Expert: Deaths of Titanic submersible occupants probably ‘instantaneous’

Jun 22, 2023, 4:04 PM | Updated: Jun 23, 2023, 8:38 am

submersible titanic...

An undated photo shows tourist submersible belongs to OceanGate descents at a sea. (Photo by OceanGate via Getty Images)

(Photo by OceanGate via Getty Images)

A local maritime expert said the deaths of the occupants of the OceanGate Expeditions submersible was probably “instantaneous.”

“It’s like if I drop a ton-and-a-half of steel on every square inch of your body,” said Robert Mester, Senior Salvage Master at Northwest Maritime Consultants in Pierce County. “The result is instant implosion. You wouldn’t even feel it.

“This event was inevitable,” he continued. “You can’t take pieces from Radio Shack or Camper’s World and put them in a piece of equipment that’s going down 12,000 feet.”

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Listen or read Heather’s full interview below.

Heather: Were you optimistic early on that they would be found ok? Or is it one of those things that the longer it took the hope seemed to diminish?

Mester: I had told everybody from the very beginning of the time they lost communication on Sunday, one and three-quarters hour since the dive began is when I felt there was a catastrophic failure because of a lot of other mechanisms that should have happened if they’ve had any problems. So I believe they had a catastrophic failure Sunday.

Heather: Is that significant? At that level of feet, does the pressure change?

Mester: No. Right now, we’re at 14.7 pounds-per-square inch at sea level. At 12,000 feet, at the Titanic site, you’re at 5,560 [pounds-per-square inch]. So at 5,000 feet, you’re at roughly one-half of that, or 2,750 pounds-per-square inch or a ton and a half. It’s just, it’s just a lot of pressure. This was a submersible hole that was built with an experimental combination of carbon fiber and titanium, which most of my knowledge is not certifiable on a commercial level. And they’ve made three dives successfully. In this one though, something failed.

What is a catastrophic implosion?

Heather: What is a catastrophic implosion? Just describe that for me.

Mester: The hull is designed to keep the outside pressure out and keep the inside an unreasonable pressure of 14.7 pounds-per-square inch. When the hole breaches suddenly you go from 14.7 to 2,750 pounds-per-square inch. It’s like you sitting on the road, and suddenly, I drop — on every square inch of your body — a ton and a half of steel. The result is instant implosion that doesn’t explode out, it crushes it. And anybody that’s inside will be passed out immediately. It happens so fast. It would be just instantaneous. And you know, sad to say, but it’s better that happened than them laying on the bottom for a day or two and agonizing in 35-degree weather. No lights. No power. Hypothermia sitting in oxygen dropping, CO2 levels rising. That would be a horrible, horrible way to go.

Heather: You mentioned this was experimental. Have you heard of any similar type of sub that had been built this way?

Mester: No. Our military and all of the commercial industries worldwide do not use that method for building a submersible.

Heather: Are there other submersibles that go down? I know James Cameron got a lot of publicity when he made his movies using his way of getting down to the wreckage. Are there any other companies doing this type of thing?

Mester: No, they’re not. The fact is, vehicles that go down to that depth are very, very few. The Russians and the United States do not have any at this time that is publicly known. I’m sure clandestinely, they have hard suits that will go to that depth. And I know a lot about that because I own two from 1989 until it became proprietary technology to the United States Navy. However, no, there is no other. There are remote-operated vehicles that can go to that depth, but not humans. Well, when you take a person to that depth, and you spend a million dollars on the vehicle, $999,000 is spent to keep that person alive. It’s not mission-oriented. It’s not data gathering. It’s not scientific work. It’s just to keep the human alive, because we’re so fragile. We can’t handle that type of pressure. There are no other subs around that are publicly available to go to that depth to perform a rescue for sure. I mean, just that’s just out of the question.

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Heather: So as far as people who are trying to get down there to look at the Titanic, there’s probably no one else who would be able to provide that service at this point.

Mester: It’s an interesting question you ask because, up to now, the ocean steps like this have been a private domain for the military and for scientific examination. Today, people sitting in deserts in Arizona, and the Sahara places that never see the ocean have an affinity to an event that, much like the Titanic, touched everybody when that event occurred. What’s going to happen in the future is they’ll need proper certifications and qualifications. It will be mandatory for people to take out guests and tourists to go down on this type of depth to make sure that they’re going to be safe as possible.

Heather: Now your expertise, if I’m correct, is in salvaging deepwater salvage, correct?

Mester: It’s one of them. But yes. Submersible pilot submarine operations, side-scan sonar, marine geophysical equipment, survey work, and scientific stuff. But yes, salvage is where I started out.

Heather: Do you actually go down into the drink, so to speak? Or do you have just the equipment? Or both?

Mester: I used to actually go down. And the most important thing for me in my life to learn is I grew out of what’s called vanity where the man has to actually be down there doing the work. Because, as I said, the cost to take a person down at that depth is the major cost of that equipment. If you don’t have a person, like how we’re sending drones to Mars. I mean, we’re doing everything by robotics. We are now moving into a new era with AI and autonomous-operated vehicles where we don’t need to put people down at those depths and expose them to this risk. So I used to do that, but I don’t anymore. I had been involved in a project that went one mile deeper than the Titanic. I can’t talk about it because I’m under a court-ordered settlement based upon a non-disclosure agreement from the project, I can’t really give any more information on it other than it was one mile deeper.

Heather: I get it. That’s fair. There are people who are saying, ‘Look, this never should have happened. This sub maybe wasn’t safe,’ although it did do two successful trips before this incident.

‘This event was inevitable’

Mester: This event was inevitable because we’re starting to go out into the oceans and the technology is somewhat available. It’s inevitable. It’s kind of like the Hindenburg and all these major events in humanity: Flight balloons, sailing ships, space vehicles. It’s the evolution of mankind, trying to understand its surroundings and getting out into new frontiers.

Heather: So it doesn’t sound like people won’t try to do this again.

Mester: Oh, no. There’ll be just more strict control. I certainly hope it will be.

Heather: It is a fascinating part of this world that we’ve only just started to take a look at.

Mester: Right? Well, it’s physics. You can go into space because physics is so much easier. You have no pressure and you’re in a vacuum. But on the earth, every 33 feet, we square the atmospheric pressure of 14.7. So we have, at 12,500 feet, 5,650 pounds-per-square inch on each portion of your body. That is a tremendous amount of weight. And it requires so much more expensive equipment, and the risk factor, if we can do it without humans being involved, we’re going to get a lot more work done. A robot never complains about being hungover, or his wife didn’t treat him right the day before, or he just feels off today. They just keep working.

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Heather: I asked all kinds of questions. But is there anything you’d like to add before I let you go?

Mester: It’s just sad that five people lost their lives. If we’re going to enter into the realms of the deep parts of the ocean, it’s going to be risky, and anybody, any individual who takes it upon themselves to take that risk, needs to know and do due diligence to make sure they’re in a piece of equipment that’s going to have a high likelihood of being successful. This is going to send a strong signal to everybody. I think that a lot of money is yet to be spent on a lot of lawsuits considering two billionaires lost their lives. You can bet there’s going to be a lot of legal entanglement with this, a lot.

How can you make sure an expedition like this is safe?

Heather: I do not doubt that at all. For any advice for people who maybe one day, 10-15 years from now, want to do something similar. How do they make sure the vessel is sound?

Mester: I think this is a stepping stone toward ensuring that there’ll be certifications and requirements that’ll be posted in public, and inspections, and a person who wishes to go for a ride in a vehicle that’s qualified and certified will be able to look and examine and see ‘oh, this was just tested recently and it’s up to speed, great.’ But you can’t take parts from RadioShack or Camper’s World and put them in a piece of equipment. It’s going down 12,000 feet and expect it to perform properly. It’s not designed to do that. It worked a number of times for OceanGate, but the odds caught up with him, and the owner paid the ultimate price with his life.

Heather Bosch is an award-winning anchor and reporter at KIRO Newsradio

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Expert: Deaths of Titanic submersible occupants probably ‘instantaneous’