A debris field from the submersible Titan was found at the bottom of the North Atlantic on Thursday by a robotic diving vehicle deployed from a Canadian search vessel, ending an intense five-day international rescue effort.
Fragments of Titan, which lost contact with its surface support ship about one hour and 45 minutes into a two-hour descent on Sunday, were discovered on the seabed about 488 metres from the bow of the Titanic wreck, about four kilometres below the surface, US coast guard Rear Admiral John Mauger said.
He told reporters on Thursday the debris was consistent with “a catastrophic implosion of the vehicle”, meaning the 6.7m long vessel ultimately collapsed and was crushed under the immense hydrostatic pressure at that depth.
The five who died included Stockton Rush, US founder and chief executive officer of OceanGate Expeditions, which operated the submersible and charged $US250,000 ($A374,000) per person to make the Titanic trip.
He was piloting the craft.
The others were British billionaire and explorer Hamish Harding, 58; Pakistani-born businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his 19-year-old son, Suleman, both British citizens; and French oceanographer Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77.
In a statement on Friday, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said it was launching a “safety investigation regarding the circumstances of this operation” because Titan’s surface support vessel, the Polar Prince, was a Canadian-flagged ship.
Guillermo Sohnlein, who co-founded OceanGate with Rush in 2009, said Rush was “keenly aware” of the dangers of exploring the ocean depths.
“Stockton was one of the most astute risk managers I’d ever met,” said Sohnlein, who left the company in 2013, retaining a minority stake.
“He was very risk-averse.”
British Titanic explorer Dik Barton paid tribute to the work of his friend Nargeolet but noted issues raised with the design and maintenance of the craft.
“Everyone’s wise after the event, but as we’re hearing before, unfortunately, there were many red flags flying here,” he said.
Questions about Titan’s safety were raised in 2018 during a symposium of submersible industry experts and in a lawsuit by OceanGate’s former head of marine operations, which was settled later that year.
Teams from the US, Canada, France and Britain had spent days scanning a vast expanse of open sea for the Titan.
The US coast guard’s Mauger said it was too early to say when the Titan met its fate.
The position of debris relatively close to the wreck suggested it happened near the end of Sunday’s descent.
The US navy monitors that part of the Atlantic for submarine activity and said an analysis of acoustic data detected “an anomaly consistent with an implosion or explosion” near the submersible’s location when communication with Titan was lost.
The acoustic data was shared immediately with the unified command led by the US coast guard, navy officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said.
It was decided the acoustic data was not definitive and the search and rescue mission should continue.
Moviemaker James Cameron, who directed the 1997 Oscar-winning film Titanic, said he learned of the acoustic findings within a day of the submersible disappearing and knew what it meant.
“I sent emails to everybody I know and said we’ve lost some friends,” Cameron, who has ventured to the wreck in submersibles, told Reuters.
“The sub had imploded.”