Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
This is my commentary as a former US Navy submarine sailor, and former member of the Navy’s deep submergence community, on last month’s event when five people died on a rickety submersible while diving to the wreck of Titanic.
I qualified in submarines on the nuclear fast attack submarine USS Scamp (SSN 588) all the way back in 1976. Although my qualification board was forty-seven years ago, I retain membership in the highly exclusive community of submarine veterans.
I served on two submarines in my Navy career and earned my submarine crewmember insignia. To earn the right to wear the Submarine Insignia as crew member, I spent nine months in study and reviews. I memorized every ship’s system onboard Scamp, learned how they worked, and in some cases learned how to operate them.
My months of study cumulated in a “walk-through,” where I walked from one end of the boat to the other, with my division officer, pointing out every significant valve, electrical fitting, and piece of machinery. Then, I sat for a four-hour oral board in front of senior crew members, answering their questions and drawing system schematics from memory. At the age of 20, before my college-bound high school classmates had diplomas, I was qualified as crewmember on a nuclear fast-attack submarine.
I later qualified in deep submergence vehicles as crew member of the deep-diving submarine USS Dolphin (AGSS 555). At the time Dolphin was world’s deepest-diving submarine.
Submarines are built to quality assurance standards unheard of in almost any other industry. These standards are unimaginably expensive. But, the cost of not building to these standards are even higher. In April 1963 we lost the brand new nuclear-powered submarine USS Thresher (SSN 593) with 130 people onboard. The cause was later determined to be faulty construction. As a result, the Navy created the SUBSAFE program which has governed design, construction, and maintenance of all Navy submarines. We haven’t lost a sub due to faulty construction since SUBSAFE was implemented.
Submarine standards are not just applied in construction. Safety, training, and quality assurance procedures governing maintenance was an everyday part of life onboard a submarine. During my submarine tours, I lived, slept, breathed, safety. Training was a daily event. Our maintenance planning requirements were extensive. Typically, to perform a maintenance task, it took far longer to work through the checklist of safety requirements and procedures than it did to perform the actual task.
I was reminded every single day onboard a submarine that my actions safeguarded the lives of me and my shipmates. Yes, all this was a tremendous burden. But that was the burden we all accepted. Because we knew our lives depended on safety procedures, constant training, and following established maintenance procedures.
The OceanGate “Titan” and Stockton Rush
Stockton Rush was a Princeton graduate holding a degree in aeronautical engineering. He decided to create for-profit deep sea sightseeing using submersibles that “reinvented” the engineering knowledge on building these craft. His company, OceanGate, posted on it’s website as far back as 2011 that “since 1974, there has not been a serious injury or fatality on an ABS certified passenger submersible.” During an address before The Explorers Club in 2017, Rush called submersibles “the safest vehicles on the planet.” In 2019 Rush expressed the view that the Passenger Vessel Safety Act of 1993 “needlessly prioritized passenger safety over commercial innovation.”
His company procured and operated two shallow-diving submarines before building the Titan. In building the Titan, Rush pushed back on safety regulations saying they “stifled innovation” and that “At some point, safety just is pure waste. 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.”
So, he used second-rate materials in an application they had never been tested for. He hired interns and entry-level engineers to design the submersible Titan instead of experienced people. He not only ignored multiple deep submersible experts telling him he was putting the lives of future passengers in danger, he fired his own safety engineer when that engineer produced a report detailing multiple flaws in his design. He created legal liability shields to avoid certification and licensing requirements for passenger-carrying vessels. Then he made public claims his vessel was in fact certified and met all legal requirements.
It’s because we consistently apply the highest possible standards of construction, safety, training, and maintenance that submarines (and submersibles) are “the safest vehicles on the planet.”
When I started hearing news on the probable loss of the Titan I was first horrified. Then, I read about the physical construction of the submersible. I read about OceanGate’s lack of construction standards, their contempt for safety and certification standards, and the way Rush ignored all submersible experts trying to help him. The more I read the more I felt shocked, then angry. My anger has only increased with more news of the submersibles’ construction, and more news about Stockton Rush himself.
My Bottom Line
This loss didn’t need to happen. It did happen as a result of unchecked arrogance on the part of the corporate owners and engineers who built the damn thing knowing full well it wasn’t safe. But they did it anyway, for reasons that had no relationship to sound engineering and concern for passenger safety.
I see that Stockton Rush was more interested in wealth and fame than building something of value. His recorded statements mocking submarine safety grate on me like fingernails on a blackboard. His contempt for the standards every member of my submarine community hold dear cost him his life, and the lives of his four paying passengers.
Qualifying in submarines is a very large piece of the person I am today. Stockton Rush was thumbing his nose at the standards I once lived. He was mocking the standards my submarine community has spent so much sweat and blood to develop. I don’t feel sorry for him. In fact, I truly hope he had at least a few seconds of warning before the sub imploded on him. Enough time to realize just how badly he screwed up.
These are references available at the time of publishing this post on the OceanGate submersible Titan and Stockton Rush.
- Composite submersibles: Under pressure in deep, deep waters
- The Titan Submersible Was An Accident Waiting To Happen
- Wikipedia: Bio on Stockton Rush
- Wikipedia: OceanGate
Video Analysis and Commentary
This is an analysis of the final communications between the Titan and her support ship. As of this publication date, this transcript has not been confirmed as accurate, but it does seem plausible. It points out the interesting information that the Titan may have been descending faster that normal, indicating there were system failure prior to implosion.