Rescue Force Grows As Time Runs Short For Titan Submersible Crew

The search for the Titan, the submersible missing in the Atlantic Ocean, goes on, although with oxygen supply onboard steadily declining, the amount of breathable air left for the five-person crew — provided they are still alive — is becoming ever more critical. Meanwhile, there has still been no definitive sign of the submersible, which could be lying as deep as 12,500 feet, and the U.S. Coast Guard has said that the source of the “banging noises” that have been detected hasn’t been conclusively established.

As we described in our initial report on the incident yesterday, the Titan, which belongs to OceanGate Expeditions, was taking tourists down to see the famous sunken wreck of the ocean liner RMS Titanic when it went missing. The Titan was supposed to have surfaced on Sunday but was instead reported missing about 435 miles south of St John’s, Newfoundland. Since then, a widening rescue effort has been taking shape.

An infographic shows the approximate location of the wreck of the Titanic, around which a search and rescue operation is underway. Photo by Yasin Demirci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Most notably, since our initial reporting, sonobuoys used to search for the Titan have picked up distinctive noises in the area where it went missing. If those noises are indeed emanating from the submersible, that could suggest it’s closer to the surface of the ocean, where recovery would be easier.

However, Rear Admiral John Mauger, head of the U.S. Coast Guard’s First District, who is leading the search for the Titan, gave CBS News words of caution, saying: “We don’t know the source of that noise.”

Mauger said that the search operation would continue “as long as there’s an opportunity for survival,” and more vessels would be joining the effort.

The sonobuoys in question were launched from the two Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft that are involved in the operation. These are Canadian versions of the familiar P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft.

A Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) CP-140 Aurora maritime patrol aircraft. John Davies/Wikimedia Commons

At 6:00 am GMT this morning, the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed that an RCAF CP-140 had “detected underwater noises in the search area” and that remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) were being “relocated in an attempt to explore the origin of the noises.” The data gathered has also been shared with U.S. Navy experts for further analysis which will be considered in future search plans.”

So far, the ROV searches have “yielded negative results but continue,” the Coast Guard said.

Further sonobuoys were reportedly dropped four hours after the first sounds were detected and, once again, noises were heard. However, the timings of these various sounds being detected are not altogether clear.

At the same time, the search and rescue force is growing in size.

In the search area already are at least five vessels, with four more underway.

Already on the scene are the Bahamian-registered Deep Energy, a pipe-laying vessel with underwater capabilities; a commercial vessel, the Skandi Vinland; and the Polar Prince, the “mother ship” from which the Titan was launched. Also now in the vicinity are the Canadian Coast Guard vessels John Cabot and Atlantic Merlin, one of which is understood to have a mobile decompression chamber.

The French research ship Atalante, equipped with an ROV, which can operate at a depth of around 20,000 feet, is expected to arrive later today. The ROV, a Victor 6000, will be the deepest-diving asset in the area. It has manipulating arms that can cut cables or perform other maneuvers to free a stuck vessel, but it “is not capable of lifting the submarine on its own,” according to a Reuters report, citing the robot’s operator. However, if the Titan is located, the Victor 6000 could be used to help attach it to a crane that could then lift it to the surface. At this point, the Titan could potentially also be recovered by a U.S. Navy Flyaway Deep Ocean Salvage System (FADOSS), one of which is on its way to the scene.

Also underway are two more Canadian Coast Guard vessels, a Royal Canadian Navy ship, and a private offshore support vessel. These are not expected to arrive until Thursday, however.

Together with the pair of RCAF CP-140 Auroras, other aircraft continue to assist in the operation. These include U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules which are carrying out search and rescue flights and providing other support. Between them, the aircraft involved have conducted surveillance over an area of 10,000 square miles.

Frank Owen, from the Submarine Institute of Australia, told the BBC that his “confidence went up by an order of magnitude” when he heard reports of the banging, especially as one of the crew onboard the Titan is a former French Navy diver. They would be familiar with the protocol of trying to alert searching forces: three minutes of banging on the hull on the hour and the half hour.

Indeed, reports from Rolling Stone magazine and CNN, citing what they described as internal U.S. Department of Homeland Security emails, said that search teams had heard “banging sounds in the area every 30 minutes.”

Any kind of banging from the crew could also indicate that the Titan is not in very deep water, as some have feared.

“Below about 180 meters [600 feet], the water temperature drops very rapidly,” Frank Owen explained to the BBC. “That creates a layer that the [sonar signal] bounces off. But if you’re in the same depth water it tends to go quite straight.”

A cautiously optimistic reaction was also provided by Simon Boxall, a senior lecturer in oceanography at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom. He told the BBC World Service: “There are plenty of sound sources in the ocean, but it does give hope.”

“I think one of the scenarios that everyone feared was that the submersible had basically imploded,” Boxall added, “So it does give some hope that this is still a rescue operation, rather than just a recovery operation.”

Now, however, the search operation could be hampered by poor weather. In its latest weather report for the search area, the U.S. Coast Guard says winds are gusting at up to 23 mph and wave weights up to seven feet are possible.

While there are other specialist assets that have been offered to help in the search and rescue operation, many of these are located too far away to be of realistic use. These include the ROVs offered by the British company Magellan, which specializes in deep ocean investigations, imaging, and recovery operations. Most of these craft are in Europe so would likely take too long to reach the area.

U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jamie Frederick speaks during a press conference about the search efforts for the Titan at Coast Guard Base Boston, Massachusetts, on June 20, 2023. Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

If the Titan is deeper than the detected sounds might suggest, the complexity of actually locating it, let alone recovering it becomes greater.

Dr. Jamie Pringle, a reader in forensic geosciences at Keele University, in the United Kingdom, told Sky News that the area of the Atlantic floor around where the Titanic lies is “really remote,” while the submersible is notably small. “It might be nice and flat and be sitting proudly on top, which would be great,” he said.

“It could be partially submerged, and of course, there’s lots of submarine canyons and submarine seamounts … Those issues are very difficult,” Pringle added.

Pringle also suggested that the conditions aboard the submersible could be especially challenging if the craft had suffered some kind of electrical problem, something that he considers in keeping with a communications loss of this kind.

“They were only meant to be going down for eight hours, I believe — this many days is going to be difficult,” Pringle said, adding that an electrical problem would leave it “very cold [and] very dark” inside the Titan.

As of today, it was estimated that there may only be enough oxygen left in the Titan to allow the crew to survive for 24 hours or less — provided the submersible is still functioning and its crew are alive.

Joe MacInnis, a Canadian physician, author, and diver, who has made two trips to the wreck of the Titanic, explained to the Guardian what the crew of the Titan would be doing to ensure their survival:

“[They would be] conserving energy. Resting, breathing as little as possible, and trying to keep calm. That is the most important thing.”

MacInnis also described Paul-Henri Nargeolet, one of the five onboard the Titan, as an “extraordinary leader” in a crisis. “He’s been in all kinds of problematic situations and he’s resolved them … He’s the guy you want next to your side in this kind of situation,” MacInnis told CNN.

It is unclear whether or how rescue teams could reach the submersible if it is on the ocean floor.

MacInnis also pointed to what he considers the biggest risks associated with this kind of deep ocean dive, namely a fire onboard, a hull failure, or the submersible becoming entangled in a wreck.

Amid allegations around safety concerns that were made about the Titan during its development, OceanGate has moved to defend the vessel, describing it as “the largest of any deep-diving submersible” with an “unparalleled safety feature” that monitors the integrity of the hull throughout every dive.

The Titan is made of titanium and filament-wound carbon fiber, but is notably compact, with a length of less than 23 feet overall. Despite a weight of 8.9 tons, the submersible uses ballast to ensure it remains neutrally buoyant on the seafloor.

Capable of diving to a depth of 4,000 meters (over 13,000 feet), “with a comfortable safety margin”, according to the company, the craft is, however, only intended to undertake one-day expeditions and is very cramped.

Typically, a trip to the Titanic wreck would involve a two-hour dive down, a few hours spent looking around the wreck, and another two-hour trip to the surface.

As to the potential shortcomings in the design of the Titan, the Associated Press reports that OceanGate “was repeatedly warned that there might be catastrophic safety problems posed by the way it was developed.”

In particular, AP points to a 2018 engineering report from David Lochridge, OceanGate’s director of marine operations, that says the in-development craft needed more testing and that passengers might be endangered when it reached “extreme depths.”

This information had come to light in a lawsuit, when OceanGate sued Lochridge in the same year, accusing him of breaching a non-disclosure agreement, after which he filed a counterclaim alleging that he was wrongfully fired for raising questions about testing and safety.

Lochridge had apparently voiced specific concerns about the use of acoustic monitoring to check the viability of the hull when under pressure, rather than a scan of the hull.

“This was problematic because this type of acoustic analysis would only show when a component is about to fail — often milliseconds before an implosion — and would not detect any existing flaws prior to putting pressure on to the hull,” Lochridge’s counterclaim said.

Lochridge also claimed that the passenger viewport was only certified for depths of up to 1,300 meters (4,265 feet), despite the rest of the craft being designed to reach depths of 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) — in order to reach the depth at which the Titanic lies.

This is a developing story and we will update it as more information becomes available.

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.