A research institute at Newfoundland and Labrador’s Memorial University threw open its “proverbial doors” last year to the company that owned the doomed Titan submersible, less than a year before the vessel suffered a catastrophic implosion while diving to the Titanic shipwreck.
Emails obtained by The Canadian Press show officials with Memorial’s Fisheries and Marine Institute signed an agreement with OceanGate in December allowing the company to store equipment with the university and promising that students and faculty would have opportunities “to join OceanGate expeditions to support research endeavours.”
The memorandum of understanding also says the marine institute would show OceanGate’s submersible to visitors in an effort to promote ocean literacy and the “blue economy.”
The Titan submersible was last heard from on June 18, after it dropped into the North Atlantic on its way to the Titanic wreck site. Officials say its mother ship, the Canadian-flagged Polar Prince, lost contact with the small sub about an hour and 45 minutes into its dive. The descent typically takes about two hours.
After a frantic, days-long international search, a crew guiding a remotely operated vehicle spotted the submersible’s wreckage about 500 metres from the Titanic’s bow, almost four kilometres below the ocean’s surface. OceanGate founder and chief executive officer Stockton Rush died along with the four passengers on board.
The emails obtained through an access to information request make no mention of concerns that had surfaced in the industry that Titan was unsafe and OceanGate was endangering its passengers, who paid a reported US$250,000 to dive to the Titanic. Nor were there questions about the company’s public acknowledgment in 2019 that Titan hadn’t been certified, as is standard practice in the industry. But they do reveal officials’ enthusiasm to team up with OceanGate.
“On behalf of Angie, Joe and myself many thanks … and consider the ‘proverbial doors’ of the Marine Institute at Memorial University are open!” Rob Shea, then the Marine Institute’s vice-president, wrote in a July 9, 2022, email to Rush. Shea sent the note after visiting the Titan in St. John’s harbour with Angie Clarke, the institute’s associate vice-president of academics and student affairs, and Joe Singleton, the interim head of the institute’s school of ocean technology, the emails show.
A Memorial University spokesperson said this week that the document was a non-binding, general agreement, and that there were no formal plans for students or staff to board the Titan, since OceanGate’s expedition schedule did not line up with the academic calendar. “With no plans for students or staff to be aboard the Titan, there was no rationale to vet OceanGate,” Chad Pelley, the school’s manager of media relations, said in a statement emailed Tuesday.
A student from the Marine Institute was aboard the Polar Prince when the Titan was lost, but the institute said that was part of a summer job with OceanGate, not a work term connected to the school.
The emails, which cover four years between Jan. 1, 2019, and Jan. 1, 2023, show that Rush was eager to arrive at an agreement to store the Titan and accompanying equipment at the Marine Institute. However, there were several apparent snags the school officials had to work through in order to produce the final memorandum of understanding, dated Dec. 21, 2022. There are lengthy email chains between finance, contracts and customs officials with the school. A school lawyer is also involved, as are outside customs and marine logistics companies.
Much of the correspondence released was blacked out, citing reasons including the protection of a public body and a third party’s economic interests. The school confirmed Tuesday that the redacted conversations were not about safety.
In late November, an OceanGate representative said in an email to Singleton and Clarke that there was considerable excitement in the company over the weekend, as a special feature about the Titan’s 2022 journey to the Titanic had aired on CBS News in the United States.
The report includes Rush showing off the Titan’s bare-bones interior, which included a single power button, two video screens and a repurposed gaming controller to steer the 6.7-metre vessel.
CBS reporter David Pogue is also seen signing a waiver before he boards the Titan. “This experimental vessel has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body, and could result in physical injury, emotional trauma, or death,” Pogue says, appearing to read directly from the document in front of him. “Where do I sign?”
Deep-diving experts had been issuing warnings about Titan’s shoddy construction and lack of certification for years. In 2018, a group of engineers wrote a letter to Rush warning that the company’s “experimental” approach could have catastrophic consequences.