The False Hope That the Titan’s Passengers Might Have Been Saved
Based on the knowledge of expert contacts in the submersibles field, I felt certain almost immediately that OceanGate’s deep-sea vehicle had imploded. Why did the media spend so many days pushing the fantasy that there was still a chance?
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I first heard about the Titan’s disappearance on the morning of Monday, June 19, the day after reports emerged that something had gone wrong. Because it was a holiday in the U.S., I wasn’t as online as I’d normally be, but the editor of Bloomberg Businessweek texted me a link to a New York Times story. He thought of me immediately because I’d profiled Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, for his magazine back in 2017, when Rush was going full steam with plans to build a submersible and take tourists 12,500 feet down to view the Titanic, but that sub—the one we now know as the Titan—was still just a prototype.
My next stop was email, and there among the unread messages was a note from Rob McCallum, one of the most experienced deep-sea explorers on the planet. “Hi Josh,” he wrote. “The word is that the OceanGate sub Titan has gone missing at the Titanic site. I still remember our long ago conversation about this very day…” And that was it.
The ellipses aren’t there to signal that I’m truncating McCallums’s message. He didn’t write more, because he didn’t have to, because I knew what he meant: that he already felt sure the Titan had imploded underwater. As we could find out later, James Cameron, the film director and submersibles innovator, had quickly decided the same thing. It would be days before the rest of the world reached the same conclusion, and I’ve spent a lot of time lately wondering why it took so long.
I first contacted McCallum for that Businessweek piece six years ago. He was one of the few people alive who’d taken tourists to the Titanic, using repurposed Soviet-era submersibles, and he’d later served as the test-program coordinator for Cameron’s record-setting dive to Challenger Deep (the deepest point in any ocean on earth), and the expedition leader for Victor Vescovo’s Five Deeps mission to reach the lowest point in each ocean. McCallum had also, for a time, consulted for OceanGate. Then he quit, because he had concerns. “I know Stockton well and think the world needs more Stocktons prepared to take a chance,” he told me back in 2017. “But in the submersible industry, extreme depth is all about precision and control—nothing left to chance. He’s a full-speed-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes kind of guy. I’ve told him so many times.” He meant he told him to slow down; to be careful, cut no corners.
When I ran into McCallum again two years later, his worry had only grown. This time we were both onboard the Pressure Drop, the support ship for Vescovo’s expedition. He was about to attempt to reach his first “deep”—the deepest point in the Atlantic Ocean—in an extremely robust, extremely expensive submersible, custom-built for the purpose by Triton submarines at a reported cost of $35 million. That vessel, the Limiting Factor, was the opposite of Rush’s Titan, an experimental prototype assembled by Rush and his team in a small marina in Everett, Washington, and constructed around a pressure hull made of carbon fiber, a material that was completely untested in such ocean depths.
The Limiting Factor’s hull was made of titanium, proven in the deep seas, but the most significant difference between it and the Titan was that the LF was “classed”—as in Triton had sent the entire hull to Russia, into the only pressure chamber on earth big enough to accommodate it, to make sure it could hold up to pressures at 36,000 feet down. Every wire, every circuit, every piece of hardware on the LF went through the same process, at great expense. (McCallum estimates that classification was probably 25 percent of the total cost.) The Titan, on the other hand, was not classed. Rush swore by his own tests and experts. When pushed, as we heard many times, he liked to say that regulations only stifle innovation. The tiny submersible industry, Rush said back in 2019, was “obscenely safe because they have all these regulations. But it also hasn’t innovated or grown—because they have all these regulations.” A blog post on OceanGate’s website referred to classification as “anathema to innovation.”
And this was what worried McCallum, as we revisited the topic on Vescovo’s ship, off Puerto Rico in 2019. He was extremely concerned that if Stockton kept at it and took tourists to the Titanic, something catastrophic could happen. That the sub’s hull would fail and implode.
Looking at his email that first morning after the Titan disappeared, I quickly fired back a reply, asking what he knew. “It happened exactly as predicted,” he wrote. “An implosion at 3500m.” Did he have confirmation? Because that’s not what the international news was reporting. Yes, he wrote back. “It was detected acoustically … but that needs to come through the formal channels.”
We now know what McCallum was referring to. A system of top-secret U.S. Navy acoustic sensors, anchored to the seafloor during the Cold War to track the movements of Russian submarines, passively monitors the Atlantic at all times. Analysts study those results in search of anomalies. Regular ocean noises—those of dolphins, whales, hydrothermal vents, ships passing above—cause no alarm. But every so often, the sensors pick up a surprise. In this case, a boom of some kind occurred right around the time the Titan was said to have gone missing, and by Monday that information had reached people who knew people in the deep-sea community. Like me. Which made what unfolded over the next four days seem truly baffling, even ghoulish.
I am not a deep-sea expert. I’ve just written about the subject a lot, because my last book centered on the attempted salvage of a submarine from a depth of 16,500 feet—a wreck that was heard and then located, using… top-secret acoustic sensors. (In that case, sensors owned by the Air Force and deployed in the Pacific.) Researching the book led to a fascination with the ocean bottom, which led me to the guys who plumb around down there today, like McCallum. It really is a small world, which is how a guy like McCallum is connected to Rush, Vescovo, and Cameron, not to mention the guys who ran trips to the Titanic back in the 1990s. He knows what he’s talking about, and I knew that if he was saying the Titan had imploded, it almost certainly had. I was so confident, in fact, that I told my wife (a writer for People) that—on a day when every other news organization was running with a “Can we find them?” narrative—she should tell her editors to prepare a story about the Titan’s implosion. I even gave her quotes. That was on Tuesday. But I told her to wait for official confirmation from the Coast Guard or Navy.
On the first morning after the Titan disappeared, in a reply email, I asked Rob McCallum what he knew. “It happened exactly as predicted,” he wrote. “An implosion at 3500m.”
She waited, and waited, and waited. As did the rest of us—America, and the world, because that confirmation didn’t come. Not on Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, or even into Thursday morning, by which time the Titan’s oxygen would almost certainly have run out, if by some miracle the sub was stranded out there and not blown to pieces. To my great surprise, the narrative that emerged, and continued over the week, was about an urgent mission to locate the Titan and rescue its occupants—about the world marshaling resources and coming together in pursuit of this heroic goal. Reporters from NBC, the BBC, Sky News, Fox, NewsNation, and the German network Welt all flew to the front lines in St. John’s, Newfoundland, to wait for updates. CNN sent Anderson Cooper.
It’s a narrative we all love: humans rallying to a common cause. Remember that soccer team stuck in the Thai cave? But this was different, and it felt like a charade, like total bullshit. Because if I knew the sub was gone, plenty of other people did, too. So where was that coverage?
James Cameron confirmed as much after the Titan’s implosion was finally announced, when he told Anderson Cooper that he’d known since Monday, too. For Cameron, it started with a hunch. Implosion was the only explanation that fit the facts he knew—a sudden loss of communication and tracking, all at the same time. And when he shared that theory with friends in the submersibles community, he was told about the detection of a “loud noise consistent with an implosion event.” By the Navy. But the Navy was also apparently telling people close to the situation that the results were “not definitive”—which is to say that, as much as it sounded like something had imploded, right around the time the Titan vanished, there was no way to be 100 percent sure until someone had visual confirmation of the wreckage. And the only way to do that was to get a deep-diving remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to the site. No one knew how long that would take.
For three days, I told people the sub was lost while growing increasingly confused about what the hell was going on. Was this an intentional charade, and if so, to what end? Or was that original intel—from the most dependable of sources—somehow wrong?
I traded lots of emails with McCallum over those days, probing him for any news from the site of the search, and also for theories that could explain why the world seemed to be pretending that rescue was an option. He was just as baffled as I was. Perhaps, he said, they owed it to the families to keep hope alive until the wreckage was located. Maybe OceanGate was afraid to admit fault. Or maybe, by some incredible miracle, what he’d heard and believed was wrong. When news broke that a Canadian P3 surveillance plane had picked up “noises” under the sea in the search area, media interest surged. But a Coast Guard spokesman called the sounds “inconclusive” and McCallum seemed unmoved. “I don’t think the sounds are from Titan,” he wrote. “Noise travels far in water. It could be anything. My sources indicate an explosion early in the dive.”
The noises did apparently create some hope—and panic—on the Polar Prince, the Titan’s support ship. McCallum later told me that this particular twist “really did their heads in,” because there was no way for the crew to zero in on the sounds’ precise location. The mood onboard Wednesday, he said, was “frantic,” and he’d been forced to consider something that had previously seemed impossible—that the Titan, somehow, was stuck in the water somewhere between the seafloor and surface.
This, to any deep-sea explorer, is basically an impossible idea. The crafts themselves are negatively buoyant. They’re either sinking or they’re rising. To be stuck in the middle? That was mind-bending. McCallum and his friends around the world stretched for explanations. Perhaps there’d been a partial flooding on the sub, or perhaps the crew had been unable to drop all of its ballast. The most plausible guess to explain how the Titan could be lost somewhere out there, he said, would be that the sub was somehow slowed during its ascent. In this scenario, it could have been pulled by currents far outside the search area—an outcome “too ghastly to contemplate,” McCallum said, because in that hypothetical, the sub could reach the surface and not be found in the vast search area that was involved.
Meaning that the passengers inside could possibly see the outside but not reach it, because the Titan’s design didn’t allow passengers to open the hatch. They would suffocate while staring out the porthole at the air they desperately needed. Think about that for a minute.
Hearing that the mood was frantic on the Polar Prince fixed my sense that maybe OceanGate was responsible for the disconnect between perception and reality—that there was some incentive for the company to keep hope alive, for PR or insurance purposes. According to McCallum, the crew on the mission had never given up hope.
It wasn’t until I stumbled into some back-and-forth between Navy guys on Twitter that I really understood what was happening, though. Because of my book, I follow submariners, Special Operators, and naval historians, and a few of them had been pulled into arguments about possible conspiracies. People had all kinds of ideas about why the whole search could be a lie, ranging from “the Navy was afraid to reveal the secret acoustic sensors” to “the Biden administration wants to drown out the latest Hunter Biden scandal.”
What moved me was this idea, stated by a few of these guys: sure, the acoustic anomaly could be an implosion, and probably it was, but until that could be visually confirmed by an ROV locating the wreckage, you have to assume there’s some chance of an alternate outcome. Because imagine this scenario: they call off the search—or never start it—declare the sub imploded and lives lost, and then a few days later the Titan is found wedged under the the Titanic wreckage, or worse, bobbing on the surface somewhere just outside the search zone, containing five humans who’d all suffocated. Even if the chance of that being the case was 0.001 percent, you have to search.
And what about the major TV news organizations? They had all leaped to the search narrative. At least one put a countdown clock on the screen anticipating when the Titan’s oxygen would run out. “We didn’t know,” a breaking-news producer at one of the leading networks told me. “I mean, any smart person could deduce that it probably wasn’t going to end well.” But at her network, anyway, there was no prevailing sense that the Titan had been destroyed early on. And if someone did know this, the opinion wasn’t widely shared. There was, she admits, plenty of incentive to buy in to the faint hope of a happy ending. Viewers loved it. Ratings are monitored on a minute-to-minute basis, and when a story gets traction, a network will stick with it. “It was a feeding frenzy, and ratings were high,” she says. “News organizations are a business,” and the longer the search dragged on, the more people devoured it. “That’s the sad reality of corporate media in America.”
Finally, on Thursday afternoon, Rear Admiral John Mauger of the U.S. Coast Guard announced that an ROV had located five major pieces of the Titan 1,600 feet from the bow of the Titanic’s wreck. Mauger offered his condolences to the families, and said, “I can only imagine what this has been like for them.”
The finding confirmed what McCallum had originally surmised, based on the information he received Sunday night, half a day after the Titan vanished. The same thing he’d told me on Monday morning. “I’m a professional expedition leader,” he said by phone, from a location off Papua New Guinea. “I strongly believe in logic and in Occam’s razor—that the simplest explanation is the one. We had the report that it had imploded. We had the report of the loss of comms, loss of tracking. We had the report of them dropping weights and bolting for the surface.”
The tapping sound had thrown everybody off, and it couldn’t simply be dismissed. “But it was always just that they imploded at 3,500 meters [about 11,500 feet],” he said. “That’s why they were found where they are, which is exactly where they were supposed to be. They would’ve been on a glide path to land on the seabed, a few hundred meters in front of the bow. And then you approach the bow and that’s the wow moment. That’s the money shot.” The experience people pay $250,000 to have.
“Stockton thought he was going to be the Elon Musk of the ocean,” Victor Vescovo told me. “And he ignored not just a warning here and there, but the industry as a whole was saying, ‘Dude, you need to stop doing this.’ People keep asking me, ‘Why didn’t people stop him?’ Because there’s no international police force on the high seas. You can do whatever you want.”
To my great surprise, the narrative that emerged, and continued over the week, was about an urgent mission to locate the Titan and rescue its occupants.
Vescovo and McCallum and Cameron have all expressed concern about what this catastrophe might do to the entire industry. Not so much for them—because they work on private expeditions and build their vessels to extreme levels of safety. But smaller commercial operations that take tourists out to even shallow depths could suffer.
Operations like the one run in the Bahamas by Karl Stanley. Stanley was out on an early test of the Titan, with Rush, in April 2019 and got freaked out by some sounds he was hearing in the hull. He told reporters that he couldn’t stop thinking about those sounds and went so far as to try and dissuade Rush from going forward with his Titanic trips. Here’s what he wrote to Rush, in an email obtained by The New York Times: “A useful thought exercise here would be to imagine the removal of the variables of the investors, the eager mission scientists, your team hungry for success, the press releases already announcing this summer’s dive schedule.” In other words: Please don’t rush and cut corners because of external pressures. You have to get this right.
It’s basically what McCallum had been trying to tell Rush for years. He remembers one lunch, three or four years ago, when Rush explained why he didn’t need to get the Titan certified—that his system of strain gauges that provided real-time monitoring of the carbon-fiber hull was all the safety he needed. “I was incredulous,” McCallum says. “I said, ‘Dude, you are standing way too close to the edge.’”
Vescovo said, “I think it is very important for people to note that for the last 50 years, there has never been a loss of life or even a serious personal injury in any deep-diving submersible operation until now. And this is the only submersible that flouted those conventions and [Rush] said, ‘We don’t need to certify this submarine. It takes too long. It’s too expensive and it’s not necessary.’ And so in many respects, this was a bit of a rogue operation, and hopefully this incident will curtail that so that we go back to having a well-developed submersible like mine, [or] others that are very, very safe, because we do need humans to explore the ocean.”