The co-founder of the Titan submersible’s parent company has said the regulations surrounding visits to the Titanic wreckage are “tricky to navigate” after the deep-sea vessel is believed to have imploded while attempting to visit the site.
Guillermo Sohnlein, co-founder of OceanGate Expeditions, said there are regulations in place surrounding submersibles but they are “sparse” and “antiquated” as he defended the firm from critics including Titanic film director James Cameron.
It comes after the submersible lost contact with the tour operator an hour and 45 minutes into the two-hour descent to the wreckage, with the vessel reported missing eight hours after communication was lost.
As more boats, aircraft and remote operated vehicles (ROVs) scrambled to the search area on Thursday, it was confirmed the five people onboard Titan were dead after debris was found near the wreck.
Mr Cameron, who is himself a submersibles expert and has completed deep sea dives, told the BBC: “We now have another wreck that is based on, unfortunately, the same principles of not heeding warnings.”
But Mr Sohnlein defended the safety of the submersible, saying he and his co-founder Stockton Rush, who was onboard Titan, were committed to safety during expeditions.
He told Times Radio: “He was extremely committed to safety. He was also extremely diligent about managing risks, and was very keenly aware of the dangers of operating in a deep ocean environment.
“So that’s one of the main reasons I agreed to go into business with him in 2009.”
Mr Sohnlein, who no longer works for the company, continued: “I know from first-hand experience that we were extremely committed to safety and safety and risk mitigation was a key part of the company culture.”
Explaining the regulations surrounding visiting the Titanic wreckage, he said: “The regulations are pretty sparse. And many of them are antiquated, or they’re designed for specific instances.
“So it’s kind of tricky to navigate those regulatory schemes.”
Mr Sohnlein added on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Anyone who operates in that depth of the ocean, whether it is human-rated submersibles or robotic submersibles, knows the risks of operating under such pressure and that at any given moment, on any mission, with any vessel, you run the risk of this kind of implosion.”
In the days that followed the report that Titan had gone missing, the US coastguard said the vessel had a depleting oxygen supply that was expected to run out on Thursday.
Sonar buoys dropped into the ocean picked up underwater noises that led to the search being concentrated on one area but it was not until after the supposed deadline had passed that an ROV found debris from the submersible close to the site of the Titanic wreckage.
And it later emerged in a report from The Wall Street Journal that the US navy had detected a sound in the search area for the submersible on Sunday that was consistent with an implosion.
The Associated Press, citing a senior military official, reported the navy passed on the information to the coastguard, which continued its search because the data was not considered by the navy to be definitive.
Undersea expert Paul Hankin said five major pieces of debris helped to identify it as from the Titan submersible – including the vessel’s nose cone and the front end bell of the pressure hull.
The 6.7m (22ft) long vessel had British billionaire adventurer Hamish Harding on board as well as UK-based businessman Shahzada Dawood, his son Suleman Dawood, and OceanGate’s chief executive and founder Mr Rush, with French submersible pilot Paul-Henri Nargeolet.
The Dawood family released a statement on Thursday night, mourning the loss of the father and son.
“Our beloved sons were aboard the OceanGate’s Titan submersible that perished underwater,” the statement said.
The family statement said they are grateful to those involved in the rescue operations and the “untiring efforts” brought strength to the family.
The sister of Shahzada Dawood and aunt of Suleman, Azmeh Dawood, told NBC News in the US that the 19-year-old was terrified about going on the trip.
“I feel disbelief… It’s an unreal situation,” she said.
“I feel like I’ve been caught in a really bad film, with a countdown, but you didn’t know what you’re counting down to. I personally have found it kind of difficult to breathe thinking of them.”
The University of Strathclyde, where Suleman Dawood was a student, offered its condolences to the family.
A spokesperson said: “The staff and students of Strathclyde have been shocked and profoundly saddened by the death of Suleman Dawood and his father in this tragic incident.
“The entire university community offers our deepest condolences to the Dawood family and all of those affected by this terrible accident.”
The family of Mr Harding paid tribute to their “dedicated father”.
He was described as “a guide, an inspiration, a support, and a living legend” following the news of his death on Thursday.
Mr Harding’s family said his death has left a “gap in our lives that can never be filled”, and that they were “united in grief” with the families of the others who had died.
“We know that Hamish would have been immensely proud to see how nations, experts, industry colleagues and friends came together for the search and we extend our heartfelt thanks for all their efforts,” they said.
Mr Sohnlein paid tribute on Times Radio, saying: “(He was) one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. He was a very talented aerospace engineer.
“And he was a passionate explorer, he was really committed to exploring the oceans and expanding humanity’s understanding of the world’s oceans.”
When asked about the safety of the Titan submersible, former Royal Navy submarine captain Ryan Ramsey said lessons need to be learned and questions need to be answered.
He said: “That’s the question that needs to be answered. Most submersibles and all submarines go through a stringent safety process.
“Every time they come back in and every time before they go to sea they do safety checks, check the safety of the hull, state of the hull openings, everything.
“What’s apparent here is they didn’t have to follow the same regulation, and therefore didn’t follow the same regulation. I think that will be where a big focus is.
“That doesn’t mean blame, that’s not what we should be doing, what we should be doing is what’s called adjust culture, where we work out lessons learned and implement them going forward.”