situation involving OceanGate’s ‘Titan,’ believed to be stuck in the wreckage of the Titanic.
On a more hopeful note, the remarkable story of the Pisces III in August 1973 provides inspiration. Two crew members, Chapman and Mallinson, were involved in burying a telephone cable when disaster struck. Their submersible plunged to a depth of 1,575ft with limited air supply, similar to the reported initial 96 hours in the Titanic submersible.
Despite the immense pressure and diminishing oxygen levels, as well as the danger of rising carbon dioxide, the crew members were miraculously rescued unharmed. This remains the deepest submarine rescue in history.
During their ordeal, the faulty hatch of the Pisces III broke, causing water to flood in and the submersible to sink rapidly. The submersible reached the seabed at a speed of 40mph, with Mallinson urging his colleague to bite on a rag to prevent injury upon impact.
Pisces III became impaled in the seabed, and the crew members refrained from exiting the hatch due to the extreme conditions. They conserved their air supply, changing carbon dioxide filters regularly to maintain breathable air. Voice contact with the rescue team above provided some reassurance.
A massive rescue mission was launched, involving three submarines, multiple ships, planes, and helicopters. Sister subs Pisces II and Pisces V were flown in, along with an unmanned submersible, to raise Pisces III to the surface. The successful rescue operation has been hailed as one of the most remarkable in history.
In the current crisis, efforts are underway to deploy additional resources. Two C-130 aircraft have been deployed, and the New York National Guard plans to launch another aircraft. The Canadian Coast Guard also has aircraft and a P-8 Poseidon capable of dropping sonar buoys for underwater detection.
The British Royal Navy remains on standby but has not yet been contacted for assistance. However, the depth of the submersible’s location exceeds the safe operating limits of the Nato Submarine Rescue System (NSRS), which can operate at depths of up to approximately 2,000ft for the NSRS Submersible and about 3,280 meters for the NSRS Remotely Operated Vehicle.