Search and rescue teams were racing against time on Monday to find a tourist sub that went missing in the north Atlantic while on a dive to the wreck of the Titanic.
The US Coast Guard said “a small submarine with five persons onboard” had gone missing in the vicinity of the Titanic wreck and that the vessel had the capacity to be submerged for 96 hours, but it was unclear whether it was still underwater or had surfaced and was unable to communicate.
The submersible was reported overdue on Monday but contact was lost 1 hour 45 minutes into its dive on Sunday afternoon, the coast guard said.
A British explorer and a French military veteran and submarine expert were believed to be among those onboard the Titan, a deep diving submersible operated by underwater tourism company Oceangate.
Rear Admiral John Mauger, first district commander of the US coast guard, overseeing the search-and-rescue operation, told a press conference late on Monday afternoon that “we are doing everything we can do” to find the sub and its occupants.
US and Canadian ships and planes swarmed the area about 1,450km east of Cape Cod, some dropping sonar buoys that can monitor to a depth of almost 4,000m, the US Coast Guard said, but the search was “complex” because crews did not know if the vessel had surfaced, meaning they must scour both the surface and the ocean depths of nearly 13,000 feet.
“We’re making the best use of every moment of that time. What we’re focused on is finding those five people,” Mauger said.
David Concannon, an adviser to OceanGate, said the submersible’s 96-hour oxygen supply started at roughly 6am Sunday. In an email to the Associated Press, Concannon said officials were working to get a remotely operated vehicle that could reach a depth of 6,000m to the site as soon as possible.
Despite the wreck of the Titanic resting south-east of the coast of Newfoundland, Canadian authorities told the Guardian the search efforts were under the jurisdiction of the US Coast Guard’s Boston fleet.
OceanGate Expeditions, the company that offers the visits to the wreck, which lies on the ocean floor at a depth of almost 4,000m and about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, has been running expeditions since 2021.
A statement on the company’s website on Monday read: “Our entire focus is on the crew members in the submersible and their families. We are deeply thankful for the extensive assistance we have received from several government agencies and deep sea companies in our efforts to re-establish contact with the submersible.”
One of those believed to be on board is Paul Henry Nargeolet, a former French navy commander, a deep diver and a submersible pilot. As director of underwater research for E/M Group and RMS Titanic, Inc, he is widely considered the leading authority on the wreck site and it is possible he was in charge of the submersible on the dive, with four passengers alongside.
Nargeolet has led several expeditions to the Titanic site and supervised the recovery of 5,000 artifacts, including the recovery of the “big piece”, a 20-tonne section of Titanic’s hull.
British businessman Hamish Harding, a well-known aviator and explorer who is one of the tiny group of tourists who have been to space, was booked on the trip. His stepson, Brian Szasz, posted on Facebook his “thoughts and prayers” as “his submarine has gone missing” and then later deleted the post.
Harding, 58, posted on Instagram on Saturday: “Due to the worst winter in Newfoundland in 40 years, this mission is likely to be the first and only manned mission to the Titanic in 2023. A weather window has just opened up and we are going to attempt a dive tomorrow.” In a previous post he described himself as “a mission specialist” on the trip.
The RMS Titanic, a British passenger liner which had been marketed as “unsinkable”, sank on its maiden voyage in April 1912. It had been en route from Britain to the US when it was holed by an iceberg. The lives of 1,514 of the 2,224 passengers and crew were lost and the Titanic became perhaps the most famous civilian shipwreck of all time. The wreck itself was not found until the 1980s.
OceanGate started taking small crews of “citizen scientists” in a five-person mini sub two years ago. A ticket costs $250,000.
According to the company’s website, Oceangate had an eight-day, seven-night expedition to the wreck planned for 12-20 June. A maximum of six visitors were scheduled to depart and return to St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada.
Since 2021, the Bahamas-based OceanGate Expeditions has ferried about 60 paying customers and 15-20 researchers to the wreck.
“We started the business and it was this idea of researchers and wealthy people,” OceanGate founder Stockton Rush told the Guardian in January. “Is there a way to match those people who wanted to have an adventure travel experience with researchers who need funding and a sub?”