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The Titan Submersible Passengers’ Final Hours

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The last time Christine Dawood saw her husband, Shahzada, and their son, Suleman, they were specks on the North Atlantic, bobbing on a floating platform about 400 miles from land. It was Father’s Day, June 18, and she watched from the support ship as they climbed into a 22-foot submersible craft called Titan.

Divers closed them inside by tightening a ring of bolts as the craft rolled on the waves about 13,000 feet above the 111-year-old wreckage of the Titanic.

Suleman, 19, carried a Rubik’s Cube. Shahzada had a Nikon camera, eager to capture the view of the seafloor through Titan’s single porthole.

“He was like a vibrating toddler,” said Christine, who stayed on the support ship at the surface with the couple’s daughter, Alina.

The two watched closely. The sun was shining. The ship was steady.

“It was a good morning,” Christine Dawood said.

Soon, the Titan slinked into the water and dropped into the deep, descending toward a dream.

Later that morning, Ms. Dawood overheard someone saying that communication with Titan had been lost. The United States Coast Guard confirmed that it had happened 1 hour 45 minutes into the dive.

Ms. Dawood went to the bridge, where a team had been monitoring Titan’s slow descent. She was assured that the only communication between the capsule and the ship, through coded computer text messages, was often spotty. If the break lasted more than an hour, the dive would be aborted. Titan would drop weights and come back to the surface.

For hours, Ms. Dawood slowly drowned in dread. By late afternoon, she said, someone told her that they did not know where Titan and its crew were.

“I was also looking out on the ocean, in case I could maybe see them surfacing,” she said.

Four days later, with Ms. Dawood and the crew of the support ship still over the site of the Titanic, Coast Guard officials announced that they had found debris from the Titan.

They said it had most likely imploded, instantly killing everyone on board.

Besides the Dawoods, there was Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77, a French scientist and a global authority on the Titanic, trying to make his 38th dive to the wreckage. There was Hamish Harding, 58, a British airline executive, thrilled to be making his first.

And there was Stockton Rush, the 61-year-old founder and chief executive of OceanGate, which saw itself as a hybrid of science and tourism. The company declined interview requests from The New York Times.

Mr. Rush was at the controls. He wanted to be known as an innovator, someone remembered for the rules he broke.

In February, Stockton Rush and his wife, Wendy, flew to London and met with the Dawoods at a cafe near Waterloo station.

They spoke about the design and safety of the submersible and what it was like to go down in it.

“That engineering side, we just had no idea,” Ms. Dawood said in an interview. “I mean, you sit in a plane without knowing how the engine works.”

Shahzada Dawood was a 48-year-old British-Pakistani businessman from one of the wealthiest families in Pakistan. He was vice chairman of Engro Corporation, a business conglomerate headquartered in the port city of Karachi that is involved in agriculture, energy and telecommunications.

The Dawoods became fascinated with the Titanic after visiting an exhibition in Singapore in 2012, the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking. Some items on display likely had been lifted to the surface by Mr. Nargeolet, they had recently come to realize.

In 2019, the family visited Greenland and was intrigued by the glaciers that sheathed into icebergs. Ms. Dawood spotted an OceanGate ad, offering trips to the Titanic. The family was sold — especially Shahzada and Suleman. But the boy was too young to go on the dive; OceanGate required passengers to be 18, so Christine planned to accompany her husband.

The pandemic delayed all plans. Suleman was now old enough. And OceanGate waived a rule to allow the 17-year-old Alina aboard the support ship. The family wanted to experience the dive together. And Mr. Rush wanted them to be there.

Analogues to OceanGate can be found in literature, film and sometimes in real life: A pioneering scientist (or a mysterious madman, to some) offers a rare or costly glimpse of his discovery to a select few outsiders unable to resist their own curiosity.

These were not the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park or the confections of Willy Wonka. This was the opportunity to see, firsthand, through a 21-inch porthole, the world’s most famous shipwreck at the bottom of the sea.

The cost was not a golden ticket, but $250,000, though that advertised rack rate proved negotiable.

Mr. Rush considered himself more a scientist than a salesman, but much of his effort was in the marketing of his company and the selling of spots on the submersible. He wanted a mix of clients who offered validation and buzz. Potential customers dealt directly with him.

Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from Colorado, inquired about a Titan dive last July. After Mr. Rush learned of Mr. Stern’s background — jet pilot, polar exploration, leader of NASA’s New Horizon exploration of Pluto and the Kuiper belt — he offered a free ticket. Stern accepted.

“Stockton said, ‘I don’t care if you give a talk — do you want to be the co-pilot?’” he recalled. “‘We’ll get you trained. Get yourself to St. John’s.’ And that’s what I ended up doing.’”

Mr. Nargeolet, who went by P.H., had become a semi-permanent fixture, a quasi-member of Titanic royalty, a star and co-pilot on the OceanGate expeditions.

He spent years diving to the Titanic and collecting items for museums and exhibitions. He planned to be in Paris on July 18 for the opening of an exhibition about the Titanic.

“All my existence revolves around it,” he wrote in his 2022 book, “Dans les Profondeurs du Titanic” (“In the Depths of the Titanic”).

On the last expedition, Mr. Nargeolet gave a presentation about his 37 previous dives to the Titanic. He also told the group a story about how he had once been “stuck down there for three days and the sub was out of communication,” Ms. Dawood recalled.

After the lecture, her husband grinned at her.

“Oh, my god, this is so cool,” Shahzada Dawood said. “He was lapping everything up. He had this big glow on his face talking about all this nerdy stuff.”

And so they came, these wealthy tourists and curious scientists, sold on the promise of a rare adventure provided by a company that considered itself “SpaceX for the ocean.”

OceanGate spoke in the language of space travel: There was “command central,” a “mission director,” the “launch and recovery platform (LARS)” and a “countdown to launch.”

The paying passengers were called “mission specialists,” and the company requested that they not be referred to as “customers” or tourists” — or “passengers.” They were given shirts and jackets embroidered with their names and the flags of their countries. A patch on the sleeve read, “Titanic Survey Exploration Crew.”

“Deep water diving in a pocket submarine is the only extreme activity accessible to anyone in good health, without training and regardless of age,” Mr. Nargeolet wrote in his book.

A real-estate investor from Las Vegas named Jay Bloom wanted to go on Titan with his 20-year-old son, Sean, this year. After some back and forth, Mr. Rush in April offered the “last minute price” of $150,000 each — discounting each ticket by $100,000. The Blooms declined, Mr. Bloom told The Times, because of scheduling issues and safety concerns.

OceanGate’s plan since 2021 was to run a series of eight- or nine-day expeditions in the late spring and early summer: about two days to the Titanic site, five days over it, two days back. Each expedition might have several dives — but just one for each client — depending on demand, technical difficulties and weather conditions.

The final trip was Mission V. None of the first four this year got close to the Titanic, largely because of rough weather in May and early June.

“I am proud to finally announce that I joined @oceangateexped for their RMS TITANIC Mission as a mission specialist on the sub going down to the Titanic,” Harding posted on his Facebook and Instagram pages the afternoon before the dive.

Harding, 58, was the chairman of Action Aviation, a sales and air operations company based in Dubai. He had previously flown to space with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket company.

Mr. Harding posted four photographs, including an image of the submersible and another one of a small white flag on which members of the expedition had signed their names in black marker.

Another photo was one of Mr. Harding, sitting with his legs crossed, smiling. He had thinning, reddish hair. He wore a black-and-green all-weather jacket unzipped over a rugby-style shirt, bluejeans, NASA-themed socks and running shoes.

In the posts, Mr. Harding detailed weather challenges but reported that the group was preparing to descend the following morning around 4.

“Until then we have a lot of preparations and briefings to do,” he wrote. “More expedition updates to follow IF the weather holds!”

It was his last post.

The OceanGate promotional video, nearly six minutes of stirring music and wide smiles, displays the balance that the company tried to cultivate.

“Get ready for what Jules Verne could only imagine,” the baritone voice-over says. “This is not a thrill ride for tourists — it’s much more.”

The whole enterprise made some experts queasy, including at least one former employee. Within circles of submersible experts, there were criticisms of the cylindrical design (most deepwater submersibles are spherical); the relatively large porthole (seven inches thick and made of Plexiglas, according to Mr. Rush); and the use of mixed materials, such as carbon fiber and titanium, that might not bond well or withstand the immense pressure of a deep-sea dive.

In 2018, Will Kohnen, chair of the Marine Technology Society’s manned underwater vehicles committee, drafted a letter to Mr. Rush, saying that OceanGate’s “experimental” approach could lead to “catastrophic” consequences. It was signed by dozens of experts.

The next year, a submersible expert heard cracking sounds during a Titan dive in the Bahamas and, in an email to Mr. Rush, begged him to suspend operations. Mr. Rush made some revisions but kept taking customers.

Bill Price, retired from running a family travel business in California, went on a Titan dive in 2021. During the descent, Mr. Rush realized that Titan had lost its propulsion system on one side. He aborted the trip, Mr. Price said.

But he could not get what he called the “drop-weight mechanism” to release ballast for the ascent, as designed, Mr. Price said. (In a video interview with Alan Estrada, a Mexican social media influencer, Mr. Rush explained the ballast system, which included six 24-inch sewer pipes that weighed 37 pounds, “and we dump that pipe, one by one.”)

Mr. Rush calmly explained that the weights were loaded from the top with no stopper — so if they could rock the submersible enough, they would drop off.

Everyone lined up in a row, rushed to one side, then the other, back and forth, to tip the Titan and dislodge the ballast, the way someone might rock a vending machine to free a candy bar stuck on a spindle.

“After several rolls, we got momentum going,” Mr. Price said. “Then, we heard a clunk, and we all collectively knew one had dropped off. So we continued to do that, until the weights were all out.”

None of this prevented Titan from making a dive the next day, with Mr. Price aboard. They saw the Titanic and celebrated at the surface with sparkling cider.

“The fact that we went through that, we experienced some worst-case scenarios, and we overcame it, my thinking was, ‘We can do this,’” Mr. Price said.

The OceanGate pitch, without any guarantees, was that Titan would take about two and a half hours to drop to the Titanic and about two and a half hours to ascend back to the surface. In between would be about four hours of touring the wreckage.

Most of the trips did not end with up-close views of the Titanic. More Titan missions were aborted than accomplished.

Yet Mr. Rush had a way of instilling confidence in passengers with good-natured transparency, even as issues arose. After a planned test dive was scrubbed a few weeks ago because a balky computer connection had made the Titan hard to control, Mr. Rush gathered everyone for a debriefing.

“To put it bluntly, that’s why I called it — mostly because we’ve got to find out what this control problem is,” he said in a conversation captured by a YouTuber who was on the expedition. “That’s sort of important, controlling the sub.”

Mr. Stern, the planetary scientist with a background in aeronautics, said that he had not known about some of the concerns that had come to light since the accident, like the letter from the submersible experts.

He returned safely from the expedition, impressed by the protocols.

“I fully recognized that implosion could be the way that our dive ended,” Mr. Stern said. “My own estimation was that Titan had dived dozens of times — not all of them to the Titanic — and for me, that was an empirical indication that they were running a pretty reliable, safe operation.”

Mr. Price recalled some of the analogies he had heard used onboard to explain what it would be like to be crushed by extreme pressure in the deep ocean. One was that of a Coke can smashed with a sledgehammer. Another was an elephant standing on one foot, with 100 more elephants on top of it.

Death would be instantaneous.

“In a macabre way,” Mr. Price said, “it was reassuring.”

All of the expeditions began in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on the eastern edge of the North American continent, tucked deep into the claw of a narrow harbor.

The Dawoods flew to Toronto on June 14. A canceled flight to St. John’s gave them time to explore the city, but when the next day’s flight was delayed, they feared they would miss the Titanic trip completely.

“We were actually quite worried, like, oh my god, what if they cancel that flight as well?” Ms. Dawood said. “In hindsight, obviously, I wish they did.”

They arrived in the middle of the night and went straight to the Polar Prince, a former Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker and buoy tender that was built in 1959 and used by OceanGate this year.

It had a deep-blue hull and a crew of 17. It also housed and ferried about two dozen OceanGate divers and staff members, plus a revolving set of clients. This spring, it was seen going in and out of the harbor towing a floating platform, about 20 feet square, on which the 20,000-pound Titan submersible rode.

The Dawoods found the cabins tight. The husband and wife slept in bunk beds, she on top. The kids each got their own cabin. Meals were eaten together, everyone on the ship, in the galley, buffet-style and on trays.

There were all-hands meeting every day at 7 a.m., and again at 7 p.m., lasting an hour or more. What did we learn, what are we going to do, what do we need to think about?

Among the safety procedures were what Mr. Rush called “stopskis.” They were five-minute pauses to break the momentum of the mission at key points and let people ponder and voice concerns.

Part of the idea was to keep the paying customers — the “explorers, adventurers, and citizen scientists” — from being passive participants.

“Mission Specialists receive training in a variety of roles such as submersible navigation and piloting, tracking and communications, and submersible maintenance and operations,” the OceanGate brochure read. “They make one submersible dive and assist on the surface when other teams dive.”

At night, there was usually a presentation from Mr. Rush, Mr. Nargeolet or one of the other scientists, including the clients that Rush had brought aboard, from archaeologists to astronauts. People sat on the floor or on couches to listen. Sometimes they watched “Titanic.”

The divers had to be on deck by 5 a.m. It was Sunday, June 18.

The briefing discussed the plan and responsibilities. The mood was serious. The ship was buzzing. Divers and the submersible crew made last-minute preparations in the water.

“It was like a well-oiled operation — you could see they had done this before many times,” Ms. Dawood said.

By then, the three first-time divers had been told what to expect and how to prepare for the expected 12-hour trip.

Mr. Rush always recommended a “low-residue diet” the day before a dive, and no coffee the morning of one. Relieving yourself over the planned 12 hours meant steady aim into a bottle or a camp-style toilet behind a curtain.

Wear thick socks and bring a beanie because it will get chillier the deeper we go. Try not to get your feet wet from the condensation that pools on the floor.

Don’t expect to see anything through the porthole or the exterior cameras on the way down because the floodlights will be turned off to save battery power for the epic tour on the ocean floor — though there was a chance to catch glimpses of bioluminescent creatures, creating a sensation like falling through stars.

The dim lights inside were kept off for the same reason. The only glow would come from computer screens and light-up pens used to track the descent on paper.

And, Mr. Rush would ask, please load some of your favorite songs into your phone to share with others to play on a Bluetooth speaker. But please, he would add: No country music.

The divers of June 18 were told to be ready to board by 7:30. Suleman and Shahzada had their OceanGate flight suits as well as waterproof trousers, an orange waterproof jacket, steel-toed boots, life vests and helmets.

They stopped to be weighed, as required.

“I’m looking quite fat,” Ms. Dawood recalled her husband’s saying. “I’m boiling up already.”

Suleman went down the stairs to get into the motorized raft that would shuttle the passengers to the floating platform on which Titan was tied. Shahzada was less graceful.

“He needed an extra hand to go down the stairs in all this gear because the boots were very clunky,” she said. “And Alina and I were like, ‘Oh, God, I hope that he doesn’t fall into the water.”

The divers were specks out on the platform. Soon, they disappeared into the Titan.

Getting into the submersible was a bit like crawling through the back hatch of an S.U.V. with no seats. There was a rubber mat on the floor and two handles on the ceiling to hang onto.

Rush, the pilot, usually sat at the back, away from the porthole. Others sat with their backs to the curved walls. Past passengers had sometimes sat on a padded seat cushion like those you might bring to a stadium.

Divers closed the hatch. Someone with a ratchet tightened all the bolts.

Eventually, crews maneuvered the Titan underwater and released it from the platform.

The Titan typically descended at about 25 meters per minute, or roughly one mile per hour. It was slow enough that there was no sense of motion.

Inside, the glow of daylight overhead would have slowly dimmed. Within a few minutes, Titan would be absorbed in darkness, and the porthole would be a ring of black.

Anna Betts, Catherine Porter, Rebecca Ruiz, Ian Austen, Mike Baker, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and William Broad contributed reporting.

Kitty Bennett and Susan Beachy contributed research.



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