A blue ship cut through a blanket of grey fog on Wednesday morning, navigating between the steep cliffs at the entrance to St. John’s harbour with precious cargo on board.
The Horizon Arctic returned to port carrying the shattered pieces of the Titan submersible, 10 days after it went missing off the coast of Newfoundland with five souls on board.
A crane lifted the submersible’s nose cone, pieces of its hull and a section of the tail into the air and lowered them to the Canadian Coast Guard dock in St. John’s.
“It’s just a very eerie feeling here this morning, knowing that people were on that, and that’s all that’s left,” said Sarah Grenning, who stopped her morning run to watch the pieces being offloaded. “Those are people’s sons and fathers and relatives. It’s just unfortunate.”
All five people on board are believed to have been killed by a sudden implosion. That includes OceanGate Expeditions CEO Stockton Rush, whose company built the Titan with an experimental design using carbon fibre and titanium.
In previous interviews, Rush acknowledged the materials were not standard for deep-sea submersibles.
“I’d like to be remembered as an innovator,” Rush told vlogger Alan Estrada in 2021. “I’ve broken some rules to make this. I think I’ve broken them with logic and good engineering behind me. The carbon fibre and titanium, there’s a rule you don’t do that. Well, I did.”
The remnants of the submersible — those pieces of carbon fibre and titanium — will now be turned over to investigators to figure out what went wrong. Transportation safety boards from the United States and Canada, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and RCMP are now probing the incident.
They may try to piece the vessel back together, according to a marine investigations expert who spoke with CBC News earlier this week.
“Just like an airline crash, they may try to reassemble the sub to put the parts together like a puzzle to determine where the failure point was,” said Tom Maddox, founder and CEO of Underwater Forensic Investigations. “In the case of a massive implosion that’s not going to be an easy task because much of the craft would have disintegrated.”
There are no timelines for any of the investigations.
Former Canadian TSB investigator Marc-André Poisson said the Americans will likely lead the process, with assistance from their Canadian colleagues rather than conducting separate investigations.
He said the wreckage on display Wednesday will play an important role but emphasized that it’s not going to tell the full story.
“The Titan is only one component of the failure,” Poisson said. “There could be multiple human factors involved that helped create the causes, conditions and contributing factors to the accident.”
He said investigators will build a sequence of events from the facts they gather, create hypotheses on what could have happened and then test them in the lab — all in an effort to “build a whole understanding of how the system failed.”
Bodies could be recovered, says deepsea doctor
While sections of the Titan appeared to be remarkably intact, questions remain about what became of the five men aboard the submersible.
Canadian and American officials involved in the search have not said whether they expect to be able to recover the bodies, or if there would even be anything to recover.
Dr. Ken LeDez, a hyperbaric medicine specialist in St. John’s, said he believes recovery could be possible.
“I think it would be unwise to rule out the possibility that they could recover recognizable bodies,” he said. “I think it’s possible. Everything depends on the exact second [the Titan imploded], the way things happened.”
LeDez said there’s never been an actual study of what happens to a human body at such depths, so it’s hard to rule anything out.
“Of course the relatives would like to have the bodies for funerals and closure, of course. And I think it’s possible, but we just don’t know.”
Crews return to shore after long ordeal
It’s been a long mission for the men and women on board the Horizon Arctic.
The ship left St. John’s on June 21 and arrived at the search scene the following day. It was carrying the Odysseus, a remotely operated vehicle that was dispatched from New York soon after the submersible was reported missing.
The ROV brought the rescue mission to an end on Friday, when it spotted debris on the ocean floor a few hundred metres away from the hull of the Titanic.
“Our team has successfully completed offshore operations, but is still on mission and will be in the process of demobilization from the Horizon Arctic this morning,” said a spokesperson from Pelagic Research, the company that owns the Odysseus ROV.
“They have been working around the clock now for 10 days, through the physical and mental challenges of this operation, and are anxious to finish the mission and return to their loved ones.”
The Horizon Arctic is owned by the same company as the Polar Prince, the ship tasked with towing the submersible out to sea and hovering above while it dived to the Titanic.
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