Rescuers have only one chance to save the Titanic submarine, even if found: expert

  • Rescuers likely only have one chance to rescue the missing submarine if it is found, a naval architect said.
  • The 23,000-pound submersible is likely on the seabed if it’s still underwater.
  • Officials need a way to send a cable down 13,000 feet, attach it, and pull the ship up by Thursday.

It’s one thing to find the missing Titanic submersible in the vast Atlantic—another Herculean task to recover the ship when it’s stuck deep in the ocean.

US and Canadian authorities are searching for a submersible that went missing on Sunday when it had five people on board to visit the wreck of the Titanic, which lies at a depth of around 13,000 feet.

It’s not immediately clear what happened to the submersible when it lost contact with its mothership. It is possible that the ship later resurfaced, although its passengers would have been strapped inside. Or the hull of the ship was breached, which in the worst case at such extreme depths would result in the death of everyone on board.

But there’s also a slim chance that the submersible called Titan is still somewhere deep below the surface, intact and with all five passengers alive.

There is some hope on that front. On Tuesday evening, the US Coast Guard tweeted that a Canadian plane had detected “underwater noise” in the search area. Rolling Stone, citing internal US memos, reported that a plane documented “popping” noises every 30 minutes.

Experts have so far told various media outlets that if the ship is still intact and deep underwater, the only possible rescue option is to tow it back to the surface.

Send a line down and connect — while submerged at a depth of 13,000 feet

One way for rescuers to accomplish this is through the use of the Flyaway Deep Ocean Salvage System, or FADOSS.

According to the US Navy, it is a single winch and cable hoist system designed to recover “large, bulky, and heavy submerged objects” weighing up to 60,000 pounds. According to the company that operates the submersible, the Titan weighs around 23,000 pounds.

Another US Navy long-range system, the CURV-21, can reach depths of up to 20,000 feet, but with a maximum load capacity of 4,000 pounds, it’s unlikely to be able to recover the Titan. The US Navy said Tuesday night that it had dispatched a FADOSS in support of the rescue effort.

But even with the FADOSS, rescuers must find a way to hook up the Titan submersible while it’s thousands of feet underwater.

David Mearns, an expert on sea salvage, told the BBC that a remote-controlled “world-class vehicle” with two manipulators could potentially grab the submersible or attach a line to it.

U.S. and Canadian authorities have not said whether they are deploying a craft capable of such a feat on the seabed. Titan is likely to be either on the surface or on the seabed and it’s “very unlikely” to be in between, Alistair Greig, a submarine expert from University College London, told the BBC.

That means if the submersible is still in the water, rescuers will likely need to send a vehicle and cable that will reach to the wreck of the Titanic, about 2.5 miles below the surface.

A solution could come from France. Tuesday said it was sending a ship called the Atalante to the search area with a Victor 6000 robot capable of reaching depths of around 4 miles.

The robot is equipped with high-quality cameras and, according to the French Ifremer Institute, can “manipulate objects”.

Rescuers get “only one chance”

Even if they find the Titan deep below, there may not be enough time to rescue the passengers inside, Fotis Pagoulatos, a ship’s architect, told The Wall Street Journal.

“You need a ship that can lower a cable to pull the titan up or have some sort of claw,” Pagoulatos told the outlet. “Even if they find it, there may not be enough time for the rescue due to the oxygen problem inside.”

Essentially, according to the Journal, rescuers “will only get one chance at most,” Pagoulatos added.

The US Coast Guard estimates the Titan has enough emergency oxygen to survive through Thursday afternoon Eastern time as the submersible descends with around four days of life support.

David Marquet, a retired U.S. Navy submarine captain, told NPR he believed such a costly deep-sea operation was possible, but estimated the passengers’ chances of survival at “about 1%.”

“I’m hopeful, but I think families should prepare for bad news,” he said, according to the outlet.

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