- OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush had a history of shirking safety regulations ahead of the Titan’s implosion.
- But even as industry experts raised concerns about the submersible, Rush pushed forward.
- The legal murkiness of international waters offered the company a shroud of protection.
The tragedy of the Titan submersible is an all-too-familiar tale: A daring inventor pushes the bounds of science, technology, and safety to their limits in an act of bold innovation that ultimately backfires, killing its creator in the process.
The Titan saga captured the world’s attention last month after the vessel disappeared in the depths of the ocean while on a dive to explore the historic Titanic shipwreck. The ill-fated OceanGate submersible was carrying five passengers, including its CEO Stockton Rush, now at the center of this seemingly-preventable tragedy.
In the wake of the Titan’s implosion lies a disturbing trail of OceanGate’s apparent disregard for safety precautions, including a slew of early warnings from industry experts and a series of troublesome past expedition perils that could, and perhaps should have been a stopgap to Rush’s Icarian dreams.
It’s more than just hindsight that exacerbates the tragedy of the Titan’s fate, however. The legal gray zone of the international waters in which the Titan operated meant no oversight agency or legal authority could foil Rush’s ambitions.
Industry skepticism long surrounded the Titan
A former engineer at the company warned as early as 2018 that the sub’s safety could be easily compromised by poor “quality control and safety” protocols, according to a lawsuit the employee filed against the company after he said he was fired for raising safety concerns.
David Lochridge, who served as OceanGate’s director of marine operations, said he was wrongfully terminated after he questioned the company’s refusal to conduct “critical” testing on the Titan.
Lochridge even pinpointed potential issues with the very part of the submersible that experts now believe may have led to its demise, noting “visible signs of delamination and porosity” on the carbon-fiber hull, which Lochridge said suggested the hull could come apart after repeated dives — as it ultimately did.
The call from inside OceanGate’s own house, however, proved not strong enough incentive for Rush to reconsider his lenient approach to safety, which included skipping an industry certification assessment and speeding through test drives.
That same year, more than three dozen people, including industry leaders and deep-sea explorers, wrote an open letter to Rush warning him that his company’s “experimental” attitude toward getting the Titan mission off the ground at the expense of industry certification had the potential to be catastrophic, according to The New York Times.
Rush responded to his compatriots’ warnings with defensive vitriol, telling one critic that industry players were trying to use a “safety argument” to “stop innovation.”
“We have heard the baseless cries of ‘you are going to kill someone way too often. I take this as a serious personal insult,” Rush wrote in a 2018 email to Rob McCallum, the cofounder of EYOS Expeditions and a former OceanGate advisor, according to The New Yorker.
Mounting criticism didn’t deter Rush, but instead seemed to spur him on
Insider obtained a 2019 email between Rush and Karl Stanley, who runs a deep-sea exploration company in Honduras and participated in a test dive on the Titan, in which Stanley urged Rush to slow down and conduct at least 50 test runs of the Titan to pinpoint potential defects to the hull before allowing passengers on board.
Rush, meanwhile, had set his mind on just seven trials, telling Stanley to “keep your opinions to yourself. The OceanGate CEO accused his colleague of having two “fundamental misunderstandings,” castigating him first for misunderstanding his advisory role.
“The second, even more, disturbing misunderstanding is your concern that I will either intentionally or unintentionally succumb to pressure and take advantage of our clients,” Rush wrote. ” I realize more than anyone that this is the primary pitfall and have taken multiple steps to guard against this.”
Rush often undermined the importance of safety regulations
For all his apparent offense at his critics’ accusations that he was not prioritizing customer safety, Rush maintained a publicly cavalier attitude toward the topic, frequently making flippant remarks about what he often suggested was an irrational industry hang-up on safety.
The aftermath of the Titan’s implosion has seen the dredging up of several previous media appearances and public commentary made by Rush, including comments he made characterizing the diving industry as “obscenely safe,” and his suggestion that industry standards were “understandable, but illogical.”
In a 2019 blog post on OceanGate’s website, Rush sought to explain why the Titan submersible wasn’t classed according to the standard regulatory process, simply citing “innovation.”
“At some point, safety is just pure waste,” he told CBS journalist David Pogue in 2022.
Rush’s attitude toward safety was reflected in the Titan’s troubled history of malfunctions during dives that preceded its implosion. Former passengers have since described hearing cracking sounds while underwater; witnessing incidents of propulsion system failures, and battling a loss of communication mid-dive.
International waters offered OceanGate a cloak of legal protection
But even amid the deafening alarm bells, there was little that could be done to stop or even stall the Titan’s deep-water dives.
Deep-sea tourism is a relatively new industry with few regulations in place, experts told Insider. The regulations that do exist, however, are easily avoidable for a vessel diving in the legally-murky international waters that OceanGate sought out.
The company, while based in Washington State, transported the Titan on a Canadian ship and then deployed the vessel in international waters, where OceanGate could be free from domestic or international laws.
A spokesperson for OceanGate did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Colleagues and close friends have defended Rush in the aftermath of the tragedy
US and Canadian officials are now investigating how and why the submersible imploded, and OceanGate announced this week that it had suspended all exploration and commercial operations.
But even in the face of increasing criticism levied against the late Rush, friends and former colleagues have come forward to offer a different perspective on the ambitious dreamer, describing him as a man who lived to conquer risks and died doing what he loved.
And indeed, Rush once spoke of himself in the same vein, defending his reckless methods in words that now read as a haunting self-fulfilling prophecy.
“I mean if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed, don’t get in your car, don’t do anything,” Rush told CBS Sunday Morning in 2022. “At some point, you’re going to take some risk, and it is a risk-reward question. I think I can do this just as safely by breaking the rules.”