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The Titanic submersible disaster was an accident waiting to happen

Whether sailing across the vast ocean or diving beneath its depths, human life and safety must always come before corporate profit and pride, writes Skylar Baker-Jordan

Skylar Baker-Jordan
Thursday 22 June 2023 13:35 BST
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Vessels search for missing Titanic tourist submarine

It is impossible not to make the connection between the fateful voyage of the Titanic and another, more than a century later, which took five intrepid souls to view its watery wreckage. As of this writing, an OceanGate submersible with the fate-tempting name Titan and carrying five people – including a French Titanic expert, a scion of one of Pakistan’s wealthiest families and his son, and a British billionaire – to the remains of the Titanic is still missing. The submersible may have no oxygen left, if it is even still intact. 

“At some point, safety is pure waste,” OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush told CBS News last year. In 2018, a former OceanGate employee blew the whistle on safety concerns with the submersible. “The viewport at the forward of the submersible was only built to a certified pressure of 1,300 meters, although OceanGate intended to take passengers down to depths of 4,000 meters,” a complaint filed by the former employee reads.

It also alleges that rather than scanning the hull, OceanGate relied on sensitive acoustic monitoring, a practice which “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 the hull.” 

Two months later, a letter signed by more than three dozen experts, including oceanographers and deep-sea explorers, expressed similar concerns about the fitness of the Titan to withstand the pressure of such depths. Rush, however, refused to comply with industry standards for safety. A 2019 blog on OceanGate’s official website reads “classing may be effective at filtering out unsatisfactory designers and builders, but the established standards do little to weed out subpar vessel operators – because classing agencies only focus on validating the physical vessel.” 

Whether the Titan is missing because of deficiencies in design and construction or because of mistakes made by its operator – Rush – may be lost to history if the submersible is never found. The lesson of the Titanic, however, is that it can be both. Had Captain Edward Smith reduced the ship’s speed, perhaps it could have navigated the icy waters better. Had the ship been equipped with enough lifeboats for passengers, or had fewer of the watertight compartments been breached, perhaps more lives could have been saved. 

Of course, we can never know for certain, just as we may never know whether Rush’s decision, by his own admission, not to stick to established standards on safety is what put the Titan in such a horrifying predicament. Yet again, though, the lessons of Titanic prove instructive. The world did not simply mourn the 1,503 people who perished onboard the “ship of dreams” – it acted to ensure others would not find themselves in a similar watery grave. 

The tragedy of the Titan should likewise inspire a new era of regulation for adventure tourism. OceanGate’s journey to the bottom of the ocean was far too dangerous. The government should have intervened before the submersible ever disappeared beneath the waves. 

That it did not is a dereliction of its duty to protect consumers.

Yes, the people aboard the Titan are incredibly wealthy. Yes, they signed release forms – standard, they no doubt thought, probably thinking it was a legal formality and in no way indicative of the real danger.

Governments still have an interest in regulating this emergent industry. Last year, SpaceX sent three wealthy individuals to the International Space Station. Yet in April, a SpaceX rocket exploded shortly after launch, underscoring the dangers inherent in these new endeavors. Proper government regulation is vital to ensure the safety of consumers – even billionaire consumers – whether they are blasting into space with Elon Musk or diving to the depths of the ocean with Stockton Rush.

This is not a novel concept. Not only did the governments of the United Kingdom and United States enact tougher regulations following the sinking of the Titanic, but they routinely regulate and inspect tourist attractions and transport all the time. 

State level agencies in the United States like the Ohio Division of Amusement Ride Safety & Fairs and the Amusement Device Inspection and Procedures Scheme in the United Kingdom already ensure safety at parks like King’s Island and Alton Towers, for example. Cruise ships taking on passengers at US ports, meanwhile, are required to meet the regulations of the International Convention of the Safety of Life at Sea, which is enforced by the US Coast Guard. 

This convention traces its origins back to the Titanic, with a recognition that safety could not be left up to the whims of businesses which always prioritize the bottom line. Greed can make men take risks with their own and others’ lives. That is as true today as it was in 1912. Some things never change.

Some things do, though. Whether sailing across the vast ocean or diving beneath its depths, human life and safety must always come before corporate profit and pride. As we pray for the survival of the five men aboard the Titan, we must also learn from this terrifying incident – I do not yet dare call it a tragedy – the way our ancestors learned from another more than 100 years ago. 

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