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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
deep dive

Submersible missing near Titanic wreck has 'about 40 hours of breathable air' left - US Coast Guard

The 6.5-metre craft began its descent on Sunday but lost contact with the surface less than two hours later.

LAST UPDATE | Jun 20th 2023, 8:51 PM

A DESPERATE AIR and sea rescue effort to find the tourist submersible that went missing near the wreck of the Titanic has quickened, with officials warning that the five people on board had less than two days of oxygen left.

All communication was lost with the 21-foot craft during its descent Sunday to the wreck of the Titanic, which sits nearly 4km below the surface of the North Atlantic.

The submersible, named Titan, was carrying three fee-paying passengers: British billionaire Hamish Harding, Pakistani tycoon Shahzada Dawood and Dawood’s son Suleman. OceanGate Expeditions, which runs the Titan’s trips, charges $250,000 for a seat.

The US and Canadian Coast Guards have deployed ships and planes in an intensive search for the vessel, which was attempting to dive near the Titanic some 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.

Coast Guard Captain Jamie Frederick told reporters that the rescue efforts over an area of 7,600 square miles, larger than the US state of Connecticut, “have not yielded any results”.

“There’s about 40 hours of breathable air left based on that initial report,” he said around 1pm (5pm Irish time), referring to the sub’s capacity to hold up to 96 hours of oxygen.

He added that more ships and aircraft were heading to the site, while the White House said the US Navy “is on standby should they be needed”.

France’s oceanographic institute said it was sending a deep-sea underwater robot to aid efforts, while a P-3 plane from Canada has dropped sonar buoys in the area to listen for any sound from the small sub.

In an Instagram message posted just before the dive, Harding said a mission window had opened after days of bad weather. Among the crew he named was Paul-Henri “PH” Nargeolet, a veteran diver and expert on the Titanic wreck.

The fifth person on board was Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate Expeditions which operates the tourist dives, his company confirmed.

The Titan lost contact with the surface less than two hours into its descent, authorities said.

“We are exploring and mobilising all options to bring the crew back safely. Our entire focus is on the crewmembers in the submersible and their families,” OceanGate said in a statement.

Mike Reiss, an American television writer who visited the Titanic wreck on the same sub last year, told the BBC the experience was disorientating. The pressure at that depth as measured in atmospheres is 400 times what it is at sea level.

“The compass immediately stopped working and was just spinning around and so we had to flail around blindly at the bottom of the ocean, knowing the Titanic was somewhere there,” Reiss said.

‘Legendary explorers’ 

He told the BBC that everyone was aware of the dangers.

“You sign a waiver before you get on and it mentions death three different times on page one.”

Harding, a 58-year-old aviator, space tourist and chairman of Action Aviation, is no stranger to daredevil antics and has three Guinness world records to his name.

A year ago, he became a space tourist through Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin company.

In his Instagram post, Harding said how proud he was to be part of the latest mission.

“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,” he wrote.

“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,” the post added.

Shahzada and Suleman Dawood hail from one of Pakistan’s richest families that runs an investment and holding company headquartered in Karachi.

Shahzada is the vice chairman of the subsidiary company Engro, which has an array of investments in energy, agriculture, petrochemicals and telecommunications.

‘Clock is ticking’

The legendary Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in 1912 during its maiden voyage from England to New York with 2,224 passengers and crew on board. More than 1,500 people died.

It was found in 1985 and remains a lure for nautical experts and underwater tourists.

Without having studied the lost craft itself, Alistair Greig, professor of marine engineering at University College London, suggested two possible scenarios based on images of the Titan published by the press.

He said if it had an electrical or communications problem, it could have surfaced and remained floating, “waiting to be found” – bearing in mind the vessel can reportedly be unlocked from the outside only.

“Another scenario is the pressure hull was compromised – a leak,” he said in a statement. “Then the prognosis is not good.”

There are few vessels able to go to the depth to which the Titan might have traveled.

“The clock is ticking … going undersea is as, if not more, challenging than going into space from an engineering perspective,” said University of Adelaide associate professor Eric Fusil in a statement.

© AFP 2023

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