Years before Titanic sub went missing, OceanGate was warned about “catastrophic” safety issues

Years before a tourist submersible went missing and was ultimately lost in what the Coast Guard called “a catastrophic implosion” on an expedition to explore the Titanic shipwreck with five passengers on board, red flags over safety issues emerged about the company that designed and operated the vessel. 

OceanGate, which charged $250,000 per person for the Titanic voyage, is a privately held company that touted its “innovative use of materials and state-of-the-art technology” in developing small submersibles. The five people who were aboard the missing sub did not survive, the company said Thursday. 

Behind the marketing lingo, lawsuits and industry experts had raised serious safety concerns about the project years before the sub’s disappearance. In 2018, a professional trade group warned that OceanGate’s experimental approach to the design of the Titan could lead to potentially “catastrophic” outcomes, according to a letter from the group obtained by CBS News.

That same year, an employee of OceanGate raised safety concerns about the Titan’s design and the company’s protocol for testing the hull’s reliability. That employee, David Lochridge, was fired by OceanGate after airing his complaints to government regulators and OceanGate’s management, with the latter then suing him for breach of contract. 

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In response to OceanGate’s lawsuit, Lochridge countersued, airing his concerns about Titan’s safety in a 2018 court document. 

Lochridge claimed he believed the company could “subject passengers to potential extreme danger in an experimental submersible,” according to the legal filing. 

In February, the CEO of OceanGate, Stockton Rush, was sued by a Florida couple after they struggled to get a refund on their deposits for several canceled trips on the Titan. The pair, Marc and Sharon Hagle, said in their lawsuit that OceanGate canceled one expedition saying it hadn’t had enough time to certify that the Titan could reach the depths of the Titanic. Another trip was canceled because of “equipment failure,” according to a copy of the Hagles’ lawsuit published by the Fort-Myers News Press. 

Attorneys for the Hagles didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

OceanGate didn’t respond to requests for comment about the lawsuits and allegations. In a statement to CBS News, Lochridge’s attorney said he had no comment regarding his allegations. “We pray for everyone’s safe return,” the attorney said.

Certification issues

One of the red flags about the Titan was its certification — or lack thereof. 

The 2018 letter from a professional trade group, the Marine Technology Society, flagged the company’s marketing materials which advertised that the Titan’s design would meet or exceed a certification called DNV-GL. Stemming from the independent Norwegian foundation Det Norske Veritas, or DNV, the certification is considered the gold standard for marine equipment. 

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But, the Marine Technology Society noted, “it does not appear that OceanGate has the intention of following DNV-GL class rules.” Such representations would be “misleading to the public and breaches an industry-wide professional code of conduct we all endeavor to uphold,” the letter added.

A factsheet about the Titan on OceanGate’s website doesn’t mention if the vessel had received DNV certification.

“Refused to pay”

Certification and testing was also a focus of Lochridge’s countersuit, in which he refuted OceanGate’s claims that he breached his employment contract when he filed a whistleblower complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

Lochridge wrote that he learned the viewport on the sub was only built to a certified pressure of 1,300 meters, even though the Titan intended to go down to 4,000 meters in depth. He also urged OceanGate to use an agency such as the American Bureau of Shipping to inspect and certify the Titan.

“OceanGate refused to pay for the manufacturer to build a viewport that would meet the required depth of 4,000 meters,” Lochridge’s filing alleges. 

He claims that rather than address his concerns or use “a standard classification agency to inspect the Titan,” OceanGate immediately fired him. 

OceanGate’s lawsuit against Lochridge stresses that he wasn’t an engineer, and that he refused to accept its lead engineer’s “veracity of information,” leading to his firing. In his legal response, Lochridge admitted he wasn’t an engineer, but noted that “he was hired to ensure the safety of all crew and clients during submersible and surface operations.”

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