USS Kidd director releases heartfelt statement after loss of OceanGate submersible, questions vessel's certification
BATON ROUGE - Parks Stephenson, the director for the USS Kidd, released an emotional statement regarding the loss of the OceanGate Titan, the submersible declared to have been imploded merely an hour after its departure to see the Titanic wreckage.
The loss of the vessel resulted in the deaths of five people, including Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a renowned diver with whom Stephenson was close friends.
In the statement, Stephenson offers his deepest condolences to the loved ones of the Titan's crew, but also brings into question the lack of the vessel's certification in comparison to other deep-ocean submersibles.
"The safety margins in the extreme deep are very thin and do not accommodate errors in design, construction or management," Stephenson wrote. "Certification is a proven process that helps us stay ahead of that fatal curve."
Read the full statement below:
I got the call early Monday morning, just as the sun was coming up. Titan was lost. Indications were that an implosion was recorded. The point was stressed that the information was confidential and not to be publicly shared, I was called and informed so that I could be prepared for an onslaught of media requests. I listened, not asking any questions because I knew that I was being told all that I was going to be told. But my own experience with OceanGate helped me to fill in the blanks. I had been approached by OceanGate years ago, during construction of Titan. In my opinion, though, I had serious concerns about the design of their submersible so I turned down their offer of employment. My engineering and diving experience taught me that the safest form for a deep-ocean pressure hull was a titanium sphere…Titan’s carbon-fiber cylindrical hull with glued-on titanium endcaps seemed to ignore the physics of the deep. Now my concerns about the sub had apparently come true.
A few hours later, the news broke about the missing sub and the media requests came pouring in, starting in the UK and working its way west. I had only just recently completed multiple international interviews about the Magellan/Atlantic photogrammetry model, so everyone had my number. At first, I accepted the requests and started planning my appearances. BBC Radio 4 wanted me on immediately and I accepted, reading from a prepared statement that was similar to what I posted on my Facebook public page. But then it really hit me that this was no ordinary Titanic story…for the first time since 1912, people had died on Titanic. Did I want to be that pundit face on TV, droning on about this and that after people died and while families grieved? I discussed it with a friend who had experience in such matters and she firmly advised me to not accept any interviews, especially when a search was being mounted to locate the sub. I made apologies and canceled my scheduled appearances and then politely but firmly declined media requests that came steadily over the next three days. I could not pontificate about the tragedy, knowing what I believed to be true and not being able to completely honest with everyone who truly cared about the fate of Titan’s crew.
As I watched the story unfold on TV, I was glad that I had canceled my appearances. The story was fast diverging from the facts as I knew them. Reports of underwater noises, speculation about a “Goliath Awaits” scenario whereby the sub lay intact on the ocean floor with the occupants still inside, the clock counting down to the time when oxygen inside the sub would run out (no one mentioned the hypothermia that would set in after the heaters failed)…I began to question my decision to stay mute while a story that I knew to be untrue grew unchecked. But by that time, I could not rightfully talk: if I revealed privileged information about the Sunday implosion, how could my story be verified? I was not the primary source, everything I knew was secondhand. A credible journalist would never accept secondhand information without corroboration. I could not reveal my sources and any controversy I caused would not only involve me but also the Museum for which I have responsibility.
There was another reason, as well. I knew that once the search commenced, the searchers could not assume anything. Even though it was known to a certain group of people that the effect of an implosion had been recorded, it was still ultimately an assumption that it was Titan that had imploded. The search and rescue team(s) had to move with the utmost urgency with but one goal in mind: to find concrete and undeniable evidence of the sub’s loss and be fully prepared if the assumptions about the reported implosion were wrong. Only the finding and identification of the wreck would provide closure to the loved ones of Titan’s crew. I did not want to have the urgency of the search and rescue team be questioned or hindered by essentially claiming that rescue was never an option.
Once the ships began to assemble at the site under USCG control, I exchanged messages with one of the ROV pilots that happened to be on one of the ships in the area. He kept me informed of the progress of the search, but unfortunately, the assembled ships first on the scene (from the gas & oil industry) did not have exactly the capability or experience to conduct a proper search around Titanic. When I was informed that French marine science agency, IFREMER, was bringing their equipment and expertise to bear (IFREMER’s ROV pilot was a close friend and colleague of Paul-Henri Nargeolet, one of Titan’s crew), then I knew that the wreck would soon be found and this big show would come to a rightful end. The crew of the Titan never knew of the media circus that gathered around the story of their demise, or the fantastic alternate endings that they created from half-truths, supposition and rumour. I felt sorry, though, for the families who had to listen to all of this. Personally speaking, I would want to suffer an instant death through implosion than the prolonged death suggested by the pundits.
I am telling my story now only because the US Navy has just now confirmed that the implosion was in fact recorded on Sunday. They are corroborating the information that I was initially given. I am speaking up now because I want to provide an explanation why a search and rescue effort had to be undertaken with the goal of confirming what happened to Titan, even when information about an implosion was available. I also want to support a growing effort by the submersible community to push a requirement for all passenger-carrying submersibles to be class-rated (certified). Most of the deep-ocean submersibles in operation have been certified, OceanGate’s Titan was the sole exception. The safety margins in the extreme deep are very thin and do not accommodate errors in design, construction or management. Certification is a proven process that helps us stay ahead of that fatal curve.
Above all of this, though, I have not forgotten that this was a human tragedy. My heart goes out to the loved ones that Titan’s crew left behind. While the crew’s death may have been mercifully instantaneous, the anguish of loss will last forever with their families and friends. I personally knew only Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a man with whom I went on expedition with multiple times, and not just to Titanic. An incredibly experienced submersible pilot, I personally believe that his last action was to drop ascent weights to head for the surface before the hull imploded, as his first concern was always for his crew, but we may never know that for certain. In the deep-ocean community, his departure will always be felt.
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