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A multinational mission to find a missing submersible near the Titanic wreck is still focused on rescuing the five-member crew alive, the US coast guard insisted on Thursday, despite fears that the vessel’s oxygen may already have run out.
Two more unmanned subs were deployed today as the massive hunt for the Titan, lost somewhere in a vast swathe of the North Atlantic between the ocean’s surface and more than two miles (nearly four kilometers) below, moved to the critical stage.
Based on the sub’s capacity to hold up to 96 hours of emergency air, rescuers had estimated that the passengers could run out of oxygen in the early hours of Thursday.
But as that possible deadline passed US Coast Guard Rear Admiral John Mauger said rescuers were “fully committed.”
“People’s will to live really needs to be accounted for as well. And so we’re continuing to search and proceed with rescue efforts,” he told NBC’s Today show.
A surge of assets and experts have joined the operation in the past day, and sonar has picked up unidentified underwater noises.
Organisers of the multinational response — which includes US and Canadian military planes, coast guard ships and teleguided robots — are focusing their efforts in the North Atlantic close to the underwater noises detected by sonar.
The French research ship Atalante deployed an unmanned robot able to search at depths of up to 6,000 meters (nearly 20,000 feet) below water earlier today, the Coast Guard tweeted. Experts have called the Victor 6000 “the main hope” for an underwater rescue.
The Canadian vessel Horizon Arctic has also deployed a robot that has already reached the ocean floor and begun its search, the Coast Guard also said in a tweet.
Mauger has also said that vessels carrying medical staff and a decompression chamber are en route to the area.
The sounds raised hopes that the passengers on the small tourist craft are still alive, though experts have not been able to confirm their source. “We don’t know what they are, to be frank with you,” said US Coast Guard Captain Jamie Frederick.
“We have to remain optimistic and hopeful.”
The submersible, named Titan, began its descent at 8am on Sunday and had been due to resurface seven hours later, according to the US Coast Guard.
Suleman and Shahzada Dawood. — Reuters
Titan was carrying British billionaire Hamish Harding and Pakistani tycoon Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, who also have British citizenship. OceanGate Expeditions charges $250,000 for a seat on the sub.
The 21-foot (6.5-meter) tourist craft lost communication with its mothership less than two hours into its trip to see the Titanic, which sits more than two miles (nearly four kilometers) below the surface of the North Atlantic.
‘Underwater noises being analysed’
Ships and planes have scoured 10,000 square miles (around 20,000 square kilometers) of surface water — roughly the size of Massachusetts — for the vessel, which was attempting to dive about 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.
After the noises were detected by a Canadian P-3 aircraft, rescuers relocated two remotely operated vehicles (ROV) that search under the water and one surface vessel with sonar capability.
The ROV searches have not yielded results but data from the Canadian aircraft has been shared with US Navy experts for acoustics analysis.
“There have been multiple reports of noises and every one of those noises is being analysed,” said Carl Hartsfield, from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
He added that the sounds “have been described as banging noises”.
Frederick said the number of surface vessels in the search would double from five to 10 within 24 to 48 hours.
The Navy has sent a specialised winch system for lifting heavy objects from extreme depths, other equipment and personnel; and the Pentagon has deployed three C-130 aircraft and three C-17s.“
But even if the Titan were located, retrieving it would present huge logistical challenges.
If the submersible had managed to return to the surface, spotting it would be difficult in the open sea and it is bolted shut from the outside, so those inside cannot exit without help.
If Titan is on the ocean floor, a rescue would have to contend with the immense pressures and total darkness at that depth. Titanic expert Tim Maltin said it would be “almost impossible to effect a sub-to-sub rescue” on the seabed.
“The Titanic wreck is broken into two parts and there is a cloud of debris around and in between them – finding a submersible among that is not simple,” said Jean Jarry, an engineer who worked for French research institute Ifremer.
Fears of a leak
Titan’s mission was expected to be the only manned trip to the Titanic this year due to bad weather, Harding wrote in on Instagram beforehand.
The Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in 1912 during its maiden voyage from England to New York with 2,224 passengers and crew on board. More than 1,500 people died.
It was found in 1985 and remains a lure for nautical experts and underwater tourists.
The pressure at that depth as measured in atmospheres is 400 times what it is at sea level.
Mike Reiss, an American television writer who visited the Titanic wreck on the same sub last year, told the BBC the experience was disorientating.
Alistair Greig, professor of marine engineering at University College London, has suggested two possible scenarios based on images of the Titan.
He said if it had an electrical or communications problem, it could have surfaced and remained floating, “waiting to be found” — bearing in mind the vessel can reportedly be unlocked from the outside only.
“Another scenario is the pressure hull was compromised — a leak,” he said in a statement.
“Then the prognosis is not good.”
Sean Leet, who heads a company that jointly owns the support ship, the Polar Prince, said on Wednesday all protocols were followed but declined to explain how communication ceased.
“There’s still life support available on the submersible, and we’ll continue to hold out hope until the very end,” said Leet, chief executive of Miawpukek Horizon Maritime Services.
Questions about Titan’s safety were raised in 2018 during a symposium of submersible industry experts and in a lawsuit filed by OceanGate’s former head of marine operations, which was settled later that year.