Consultant previously warned OceanGate CEO of safety concerns

06 July 2023 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read
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A consultant’s warnings over the safety of OceanGate's Titan submersible were repeatedly dismissed by the CEO of the company, email exchanges show. Rather than head the warnings, reports in the press suggest that OceanGate threatened legal action against the claims, prompting expedition service provider Rob McCallum to cut ties with the firm.

In mid-June, OceanGate – a privately owned company in Everett, Washington, that provides crewed submersibles for tourism, industry, research, and exploration – found itself at the heart of a media storm, for all the wrong reasons. Its flagship submersible Titan had gone missing during a dive to the Titanic wreck, in the Atlantic sea.

With the clock ticking down on how much oxygen was left, a massive search and rescue effort was launched. As hopes of finding the crew and passengers alive faded, attentions increasingly turned to the state of the vessel itself, with allegations that OceanGate’s controversial founder Stockton Rush had cut corners on Titan’s creation mounting by the hour.

Consultant previously warned OceanGate CEO of safety concerns

Despite eight-day trips on the submersible costing £195,000 per-head, it soon emerged that the vessel operated via a rudimentary controls system which made use of a video-gaming controller. That turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg, though. According to Ryan Ramsey, a former Royal Navy submarine captain, online videos of the inside of Titan did not show a carbon dioxide removal system. He told the BBC this meant the passengers might have even less time before losing consciousness, due to a potentially fatal build up of CO2 in their bodies.

Meanwhile, technology journalist David Pogue suggested that the vessel might not have a tracking device to enable it to be found easily. He tweeted that on a visit to see Titan in 2022, it had briefly went missing, prompting adding a homing beacon to be “discussed”. He added that during the time the vessel had gone missing, he was on board OceanGate’s surface ship, and “they shut off the ship’s internet to prevent us from tweeting” about the incident.   

Topping it off, the one-of-a-kind, which was later found to have imploded, killing everyone on board, was made with “experimental materials”. These included carbon fibre, which experts said had not been pressure-tested over time in such extreme depths. Worse still, reports suggest that Stockton – who was aboard Titan when it went missing – allegedly sourced the materials from Boeing, which had deemed the materials too old to use for its aircraft. Even if they were in date, the pressure aircrafts are subjected to is typically less in the air than when it is on the ground, suggesting materials used in their construction are far less hardy than would be required for a deep-sea submarine.

Consultant’s concerns

Safety concerns were apparently brought to the attention of OceanGate long before this all came to light, though. A marine consultant who formerly advised OceanGate when it launched in 2009 severed ties with the company, after it reportedly ignored his worries about Titan’s construction.

Rob McCallum, the founder of the expedition consultancy EYOS Expeditions, exited his role with OceanGate partly over fears that its CEO was over-promising and rushing things. Having previously told Bloomberg that he felt the world needed “more Stocktons prepared to take a chance”, he added that extreme depth submersibles were “all about precision and control”, while “nothing can be left to chance.

When Titan went missing, McCallum told Business Insider that he stood by his assessment of Rush and OceanGate. This time, he added that Rush's working style and equipment could have caused the submersible to go missing, and that he did not think that the submersible was safe for use.

These were fears which McCallum had regularly aired with OceanGate’s founder. A series of emails seen by the BBC reportedly saw McCallum warn Rush that he was possibly endangering his clients, while urging him to stop using the Titan submarine until it had been certified safe by an independent agency.

Rush, who has gone on record several times stating he felt the submersibles industry was over-regulated, and that its health and safety measures stifled “innovation”, responded that he was "tired of industry players who try to use a safety argument to stop innovation". After McCallum warned that OceanGate’s race to the Titanic was mirroring its famously foolhardy claim of being “unsinkable”, Rush replied that he took the allegations as “a serious personal insult”,  and added that OceanGate had “heard the baseless cries of 'you are going to kill someone' way too often".

The vessel was never certified or classed. Meanwhile, McCallum told the BBC that the email exchange ended after OceanGate's lawyers threatened legal action against him.

Commenting on the tragic events of June, he added, "If you steer away from sound engineering principles, which are all based on hard won experience, there is a price to pay, and it's a terrible price. So it should never be allowed to happen again. It shouldn't have been allowed to happen this time."