The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) has officially commenced interviews of passengers on the Polar Prince following the vessel’s return to St John’s, Newfoundland on Saturday, as part of the Board’s investigation of the implosion of the Titan submersible.
Titan was on an expedition to explore Titanic, and was brought to sea Sunday, June 18 by the Canadian vessel Polar Prince. It suddenly lost communication with the ship an hour and 45 minutes into its descent, kicking off what would be a frantic five-day search for the lost vessel. All hopes for a positive outcome vanished Thursday when the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed it found debris belonging to OceanGate Expedition’s Titan near the famous ocean liner at the bottom of the North Atlantic.
TSB investigators boarded the Polar Prince after returning to port. TSB chair Kathy Fox confirmed in a press conference Saturday that family members of the the five passengers aboard the Titan were on the Polar Prince, along with members of the support team. 41 people were on the ship in total when the expedition first began.
“Anybody can imagine… it’s difficult the circumstances (the passengers) have been under the last few days and we have to understand that that’s going to affect particularly the families who have lost loved ones,” Fox said. “The idea was to do what we need to immediately and then allow people to leave after a long time at sea.”
Fox was not able to share any information from interviews with Polar Prince passengers conducted so far, as the contents are privileged under Canadian law.
According to Fox, a TSB investigation can take between 18 months and two years. She says it’s too early to tell how long this particular investigation will take, but the TSB plans on providing an update in the coming days.
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The submersible’s disappearance Sunday set off an international rescue mission that captivated the world’s attention given its link to the Titanic. As well, the five passengers aboard the Titan were reported to have 96 hours of breathable air – an added element that led to the frantic search.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has also launched an investigation into the events leading up to the tragedy around the Titan. RCMP Supt. Kent Osmond said in a press conference Saturday that any proof of criminal activity in the force’s investigation would determine whether a “full investigation” would be warranted. However, Osmond said there was no suspicion of criminal activity so far.
“I’ve been doing police work for 33 years and this is a very unique circumstance,” Osmond said. “The specifics and the expertise that went into the vessel, the voyage, all that needs to be understood by us so it’s all a very unique circumstance.”
Both the RCMP and TSB announced their investigations Saturday, but the scopes for each are different. The TSB is specifically looking to identify what happened while the Titan was submerged, why the implosion occurred and what can be done to reduce the risk of it happening in the future.
The news of the TSB investigation comes after the U.S. Coast Guard said it will lead an investigation into the catastrophic implosion of the Titan submersible.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board issued a statement Friday saying the U.S. Coast Guard had declared the loss of Titan a “major marine casualty” and, as a result, would lead the investigation.
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Since the beginning of the search late Sunday, the U.S. Coast Guard has repeatedly referred to Titan as a Canadian vessel, though the company that operated the small craft, OceanGate Expeditions, is based in the United States.
Marc Isaacs, a maritime lawyer in Toronto, said the independent Transportation Safety Board of Canada could also claim jurisdiction over an investigation because the Titan’s mother ship, the Polar Prince, is registered under the Canadian flag.
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The ship, a former Canadian Coast Guard vessel, is owned by the Miawpukek First Nation in southern Newfoundland.
William Kohnen, president and CEO of the California-based engineering firm Hydrospace Group, says the Titan expedition was not safe “on so many levels.”
“They talked to everyone in this stream and everyone was saying the same thing. It’s just how do you get someone to hear it and pay attention when they figure they can do it better and faster?”
Kohnen explained that when it comes to Coast Guard regulations, OceanGate likely couldn’t have performed the expedition anywhere other than U.S. and Canadian waters. He also says the ship also appeared to have a lack of operations plans – meaning a list of people to contact in case of an emergency.
“The fact that they were operating in international waters gets them around a whole bunch of rules.”
“Before they left Saint John’s, they should have had one or one or two backup plans knowing what vehicle is available within 24 hours to be able to react to an incident… so if you don’t have the capability on the ship, someone is aware that you’re out there. They seem to have just gone out without telling anybody.”
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Kohnen says it’s hard to know exactly what went wrong on the Titan’s trip, but a conclusion can be drawn from the last two messages sent from the vessel. The first one was that they were approaching the bottom, followed by “dropping weights,” meaning they were trying to slow down.
Kohnen says that the timing of when they sent the first message indicates that the vessel’s rate of descent was very high.
“I suspect what happened is they came down at a very high rate of speed and didn’t stop — that the momentum just had a bounce on the bottom. And when they hit the bottom, something triggered the implosion. It’s not just the pressure.”
Marine engineers have drawn attention to the fact that Titan, which had a carbon-fibre hull, was never “classed” or certified by an independent third party to ensure it met certain safety standards. In 2018, a group of engineers wrote a letter that warned that the company’s “experimental” approach could have “catastrophic” consequences.
In response, OceanGate explained on its website that Titan was not classed because the process could inhibit innovation.
— With files from Global News’ Aaron D’Andrea.
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