The catastrophe of the tourist submarine called the Titan should be a wake-up call for anyone involved with risky tourism and the governments that should be regulating it.

After days of bated breath, we finally know what happened to the submarine that was used to take tours of the Titanic, miles below the ocean. The US Coast Guard found a debris field near the Titanic, making it clear that it imploded under immense water pressure. It eventually admitted that it had heard an explosion when the vehicle lost contact.

The incident has held the attention of the American people (and millions of others around the world) for days on end. This was partially because people were imagining the terror of being stuck in a submarine over 2 miles under the surface for days, just waiting for rescue and hoping the oxygen wouldn’t run out.

Now we know that the victims of the catastrophe didn’t suffer in this way.

There may have been a period of abject terror after some part of the vehicle started to fail, but the implosion itself would have only taken about 30 milliseconds due to the extreme pressure.

Why Did the Titan Submarine Implode?

This tragedy puts the lack of regulation and concern for safety common in the risky tourism business. Even though the victims may not have suffered the worst possible outcome, the result is the same. 5 innocent people perished because of the (alleged) insufficient safety protections of the Titan submersible.

OceanGate had a glaring history of disconcerting comments and actions relating to the safety of the vessel and the tremendously risky excursion it sold to the public. A video of the founder of the company, billionaire Stockton Rush, and a journalist, talking about how much of the Titan seemed to be improvised, has gone viral on the internet.

Even one of OceanGate’s employees, David Lochridge, tried to warn the company about the lacking safety of the Titan. He was instructed to evaluate the submersible but when he discovered “numerous issues that posed serious safety concerns” and reported them to senior management, he was promptly fired.

If that wasn’t enough, he was eventually sued for trying to blow the whistle.

Lochridge didn’t just find one small imperfection here or there. He found multiple glaring issues that he believed could “pose safety risks to personnel.” One of the most egregious issues was the viewing window of the Titan. Even though the submersible would dive down to the Titanic which is 12,500 feet underwater, the window was only rated for dives down to about 4,250 feet deep.

OceanGate apparently refused to pay the manufacturer of the window to build one rated for the correct depth.

A video of Stockton himself admitting that he broke rules building the vehicle surfaced recently, saying “And I’ve broken some rules to make this. I think I’ve broken them, with logic and good engineering behind me.”

CBS journalist David Pogue went on one of these excursions to the Titanic, filming parts of his experiment. In the now-chilling video he read part of the required contract or waiver, mentioning that the vehicle had not been certified or approved by any regulatory body. He reads: “could result in physical injury, disability, emotional trauma, or death” before jokingly saying “where do I sign?”

No one yet knows exactly what happened to the Titan but it seems likely that the improper general quality and build of the vehicle at least contributed to the incident.

Despite all of these concerns and more, Stockton heavily downplayed the risks when selling the experience. One Las Vegas Investor told the Independent that he said that it was safer than crossing the street.

What Can Be Learned From the Titan Catastrophe?

There are heaps of important lessons to be learned from this disaster. The United States Coast Guard is likely considering implementing more strict regulation on submersible vehicles. The USCG currently sets safety standards for boats but the submersible industry, especially for vehicles meant for personal use, has nearly nonexistent standards or regulations.

An expert on maritime policy and history and professor at Campbell University, Salvatore Mercogliano, said that “We’re at a point in submersible operations in deep water that’s kind of akin to where aviation was in the early 20th century.”

Part of this is because the industry is so new and small but it also comes down to where most of these excursions take place: in international waters, away from the prying eyes of regulators.

The failure of the Titan has also drawn attention to other forms of risky tourism, such as private space flights. Companies like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are actually much more heavily regulated than submersibles like the Titan but recent hiccups in their latest launches still have onlookers worried.

If the Titan disaster does nothing else, it should at least make you think carefully about the potential risks and rewards before you go on any risky tourist excursions.

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