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Explained: How Did 'Titan' Submersible Implode, What Could Have Gone Wrong?

Five people in the submersible 'Titan' died after the vessel imploded underwater. They were on an expedition to the wreckage of Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean at a depth of around 4,000 metres.

In this photo released by Action Aviation, the submersible Titan is prepared for a dive into a remote area of the Atlantic Ocean on an expedition to the Titanic.
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The submersible 'Titan' imploded underwater in the Atlantic Ocean and all five people onboard were killed, according to authorities and the operator. 

The US Coast Guard on Thursday said that Titan imploded near the wreckage of Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean and all five people were killed. The dead include a pilot and four passengers, including the chief executive of the company that owned and operated the vessel. 

The Titan's owner, OceanGate Expeditions, also confirmed that all five people on board were believed to be dead. 

The Titan submersible was reported missing on Sunday and a search operation began soon that involved sea and air assets of US and Canadian military being pressed into the operation. Several private entities also contributed to the search, according to Yahoo News.

"The U.S. Air Force and Navy have joined the Coast Guard in the rescue mission for the Titan...While the P-3 aircraft has been investigating the noises it detected, the Royal Canadian Navy has shipped in the HMCS Glace Bay, which is equipped with a six-person mobile hyperbaric recompression chamber...The Canadian Coast Guard also sent the CCGS John Cabot, a scientific research vessel with sonar search capabilities. And, according to Radio Canada International, two other Canadian Coast Guard ships are nearby in St. John's to help load equipment," reported Yahoo before the deaths were announced. 

The search for Titan was closely followed across the world. Several aspects have been under discussions, such as potential design flaws or lapse on part of the operator of the vessel. While a detailed investigation will provide answers, a few indications have indeed emerged.

Here we explain what we know of Titan tragedy and what has been reported about the possible reasons for its implosion.

What do we know of the Titan tragedy?

The Titan submersible was on an expedition to the wreckage of Titanic. It was launched on June 18 and went missing around 1 hour 45 minutes later. 

Yahoo reported that Titan went missing around 900 miles (1,448 kms) east of Cape Cod and 400 miles (643 kms) southwest of Canada's Newfoundland’s capital city, St. John's.

The Titanic's wreckage is at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean at a depth of around 4,000 metres. The site of the wreckage is around 740 km from Newfoundland, according to The Britannica Encyclopaedia. 

Titan was owned and operated by OceanGate Expeditions. It's CEO Stockton Rush was among the five passengers who were in the vessel.

The expedition was an annual affair for OceanGate as the company has been working on Titanic wreckage since 2021, according to Associated Press (AP).

"OceanGate has been chronicling the Titanic's decay and the underwater ecosystem around it via yearly voyages since 2021...At least 46 people successfully traveled on OceanGate's submersible to the Titanic wreck site in 2021 and 2022, according to letters the company filed with a U.S. District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, that oversees matters involving the Titanic shipwreck," reported AP. 

The five persons who died in the Titan tragedy are:

  1. OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, also the vessel's pilot 
  2. British businessman Hamish Harding, a world record-holder billionaire adventurer
  3. Shahzada Dawood, a businessman member of one of the wealthiest Pakistani families
  4. Suleman Dawood, Shahzada's son
  5. Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a former French naval officer and a Titanic expert
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What does an implosion mean?

The authorities reported debris early on Thursday during the search for Titan, but did not immediately link it to Titan. 

Later, the authorities said that the debris is "consistent with a catastrophic implosion of the vessel" and announced the deaths of persons onboard.

An implosion is a sudden inward collapse of a body. In this case, the Titan is understood to have imploded on Sunday itself.

The CNN reported, "The US Navy detected a sound that would match an implosion on Sunday, the day it went missing, and search teams have since found fragments of the Titan submersible, confirming those on board have perished...An underwater implosion refers to the sudden inward collapse of the vessel, which would have been under immense pressure at the depths it was diving toward."

Initially, there were reports that banging sounds were heard during the search. But those were not linked to the doomed vessel.

"There seemed to be a brief window of hope after reports emerged that search teams on Tuesday heard banging every 30 minutes, though they were unable to locate the source of the noise...By Thursday afternoon, authorities confirmed the submersible had imploded, saying there does not seem to be a connection between the banging noises and where the debris was found," reported CNN. 

The deaths was sudden and not painful, according to reports.

"The entire thing would have collapsed before the individuals inside would even realize that there was a problem. Ultimately, among the many ways in which we can pass, that’s painless," said Aileen Maria Marty, a professor at Florida International University to CNN, adding that a catastrophic implosion is "incredibly quick" within just a fraction of a millisecond.

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What could have gone wrong with Titan?

While a detailed investigation would provide answers to the many questions, several aspects have been discussioned over the Titan tragedy, ranging from lapses on part of Titan's operator and design flaws.

Rear Admiral John Mauger of the US Coast Guard described the Titan investigation as a "complex case".

He said, "I know there are also a lot of questions about how, why and when did this happen. Those are questions we will collect as much information as we can about now."

Filmmaker James Cameron, who made the iconic film Titanic and has visited the wreckage multiple times, was also critical of the rescue efforts. He called it  a "charade" that gave false hope to the families of people onboard the vessel. 

Cameron told the BBC that he knew an "extreme catastrophic event" had happened as soon as he heard the vessel had lost navigation and communications at the same time.

He said, For me, there was no doubt. There was no search. When they finally got an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) down there that could make the depth, they found it within hours. Probably within minutes."

Cameron said briefings about 96 hours of oxygen supply and banging noises were a "prolonged and nightmarish charade" that gave the families of five people onboard false hope.

Cameron also said on Friday that Titan had a design flaw.

"The weakest link, if I had to put money down on what the findings will be, the achilles heel of the sub, was the composite cylinder, the main hull that people were inside. There were two titanium end caps on each end. They’re relatively intact on the seafloor, but that carbon fiber composite cylinder is now just in very small pieces. You don’t use composites for vessels that are seeing external pressure," said Cameron to ABC Good Morning America (GMA) show on Friday, adding that the vessel would have become weaker with each dive. 

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Cameron further said that Titan's operator OceanGate was "applying aviation thinking to a deep submergence engineering problem, and we all said that it was a flawed idea". He noted that the design or the vessel had not gone through certification by any agency and called it a "criminal failure".

He further said, "They didn’t go through certification. It wasn’t peer-reviewed by other engineering entities, by any of these what they call classing bureaus that do certification for vessels and submersibles and things like that. That was a critical failure.

"Apparently there’s an engineer that walked off the project because he didn’t believe in it. And a number of people in the greater deep submergence engineering community, including people that I’m very close with, warned the company this could lead to catastrophic failure. And that’s exactly what happened."

Explaining his criticism further, Cameron told GMA further that the design and material of Titan would have become weaker with each dive.

He told GMA, "It’s insidious. The way composite, carbon fiber materials fail at pressure, they fail over time. Each dive adds more and more microscopic damage. So yes, they operated the sub safely to Titanic last year and the year before, but it was only a matter of time before it caught up with them."

The AP reported that David Lochridge, OceanGate's former Director of Marine Operations, had reported in 2018 that "that the method the company devised for ensuring the soundness of the hull —relying on acoustic monitoring that could detect cracks and pops as the hull strained under pressure— was inadequate and could 'subject passengers to potential extreme danger in an experimental submersible'."

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OceanGate, however, disagreed. The AP reported it as saying that Lochridge "is not an engineer and was not hired or asked to perform engineering services on the Titan" and the company noted Lochridge was fired after refusing to accept assurances from the company's lead engineer that the acoustic monitoring and testing protocol was, in fact, better suited to detect flaws than a method Lochridge proposed.

Some on social media compared the silencing and firing of Lochridge as firing a whistleblower.

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