Banging sounds heard by crews searching for Titan submersible, internal government memo says

By Nouran Salahieh, Eric Levenson and Ray Sanchez, CNN

Sonar has picked up banging sounds on Tuesday from underneath the water while searching for a submersible with five people onboard that went missing two days earlier on a dive to the Titanic wreckage, according to an internal US government memo on the search.

It was unclear when the banging was heard Tuesday or for how long, based on the memo obtained by CNN. A later update sent Tuesday night suggested more sounds were heard though it was not described as “banging.”

“Additional acoustic feedback was heard and will assist in vectoring surface assets and also indicating continued hope of survivors,” the update reads.

A Canadian P3 aircraft also located a white rectangular object in the water, according to that update, but another ship set to investigate was diverted to help research the acoustic feedback instead, according to that update.

CNN has reached out to OceanGate, the US Coast Guard in Boston and Canadian authorities for comment.

The report comes amid a multinational race against time to find the submersible and its five passengers before their oxygen runs out.

As the massive search stretched into its third day, more ships and aircraft have joined the mission.

A spokesperson for the US Navy said the military branch is sending subject matter experts and a “Flyaway Deep Ocean Salvage System” to help in the rescue mission for the commercial submersible, which disappeared Sunday morning and as of Tuesday night, had just over 30 hours of oxygen left.

The system has the capacity to lift and recover large, bulky and heavy undersea objects, like the small submersible.

The equipment and personnel were expected to arrive at St. John’s, Newfoundland, by Tuesday night, the spokesperson said.

The US Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Air Force are also deploying more aircraft and vessels to aid in the search for the 21-foot submersible. The fleet of assets joining the operation include a Canadian pipe-laying vessel with underwater capabilities, along with other vessels and aircraft.

The submersible, known as “Titan,” was carrying one pilot and four “mission specialists” when it lost contact with its mother ship about 1 hour and 45 minutes into its descent, authorities said. Titan is roughly the size of a minivan and is equipped with repurposed everyday items, including a video game controller used to steer.

Titan’s operator, OceanGate Expeditions, says the vessel begins each trip with 96 hours of life support.

That is “a short amount of time,” said retired Capt. Bobbie Scholley, a former US Navy diver.

“The hard part is finding the submersible. And once they find the submersible, there are all sorts of situations of how to get that submersible to the surface, and rescue the crew,” Scholley said.

The international search and rescue operation is “doing everything possible” as part of a “complex search effort” but has so far “not yielded any results,” US Coast Guard Capt. Jamie Frederick told reporters Tuesday at a 1 p.m. ET news conference. The “unique” and “challenging” search effort has brought together “our nations’ best experts,” he said.

At the time, Frederick estimated the vessel was down to 40 hours of oxygen – and officials do not know whether that’s enough time to rescue those onboard.

“What I will tell you is, we will do everything in our power to effect a rescue,” he said in response to a question about the oxygen time limit from CNN.

A recovery mission could be complex

If searchers locate the submersible deep in the ocean, the mission to recover the craft and any onboard survivors will be complex.

“There’s very few assets in the world that can go down that deep,” said retired Capt. Chip McCord, whose 30 years of US Navy experience includes overseeing several salvage operations.

Because of the depth of the ocean floor, a search craft would have to “go up and down like an elevator” rather than cruise the bottom of the sea, he added.

The submersible – made of highly engineered carbon fiber and titanium – also weighs 23,000 pounds.

After new equipment arrived on scene, searchers have taken the mission below sea level after scouring an area of the ocean’s surface about the size of Connecticut, US Coast Guard District 1 Rear Admiral John Mauger said Tuesday morning.

The search zone covers an area about 900 miles east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and 13,000 feet deep, Mauger said Monday afternoon.

Who is onboard the ship

Officials involved in the search have not publicly named those aboard the submersible, but social media posts and friends and family have identified them.

OceanGate CEO and founder Stockton Rush is among the five onboard, according to a source with knowledge of the mission plan.

The others are British businessman Hamish Harding; Pakistani billionaire Shahzada Dawood and his son, Sulaiman Dawood; and French diver Paul-Henri Nargeolet, according to CNN reporting.

OceanGate did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment about Rush being aboard.

OceanGate in a statement on Monday said “every step possible is being taken to bring the five crew members back safely. We are deeply grateful for the urgent and extensive assistance we are receiving from multiple government agencies and deep-sea companies as we seek to reestablish contact with the submersible.”

According to an archived version of the company’s website, the journey to the ocean floor comes at a price of $250,000.

Sunday’s expedition reflects the ongoing fascination with the Titanic’s wreckage more than a century after it hit an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage, killing more than 1,500 people. The journey is also part of the growing business of wealthy adventure tourism, along with the space flights of Blue Origin or the rise of guided tours to Mount Everest.

The Titan submarine.
The Titan submarine. Photo credit: OceanGate

NYT: Concern voiced about OceanGate’s ‘experimental’ approach

In 2018, the Manned Underwater Vehicles committee of the Marine Technology Society penned a letter to Rush, expressing concern over what they referred to as OceanGate’s “experimental approach” of the Titan and its planned expedition to the site of the Titanic wreckage, the New York Times reports.

“Our apprehension is that the current experimental approach adopted by Oceangate could result in negative outcomes, (from minor to catastrophic) that would have serious consequences for everyone in the industry,” the letter – which was obtained by the Times – reads, in part.

Specifically, the letter expressed concern over the company’s compliance with a maritime risk assessment certification known as DNV-GL.

“Your marketing material advertises that the TITAN design will meet or exceed the DNV-GL safety standards, yet it does not appear that Oceangate has the intention of following DNV-GL classrules,” the letter says. “Your representation is, at minimum, misleading to the public and breaches an industry-wide professional code of conduct we all endeavor to uphold.”

OceanGate has not responded to a request for comment on the letter.

Undersea explorer community ‘in shock’ as families pray for loved ones

Action Aviation, an aircraft brokerage based in the United Arab Emirates, in a statement on Tuesday confirmed Harding, its chairman, is on board.

“Both the Harding Family and the team at Action Aviation are very grateful for all the kind messages of concern and support from our friends and colleagues,” the statement said. “We are thankful for the continued efforts of the authorities and companies that have stepped in to aid in the rescue efforts. We put great faith and trust in their expertise.”

Harding has an extensive record of adventures: In 2019 he took part in a flight crew that broke the world record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe via both poles, and in 2020 he became one of the first people to dive to Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean, widely believed to be the deepest point in the world’s oceans.

And last year, he paid an undisclosed sum of money for one of the seats on Blue Origin’s space flight.

The day before the vessel went missing, Harding wrote of the Titanic mission: “I am proud to finally announce that I joined OceanGate Expeditions for their RMS TITANIC Mission as a mission specialist on the sub going down to the Titanic.”

A friend told CNN on Tuesday that Harding is “larger than life.”

“He lives exploration. He is an explorer to the core of his soul,” fellow explorer Jannicke Mikkelsen said. “He has been to the bottom of planet earth in the Mariana Trench … he’s even been in space. We circumnavigated the planet together … the north and south pole, and set the world speed record.”

Nargeolet was scheduled to be on Sunday’s dive with him, Harding said Saturday in a Facebook post:

“The team on the sub has a couple of legendary explorers, some of which have done over 30 dives to the RMS Titanic since the 1980s including PH Nargeolet,” Harding wrote, according to CNN news partner CTV News.

A friend of Nargeolet, Mathieu Johann, told CNN Tuesday the missing submariner is a “hero” and said, “I hope that, right to the end, like in the movies, he’ll reappear very quickly to reassure us all.”

“What we’re going through right now is this interminable wait,” Johann said.

Nargeolet is a Titanic expert who has taken the trip every year, completing more than 37 dives to the wreck, according to an archived version of OceanGate Expeditions’ website accessible via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

“Something we always think about as explorers and scientists … we’ve always known something like this could happen and now it’s happened,” said David Gallo, a colleague of Nargeolet and the senior adviser for Strategic Initiatives at RMS Titanic Inc. “But we’re still pretty much in shock, the community is. I hope it has a good ending.”

Further, Shahzada Dawood and his son Sulaiman Dawood, of Pakistan, “embarked on a journey to visit the remnants of the Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean,” their family said Tuesday in a statement. “As of now, contact has been lost with their submersible craft and there is limited information available,” the family said, adding they’re praying for their loved ones’ safe return.

Submersible did not resurface as expected

The OceanGate Expeditions trip began with a 400-nautical-mile journey from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to the Titanic wreck site. There, the submersible started its descent Sunday morning before losing contact with the Polar Prince, a converted ice breaker that was its mother ship.

The last communication between the vessel and OceanGate staff at the surface came in at 11:47 a.m. The vessel was expected to resurface at 6:10 p.m. but did not do so, and authorities were notified at 6:35 p.m., according to Polar Prince co-owner Miawpukek Maritime Horizon Services.

Unlike a submarine, a submersible needs a mother ship to launch it, has fewer power reserves and can’t stay underwater as long.

A mother ship can communicate with a submersible “via text messages which are exchanged via a USBL (ultra-short baseline) acoustic system,” according to OceanGate Expeditions’ archived website. The submersible is required to communicate with the ship every 15 minutes or more frequently, if needed, the site says. That USBL system is the only communications link between the submersible and the surface, it adds.

A Titanic dive takes about 10 hours from start to finish, including the two and a half hours it takes to reach the bottom, the website says. The company calls its clients “mission specialists,” who are trained as crew members in a variety of different roles, including communicating with the topside tracking team, taking sonar scans and opening and closing the vessel’s dome, the archived site says.

Clients do not need previous maritime experience to join as mission specialists, it adds.

In case of an emergency, the submersible is equipped with basic emergency medical supplies and pilots have basic first aid training, according to OceanGate Expeditions’ website.

A deep sea-mapping company Magellan, known for their one-of-a-kind deep sea imagery of the Titanic, is also trying to get involved in the search and rescue efforts but a key transport issue is holding them back.

Magellan Chairman David Thompson told CNN that his team is familiar with the site of the wreck and received written notice from OceanGate Expeditions to mobilize early Monday and help.

However, they need an aircraft with the ability to transport their deep-sea diving equipment from the UK to Canada to launch their operation. Specifically, he said, they would require the use of a C-17 Globemaster III military jet.

“We know the wreck site, we know the location, and the equipment we are trying to get picked up is the equipment we used to do that scanning of the Titanic,” Thompson said.

Thompson said the US Air Force or UK Royal Airforce have not gotten back to Magellan letting them know if or when a plane can be procured for them to use to transport the equipment they need to Canada to embark on rescue efforts.