Boston: Rescue teams raced against time on Tuesday in their search for a tourist submersible that went missing near the wreck of the Titanic with five people on board.
One of the passengers on board has been identified as Dubai based British businessman Hamish Harding, whose aviation firm had posted on social media about his expedition.
The 6.5-meter craft, operated by OceanGate Expeditions, began its descent to the wreck on Sunday but lost contact with the surface less than two hours later, according to authorities.
The US Coast Guard had launched two planes to survey the remote area in the North Atlantic, while its Canadian counterparts had sent a plane and a ship.
Time is a critical factor. The vessel has a range of 96 hours for the crew of five, and Mauger said Monday afternoon that he believed it still had 70 or more hours of oxygen remaining.
"It is a challenge to conduct a search in that remote area, but we are deploying all available assets to make sure that we can locate the craft and rescue the people on board," US Coast Guard Rear Admiral John Mauger told reporters in Boston on Monday.
But with no reported sightings of the vessel or communication signals throughout the day, the US Coast Guard halted its flights for the day.
It said search operations through the night would be led by the US national guard and the mission's operator.
The Coast Guard added that searches by Canadian aircraft, which were using buoys to scan underneath the surface, would continue on Tuesday morning.
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Shahzada Dawood - the vice-chairman of Karachi headquartered conglomerate Engro - and his son Suleman were aboard the vessel, which is equipped with only 96 hours of oxygen supply, a family statement said.
Shahzada's father Hussain Dawood is regularly listed among Pakistan's richest men by the domestic press.
Shahzada's profile on Engro's website said he also serves as a trustee on the board of The Dawood Foundation - a high-profile family education charity founded in 1960.
He was educated in the United States and Britain, the profile said.
The 77-year-old French explorer, whom media say is one of the five on board, is director of underwater research at a company that owns the rights to the Titanic wreck. A former commander in the French Navy, he was both a deep diver and a mine sweeper. After retiring from the navy, he led the first recovery expedition to the Titanic in 1987 and is a leading authority on the wreck site. In a 2020 interview with France Bleu radio, he spoke of the dangers of deep diving, saying: "I am not afraid to die, I think it will happen one day."
The founder and CEO of the vessel's US-based operating company OceanGate is also on the submersible, according to media reports. "It is an amazingly beautiful wreck," Rush told Britain's Sky news of the Titanic earlier this year. "Rush became the youngest jet transport rated pilot in the world when he obtained his DC-8 Type/Captain's rating at the United Airlines Jet Training Institute in 1981 at the age of 19," according to his biography on OceanGate's website.
An OceanGate Expeditions spokesperson told AFP in a statement late Monday that "for some time, we have been unable to establish communications with one of our submersible exploration vehicles which is currently visiting the wreck site of the Titanic."
"Our entire focus is on the wellbeing of the crew and every step possible is being taken to bring the five crew members back safely."
The company uses a submersible named Titan for its dives to the Titanic wreck, with seats priced at $250,000 according to its website.
Harding, a 58-year-old aviator, space tourist, and chairman of Action Aviation, had posted Sunday on his Instagram account that he was proud to join OceanGate's Titanic mission.
"Due to the worst winter in Newfoundland in 40 years, this mission is likely to be the first and only manned mission to the Titanic in 2023," he wrote.
Action Aviation posted Sunday on Twitter that "the sub had a successful launch and Hamish is currently diving," and included several photographs of Harding and mission staff on the surface.
Harding also wrote that "the team on the sub has a couple of legendary explorers, some of which have done over 30 dives to the RMS Titanic since the 1980s."
'Clock is ticking'
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.
The wreckage is in two main pieces 400 miles off the coast o Newfoundland, Canada, some 13,000 feet underwater.
It was found in 1985 and remains a source of fascination and a lure for nautical experts and underwater tourists.
Without having studied the craft itself, Alistair Greig, professor of marine engineering at University College London, suggested two possible theories based on images of the vessel published by the press.
He said if it had an electrical or communications problem, it could have surfaced and remained floating, "waiting to be found."
"Another scenario is the pressure hull was compromised - a leak," he said in a statement. "Then the prognosis is not good."
While the submersible may still be intact during its dive, "there are very few vessels" able to go to the depth to which the Titan might have traveled.
"The clock is ticking, and any submariner/submersible deep divers know how unforgiving the Abyssal domain is: going undersea is as, if not more, challenging than going into space from an engineering perspective," said University of Adelaide associate professor Eric Fusil in a statement.
"OceanGate has successfully completed over 14 expeditions and over 200 dives in the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico," its website says. "Following every mission, the team evaluates and updates the procedures as part as a continued commitment to evolve and ensure operational safety."
What is the vessel?
Although popularly called a submarine, in marine terminology the "Titan" vessel carrying the five is a submersible. While a submarine can launch itself from a port independently, a submersible goes down off a support ship.