OceanGate was warned of potential for ‘catastrophic’ problems with Titanic mission

NEW YORK – Leaders in the submersible craft industry were so worried about what they called the “experimental” approach of OceanGate, the company whose craft has gone missing, that they wrote a letter in 2018 warning of possible “catastrophic” problems with the submersible’s development and its planned mission to tour the Titanic wreckage.

The letter, obtained by The New York Times, was sent to OceanGate’s CEO, Stockton Rush, by the Manned Underwater Vehicles committee of the Marine Technology Society, a 60-year-old trade group that aims to promote ocean technology and educate the public about it.

The signatories – more than three dozen people, including oceanographers, submersible company executives and deep-sea explorers – warned that they had “unanimous concern” about OceanGate’s development of the Titan submersible, the same craft that is now missing in the North Atlantic with five people on board.

The chair of the committee, Will Kohnen, said in an interview Tuesday that the letter grew out of fears about what could happen if the company did not stick to established standards.

“The submersible industry had significant concerns over the strategy of building a deep sea expedition submersible without following existing classification safety guidelines,” Mr Kohnen said.

The letter said that OceanGate’s marketing of the Titan had been “misleading”, because it claimed that the craft would meet or exceed the safety standards of a risk assessment agency known as DNV, yet the company had no plans to have the craft assessed by the agency.

The industry leaders said that OceanGate should test its prototypes under the watch of DNV or another accredited registrar.

“While this may demand additional time and expense,” the signatories wrote, “it is our unanimous view that this validation process by a third-party is a critical component in the safeguards that protect all submersible occupants.”

Mr Kohnen said in the interview that Mr Rush, OceanGate’s CEO, called him after reading the letter and told him that industry regulations were stifling innovation. In a 2019 blog post titled “Why Isn’t Titan Classed?” the company made similar arguments.

OceanGate said in the post that because its Titan craft was so innovative, it could take years to get it certified by leading assessment agencies.

“Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation,” the company wrote.

A spokesman for OceanGate declined to comment on the 2018 letter.

Another signatory of the industry group’s 2018 letter, Mr Bart Kemper, said in an interview that he and other members were worried that the Titan had not followed standard certification procedures.

“This letter was basically asking them to please do what the other submarines do, especially the passenger ones,” said Mr Kemper, a forensic engineer who works on submarine designs, citing Atlantis Submarines, a Canadian company that operates undersea tours, as an example.