Missing Titanic sub: OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush defended after warnings about 'potential catastrophe'

FILE - OceanGate CEO and co-founder Stockton Rush speaks in front of a projected image of the wreckage of the ocean liner SS Andrea Doria during a presentation on their findings after an undersea exploration, on June 13, 2016, in Boston. Rescuers in a remote area of the Atlantic Ocean raced against time Tuesday, June 20, 2023, to find a missing submersible before the oxygen supply runs out for five people, including Stockton, who were on a mission to document the wreckage of the Titanic. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes, File)
OceanGate CEO and co-founder Stockton Rush was warned about the safety of its Titan sub five years ago. (AP)

The company behind the deep-sea vessel that went missing on a dive to the Titanic shipwreck runs an “extremely safe operation”, the chairman of the mothership that launched it has said.

Safety fears about the Titan sub, which lost communication with tour operators on Sunday, were raised by experts in 2018.

The search is continuing to find the vessel before the five people on board run out of air.

A letter sent to OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush in 2018 warned that “the current ‘experimental’ approach” of the company could result in problems “from minor to catastrophic” over its plans to take wealthy customers to the Titanic wreckage and the way Titan was developed.

But Sean Leet, the co-founder and chairman of Horizon Maritime Services, which owns the Polar Prince mothership from which Titan launched, defended the company at a press conference on Wednesday.

He said: “OceanGate runs an extremely safe operation.

“Our full focus right now is getting that submersible located and getting those people brought back safely.”

Live: Follow the latest updates in hunt for missing sub here

He added: “We’re in constant contact with the crew of the Polar Prince.

“Our emergency procedures kicked in immediately.

“Our emergency room is staffed 24/7 with a group of extremely capable people and there’s live communication with the vessel at all times.

“We’ve got 17 people on board the ship.”

The 2018 letter warning OceanGate of safety concerns, which was obtained by the New York Times, was sent by the Manned Underwater Vehicles committee of the Marine Technology Society, which promotes ocean technology.

The full letter can be seen here.

In this Friday, June 28, 2013 photo, submersible pilot Randy Holt, right, communicates with the support boat as he and Stockton Rush, left, CEO and Co-Founder of OceanGate Inc., dive in the company's submersible,
Stockton Rush, left, with submersible pilot Randy Holt in 2013. (Alamy)
The Oceangate submersible
The Oceangate CEO was warned of a potential ‘catastrophe’ in 2018. (Alamy)

The experts described OceanGate’s marketing of Titan as “at minimum, misleading” because of its claims that it would meet or exceed the safety standards of a risk assessment.

They urged OceanGate to test its prototypes via a third-party as it “is a critical component in the safeguards that protect all submersible occupants”.

It has also emerged that a former employee of OceanGate had raised concerns over “safety and quality control issues regarding the Titan to OceanGate executive management”, according to court filings.

Watch: Locator map of Titanic shipwreck

David Lochridge, who was director of marine operations for the Titan project, wanted to test the vessel for its “integrity” and warned of “the potential dangers to passengers of the Titan as the submersible reached extreme depths”.

OceanGate filed a lawsuit against Lochridge in 2018, accusing him of sharing confidential information outside the company.

But Lochridge filed a counterclaim against OceanGate, claiming he was wrongfully fired for flagging the company’s alleged “refusal to conduct critical, non-destructive testing of the experimental design”.

Read more: TV host describes near-death trip to Titanic wreck

After “issues of quality control” with Titan were raised, the filings say Rush asked Lochridge to conduct a “quality inspection” report on the vessel.

During this process, Lochridge “identified numerous issues that posed serious safety concerns” but he was allegedly “met with hostility and denial of access” to necessary documents before later being fired, the court documents claim.

The document claims he became concerned about a “lack of non-destructive testing performed on the hull of the Titan”, and that he “stressed the potential danger to passengers of the Titan as the submersible reached extreme depths”.

In this May 18, 2017 photo, Director of Marine Operations for OceanGate, Inc., David Lochridge, right, describes diving at great depths to Bonnie Carl and Josh Dean as they sit in the sub Cyclops1, submerged in the waters of the Port of Everett Marina, in Wash. OceanGate plans to carry paying customers on dives to the Titanic in 2018. (Andy Bronson/The Herald via AP)
David Lochridge (right) said OceanGate should have had more rigorous safety tests. (PA)

Lochridge said that Titan’s viewport – that allows passengers to see outside the vessel – was only certified to work in depths of up to 1,300 metres.

The wreckage of the Titanic is nearly 3,800 metres below the ocean’s surface.

Lochridge added in the filing: “The paying passengers would not be aware, and would not be informed, of this experimental design.”

Read more: Inside cramped Titan submersible missing during voyage to Titanic shipwreck

OceanGate company said in its complaint that Lochridge “is not an engineer and was not hired or asked to perform engineering services on the Titan”.

Last year, Rush said he had taken a prototype of the Titan down to 4,000 metres and it had “made a lot of noise”, resulting in OceanGate building a new hull with an aerospace supplier.

The search is continuing for the Titan submersible before air runs out for those on board. (OceanGate/Handout/Getty)

Rush also told the Unsung Science podcast said that “at some point, safety is just pure waste”, adding: “At some point, you’re going to take some risk, and it really is a risk-reward question.

“I think I can do this just as safely by breaking the rules.”

Rush is on board the Titan along with British billionaire adventurer Hamish Harding, Shahzada Dawood, his son Suleman and, reportedly, French submersible pilot Paul-Henry Nargeolet.

Yahoo News UK has contacted OceanGate and the Manned Underwater Vehicles committee of the Marine Technology Society for comment.