As the search for the missing Titan submersible reaches a critical moment, the company that operates the dive vessel is facing questions about its operations amid mounting reports of safety concerns, mechanical problems, canceled expeditions and an alleged disregard for regulatory processes.
CNN has reached out to OceanGate Expeditions, which earlier this week said it’s focused on safely recovering the five people who vanished Sunday during Titan’s excursion to the Titanic’s resting place in the North Atlantic, about 900 miles east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The company’s founder and CEO is onboard.
In the meantime, revelations about OceanGate’s inner workings and the development of its 23,000-pound craft of highly engineered carbon fiber and titanium have increased scrutiny of the Everett, Washington-based company, which charges at least $250,000 per trip to the 1912 wreckage site.
Here’s what we know:
Company faced hurdles executing expeditions
OceanGate faced a series of mechanical problems and inclement weather conditions that forced the cancellation or delays of trips in recent years, according to court records.
The scuttled excursions led to a pair of lawsuits in which some high-paying customers sought to recoup the cost of trips they said they didn’t take. The complaints alleged the company overstated its ability to reach the Titanic wreckage.
A London-based travel company, Henry Cookson Adventures Ltd., accused OceanGate of not having a “seaworthy vessel” when it entered an agreement in 2016 to take up to nine passengers to the Titanic in 2018. The travel company sought to recover roughly $850,000 it paid OceanGate, according to a civil suit filed in 2021. OceanGate did not respond to the claims in court and could not be reached for comment about them.
A post on OceanGate’s website in 2018 stated “delays caused by weather and lightning” prevented the company from completing a series of test dives, but the Henry Cookson Adventures’ lawsuit questioned that description.
“The claim of a lightning strike has not been verified and the true reason may be…because the submersible vessel was unable to be certified at the time for safe operations,” the plaintiff alleged. The case was dismissed last July by the travel company, Cookson Adventures, whose spokesperson declined comment on the litigation and said the company decided not to go ahead with any projects involving OceanGate.
More recently, a Florida couple alleged in a lawsuit this year they were unable to get a refund after their planned Titanic expedition in 2018 with OceanGate was repeatedly postponed. The online docket for the case shows no response to the lawsuit.
Some expeditions were delayed after OceanGate was forced to rebuild the Titan’s hull because it showed “cyclic fatigue” and wouldn’t be able to travel deep enough to reach the Titanic’s wreckage, according to a 2020 article by GeekWire, which interviewed the company’s CEO.
In another high-profile cancellation, OceanGate last year took CBS News’ David Pogue for a dive on its submersible but called off the trip due to an equipment malfunction after descending just 37 feet, Pogue said in the broadcast. In a later dive, the vessel lost contact with its ship and couldn’t find the wreckage. “We were lost for two-and-a-half-hours,” said a passenger who spoke with CBS News.
The company has completed a number of dives to the bottom of the North Atlantic. At least 28 people visited the Titanic with OceanGate last year, according to a November court filing from an adviser to the company.
But on one of those dives, the submersible encountered a battery issue and had to be “manually attached to its lifting platform,” which led to “sustained modest damage to its external components,” according to that filing. OceanGate canceled a subsequent mission “for repairs and operational enhancements,” but reached the wreck on others, the filing stated. The company also completed a series of Titanic-wreckage dives in 2021, according to its website.
CEO said he’s ‘broken some rules’ to make Titan
Among the five crew members now missing is OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, who told a Mexican travel blogger in 2021 he wanted to be known as an innovator who broke the rules.
“I think it was (US Army) Gen. (Douglas) MacArthur who said, ‘You’re remembered for the rules you break,’” Rush told Alan Estrada, who documented his trip to the Titanic, including an aborted attempt in July 2021 before a successful visit in 2022.
“And you know,” Rush added, “I’ve broken some rules to make this.”
To Rush, innovation means, in part: “It’s picking the rules that you break that are the ones that will add value to others and add value to society,” he told Estrada.
That statement echoes others by Rush’s company, which acknowledged in a 2019 post on its website the Titan vessel wasn’t classed because classing innovative designs often requires a multiyear approval process that would hinder rapid innovation.
Most marine operations, the post said, “require that chartered vessels are ‘classed’ by an independent group such as the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), DNV/GL, Lloyd’s Register, or one of the many others.”
But those agencies don’t “ensure that operators adhere to proper operating procedures and decision-making processes,” which the post said were “much more important for mitigating risks at sea” because most accidents are due to operator error.
“By itself, classing is not sufficient to ensure safety,” the post says.
Further, some of the construction materials and design choices were considered “controversial” when Titan was made in 2018, a former OceanGate subcontractor told CNN Wednesday.
The pressure hull on the Titan, for example, was made primarily out of carbon fiber – high tensile fibers that are lighter in weight, said Doug “DJ” Virnig, who worked on the project for about a year in an operations role.
“If you have them in a conventional application like an airplane fuselage where they’re under tension, that is a conventional and known application for that material, but under compression, the forces are exactly opposite,” said Virnig, who stressed his great admiration for Rush.
“That’s a fairly experimental or unconventional application for that material.”
The pressure hull passed testing in which it was subject to the pressure found at the depth where the Titanic lays, Virnig said.
The question, though, was how it would hold over time, he said.
“If you do that repeatedly, then what happens?” he said. “These are the sorts of questions that if you have a long research and development program, you start answering. But if you really are pushing the envelope, there’s no time to – you’re answering those questions in real time.”
At least two former OceanGate employees years ago separately also voiced safety concerns about the thickness of Titan’s hull.
And uncertainty after a 2021 Titan test dive prompted Discovery Channel’s “Expedition Unknown” host Josh Gates and his team to decide not to film a segment on the vessel as it “became clear to us at that time that there was a lot that needed to be worked out with the sub,” he said.
“A lot of the systems worked, but a lot of them really didn’t. We had issues with thrusters and issues with computer control and things like that,” Gates said. “Ultimately, it was a challenging dive.”
Boeing ‘did not design or build’ Titan, despite OceanGate claim
Boeing was not a partner in the construction of the Titan, it said Wednesday, despite a 2021 news release from OceanGate listing the aerospace company as a “partner” that provided “design and engineering support.”
“Boeing was not a partner on the Titan and did not design or build it,” the company said in a statement, declining to comment further about OceanGate’s assertions.
OceanGate couldn’t provide more information about its relationship with Boeing, it told CNN.
Similarly, the University of Washington said it was not involved in the design, engineering or testing of the submersible despite OceanGate’s claims in a 2021 court filing.
The school’s Applied Physics Laboratory “initially signed a $5 million research collaborative agreement with OceanGate, but only $650,000 worth of work was completed before the two organizations parted ways,” spokesperson Victor Balta told CNN in a statement.
“That collaboration resulted in a steel-hulled vessel, named the Cyclops 1, that can travel to 500 meters depth, which is far shallower than the depths that OceanGate’s TITAN submersible traveled to. As stated earlier, the Laboratory was not involved in the design, engineering or testing of the TITAN submersible used in the RMS TITANIC expedition,” Balta added.
OceanGate used testing tanks at the university’s School of Oceanography for nine tests between 2016 and 2022 on a contract basis, but no university researchers were involved, and school personnel “did not provide any verification or validation of any OceanGate equipment as a result of those tests,” Balta added.
CNN reached out to OceanGate for comment about why the company and the University of Washington ended their research agreement. CNN also asked OceanGate what the company was testing in the school’s testing tanks.
CNN’s Sabrina Souza, Polo Sandoval, Celina Tebor, Rob Frehse, Jason Kravarik, Paul P. Murphy, Veronica Miracle, Jeffrey Kopp and Taylor Romine contributed to this report.