How the agonising modern-day Titanic disaster unfolded hour by hour as the world watched: From the moment the Titan sub vanished to tragic discovery of wreckage

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On June 18, 2023, a small submersible craft named Titan went missing while attempting a two-and-a-half mile dive to the wreck of the Titanic. 

With only 96 hours of oxygen it became a race against time to save the five people on board.

For four days, the eyes of the world were focused on the desperate rescue attempt.

Millions hoped and prayed that the infamous Titanic had not claimed yet more victims.

Read on for an hour by hour breakdown of how the tragedy unfolded:

Friday, June 16, 2023

One hundred and eleven years after the loss of the Titanic, a former Canadian Coast Guard ice-breaker, the MV Polar Prince, sails from the port of St John’s, Newfoundland. Resting on a platform on its deck is a 22-foot-long submersible called Titan owned by American company OceanGate Inc, which operates subs for charter and scientific exploration.

It is the start of a nine-day expedition – two days voyage to the Titanic wreck site, five days diving and then two days sailing back to St John’s. So far in 2023 there have been four voyages to the site, but each time the weather was too poor for the submersible to dive.

Titan can take five people: a pilot, a Titanic guide and three passengers who have each paid $250,000 to see the wreck. Initially, the price had been set at $105,129, the inflation-adjusted price of a first-class ticket on the Titanic.

Titan can take five people: a pilot, a Titanic guide and three passengers who have each paid $250,000 to see the wreck. Pictured is the OceanGate vessel

Titan can take five people: a pilot, a Titanic guide and three passengers who have each paid $250,000 to see the wreck. Pictured is the OceanGate vessel 

Saturday, June 17

7am

The weather during the voyage so far has been poor but tomorrow conditions are set to improve, making a dive in Titan possible. There is a briefing on board the Polar Prince for the crew and the paying passengers, who OceanGate prefer to call ‘mission specialists’.

British-Pakistani millionaire businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his son Suleman, 19, a student at the University of Strathclyde, hope to be diving in Titan. Staying on board the Polar Prince are Shahzada’s wife Christine and their 17-year-old daughter Alina.

Also diving in Titan is British aviation tycoon and father of two, Hamish Harding, 58, who relishes daredevil adventures – in June 2022 he flew into space in Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin rocket.

Reflecting on his success in business to a journalist, Harding said: ‘I believe you make your own luck in life. You create the environment around you, where luck comes or doesn’t come, based on your decisions, your anticipation of things going wrong, and taking steps before they go wrong.’

Titan’s on-board guide will be French Titanic expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77, who has dived to the wreck 37 times.

Five people were onboard, including British billionaire adventurer Hamish Harding
Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman

Five people were onboard, including British billionaire adventurer Hamish Harding and Shahzada Dawood and his 19-year-old son Suleman

French Navy veteran PH Nargeolet was in the sub
OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush was also onboard

French Navy veteran PH Nargeolet (left) was in the sub along with Stockton Rush (right), CEO of the OceanGate Expedition

Midday

While the rest of Polar Prince’s crew tuck into a regular lunch, Titan’s passengers are on a 24-hour diet which forbids high-fibre foods such as vegetables, nuts and whole grain cereals. This is to reduce the number of toilet trips during the dive.

The only facilities available in Titan are a bottle to urinate in and a sealed bag for excrement. To lessen any embarrassment, the pilot draws a black curtain across and turns up music on a Bluetooth speaker.

The pilot tomorrow will be 61-year-old American Stockton Rush who founded OceanGate in 2009. Rush is a former fighter jet flight-test engineer and was for a while a keen scuba diver.

He told the Smithsonian Magazine in 2019: ‘I loved what I saw, but I thought, there’s gotta be a better way. And being in a sub, and being nice and cozy, and having a hot chocolate with you, beats the heck out of freezing and going through a two-hour decompression.’

Titan is Rush’s latest submersible, and it is a record-breaker: the first privately owned sub with a crew to dive to 13,000 feet.

Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, was one of the five men who died during Titan's ill-fated journey to the Titanic's wreckage. His maverick approach to innovation earned him comparisons with visionaries like Elon Musk but caused concern among peers in the industry

Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, was one of the five men who died during Titan’s ill-fated journey to the Titanic’s wreckage. His maverick approach to innovation earned him comparisons with visionaries like Elon Musk but caused concern among peers in the industry

The wreckage of the RMS Titanic on the bed of the Atlantic Ocean

The wreckage of the RMS Titanic on the bed of the Atlantic Ocean

7pm

Titan’s passengers assemble for the final briefing of the day. Each of the fee-paying passengers has signed a grimly phrased waiver which says: ‘Release of Liability. This operation will be conducted inside an experimental submersible vessel that has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body and may be constructed of materials that have not been widely used in human-occupied submersibles. Travel in and around the vessel could result in physical injury, disability, emotional trauma, or death. The support vessel could expose me to property damage, injury, disability, or death. Assisting in the operation of the sub could lead to property injury, disability, or death.’

In 2018, a group of 38 expert oceanographers had sent a letter to Rush expressing ‘unanimous concern’ about Titan, saying that OceanGate’s marketing had been ‘at minimum misleading’ because the company claimed its sub met the safety standards of an outside agency – yet had no plans to have it certified.

Stockton Rush believes that safety regulations are too time-consuming: ‘Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation.’ He told one critic: ‘Keep your opinions to yourself.’

For years, a number of red flags over the safety of the Titan submersible had been raised - but were ignored by OceanGate boss Stockton Rush

For years, a number of red flags over the safety of the Titan submersible had been raised – but were ignored by OceanGate boss Stockton Rush

8pm

MV Polar Prince has arrived at the wreck site, 400 miles from the nearest land. The Titanic is 12,500 feet below the ship.

Passenger Hamish Harding posts on Facebook: ‘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.

‘A weather window has just opened up and we are going to attempt a dive tomorrow. More expedition updates to follow IF the weather holds!’

Sunday, June 18

5am

Titan’s passengers assemble on deck for a last-minute briefing watched by Christine Dawood. She told the New York Times: ‘It was like a well-oiled operation – you could see they had done this before many times.’

Yet previous dives have been dogged by problems. During a test dive in 2018 Stockton Rush was alone in Titan at 10,000 feet when he suddenly lost contact with the support ship. Communication was only established after an hour.

Then in May 2021, off the coast of the United States, Titan was deep underwater when it lost propulsion for over three hours.

Actor and TV presenter Ross Kemp had planned to dive to the Titanic in Titan as part of a documentary, but the production company examined OceanGate’s track record and decided that it was too dangerous as the sub was ‘not fit for purpose’.

A view of the Horizon Arctic ship, as salvaged pieces of the Titan submersible from OceanGate

A view of the Horizon Arctic ship, as salvaged pieces of the Titan submersible from OceanGate

7.30am

OceanGate have a policy that if there are three faults in Titan, however small, the dive is cancelled. This morning the sub passes that test, so the descent to Titanic is on.

The five due to travel are kitted out in waterproof gear and helmets in readiness for the speedboat trip out to Titan. Shahzada jokes to his wife Christine, ‘I’m looking quite fat,’ and says that he is ‘boiling up already’.

Christine recalled their last moments together: ‘we just hugged and joked actually because Shahzada was so excited to go down. He was like a little child.’

Christine had originally planned to dive in Titan with her husband, but as their son Suleman was so keen, she let him take her place.

8.30am

OceanGate speedboats start to slowly pull the platform holding Titan down a ramp at the stern of Polar Prince and into the sea. The sun is shining and the Atlantic is calm – everything is looking good for a successful dive.

The five passengers then start to climb down a ladder to board the speedboat that will take them to the platform, which is now bobbing in the ocean.

Shahzada looks unsteady on the ladder because of his heavy boots and Christine said later: ‘Alina and I were like: ‘Oh God, I hope that he doesn’t fall into the water.’

9am

Titan’s rear hatch is opened, and the passengers take off their helmets and boots and clamber in. They’ve been told to wear thick socks and a beanie hat as the water is extremely cold at Titanic depth.

Each is wearing a shirt embroidered with their name and a patch on the sleeve that reads ‘Titanic Survey Exploration Crew’.

Rush takes his place at the rear of the sub and the rest sit on a black rubber mat on the floor, which Rush bought second-hand from a welding company. The crew outside close the hatch and then seal it shut with 17 bolts.

The OceanGate Expeditions submersible was steered by a video games controller

The OceanGate Expeditions submersible was steered by a video games controller

In front of Rush are a pair of touch screens which show Titan’s depth, oxygen supply and battery life. Rush picks up a modified $30 video-game controller which runs everything from the electric thrusters to the ballast.

On a previous dive he told CBS News: ‘On one of our earlier subs, we developed a controller and it was $10,000, and it was big and bulky. But this thing is made for a 16-year-old to throw it around, and we keep a couple of spares. The neat thing is it’s Bluetooth; I can hand it to anyone.’

9.15am

Christine and Alina watch from the deck of the Polar Prince as the speedboat crews detach the tow cables and let air out of the platform which slowly starts to sink.

The Dawood family almost didn’t make the trip as their scheduled flight to St John’s had been cancelled and its replacement delayed. Christine said later: ‘We were actually quite worried, like, oh my God, what if they cancel that flight as well? In hindsight, obviously, I wish they did.’

9.30am

OceanGate divers detach Titan from the platform and pilot Stockton Rush moves it into clear water using the sub’s four electric thrusters, to begin their descent. It will take Titan just over two hours to reach the Titanic, and there is enough oxygen on board to last four days.

The four passengers have confidence in Rush as he has made over 20 dives to the Titanic in Titan and has assured them that OceanGate worked with Boeing and NASA on the vessel’s design. Boeing said later that they were ‘not a partner on Titan and did not design or build it.’ NASA stated they didn’t conduct any tests and had nothing to do with the sub’s manufacture.

9.35am

The sea turns from blue to dark blue as the Titan descends at a rate of about 80 feet a minute. The passengers take turns to look through a plexiglass viewport 7 inches thick and 21 inches across at the front of Titan.

They have loaded their favourite songs onto their phones so that they can be played on Titan’s Bluetooth speaker. Rush has jokingly stipulated: ‘No country music!’

Suleman Dawood was just 19 when he went on the trip with his father to see the Titanic

Suleman Dawood was just 19 when he went on the trip with his father to see the Titanic 

Suleman Dawood has a Rubik’s cube which he takes everywhere and can solve in just 12 seconds. He wants to break the world record by solving the puzzle 12,500 feet beneath the waves.

His father Shahzada has brought a Nikon camera to capture pictures of the Titanic. He’s been obsessed with the ship since childhood when he would watch the 1958 Titanic film ‘A Night To Remember’ multiple times. Today is Father’s Day which makes the dive especially significant for Shahzada and Suleman.

9.45am

Every 15 minutes Titan contacts the Polar Prince using short, coded messages and so far the sub is making good progress.

When they reach the seabed, Titan will spend about three hours exploring the wreck, so there will be plenty of time for Titanic expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet to share his expertise. Previous passengers have wept when they’ve seen Titanic for the first time and have been stunned at the ship’s size.

Sidonie Nargeolet withher father Paul Henri-Nargeolet, who was onboard the Titan

Sidonie Nargeolet withher father Paul Henri-Nargeolet, who was onboard the Titan

Last night Nargeolet told the Dawood family about the time he was stuck at the bottom of the ocean in Titan unable to communicate with the surface vessel.

Christine recalled that Shahzada was ‘lapping everything up’. ‘He had this big glow on his face talking about all this nerdy stuff.’

10am

By now Titan has reached a depth of 3,200 feet and all that the passengers can see through the plexiglass viewhole is pitch black water.

The exterior lights of the sub have been switched off to save power and the only light inside comes from the glow from Rush’s computer screens.

He is particularly keen to explore the debris field between the two sections of the Titanic where passengers’ personal effects such as suitcases and wine bottles can be seen.

Up in the control room of the Polar Prince, screens show both the location of the sub and the wreck.

Titan has no navigation equipment so guiding Stockton Rush via regular messages is his wife, Wendy. She shares Rush’s fascination with the Titanic as she is the great-great-granddaughter of Isidor and Ida Strauss who in 1912 owned Macy’s department store and sailed on the ship in first-class.

As the liner sank beneath them Ida refused a place in a lifeboat, preferring to stay on the Titanic with her husband, saying, ‘We have been together all these years. Where you go, I go.’

The submersible vessel named Titan used to visit the wreckage site of the Titanic

The submersible vessel named Titan used to visit the wreckage site of the Titanic

11am

Titan reaches a depth of 10,000 feet which means the wreck of the Titanic is about 2,600 feet below them. The external water pressure is now, in the words of one of OceanGate’s team, ‘like having an aircraft carrier sitting on top of the sub’.

A sphere is the most effective shape at displacing that pressure, as is the design of most deep sea submersibles, but to accommodate more passengers, Titan is a pill-shaped cylinder.

Also, the hull of the Titan is made of carbon fibre and titanium, while most of its rivals are steel and titanium. Rush explained in 2022 that carbon fibre is ‘better than a lot of other materials. But you can have a catastrophic failure where you can have imperfections in the structure. And so you really have to watch how you make it.’

As a precaution, Oceangate has developed what they call ‘a real-time hull health monitoring (RTM) system’ to give advance warning that the hull is cracking.

The OceanGate website reassures prospective passengers that the system ‘provides early warning detection for the pilot with enough time to arrest the descent and safely return to surface’.

When Titan was first launched, Stockton Rush claimed: ‘We know more about what’s happening to this hull than anyone has ever known’.

11.15am

Titan implodes. Everyone on board is killed in less than 20 milliseconds – too quick for them to know what is happening. Wreckage and human remains fall slowly to the seabed, ending up just 1,600 feet from the bow of the Titanic.

Debris from the Titan submersible, recovered from the ocean floor near the wreck of the Titanic, is unloaded from the ship Horizon Arctic at the Canadian Coast Guard pier

Debris from the Titan submersible, recovered from the ocean floor near the wreck of the Titanic, is unloaded from the ship Horizon Arctic at the Canadian Coast Guard pier

11.30am

On the Polar Prince, Christine Dawood is below deck chatting with the crew when someone approaches her and says: ‘We lost comms.’

Christine said later: ‘That will be a sentence I never want to hear in my life again.’

As she doesn’t fully understand what loss of communication means, Christine goes to the bridge to find out more.

She is told not to worry and that communication with Titan is often intermittent and that if the breakdown lasts more than an hour, Titan will simply come back to the surface.

The Titan suffered a deadly implosion that killed five people last year

The Titan suffered a deadly implosion that killed five people last year

4.30pm

This is the time Titan was due to resurface, but there is still no sign of the submersible, nor any communication from Rush.

Christine and her daughter Alina are constantly scanning the ocean hoping to see Titan appear. Christine said later that Alina was especially optimistic as she trusted in the science that built the sub, ‘just like when you board a plane you believe that the mechanics, that the engineering works. And so she didn’t lose hope.’

7.10pm

Eight hours after losing contact with Titan, OceanGate informs the United States Coast Guard that the submersible and its five passengers are missing.

Together with the Canadian Coast Guard their vessels begin to search an area of more than 7,600 square miles of open seas. A US Coast Guard spokesman is optimistic the five passengers are alive: ‘This is a search and rescue mission – 100 per cent.’

One hour and 45 minutes into the dive in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland, the Titan lost communication with its support ship, the Polar Prince

One hour and 45 minutes into the dive in the North Atlantic, off the coast of Newfoundland, the Titan lost communication with its support ship, the Polar Prince

Monday, June 19

Social media users across the world are obsessed with the plight of the Titan, some mocking the sub’s video-game controller and others its wealthy passengers. Scores of TV crews and reporters have descended on St John’s.

Titanic director James Cameron hears from friends in the world of deep-sea exploration that a loud explosion was detected just before Titan was reported missing. He emails colleagues: ‘We’ve lost some friends. It’s on the bottom in pieces right now.’

Meanwhile ships and planes continue the search, some dropping sonar buoys that can monitor to a depth of 13,000 feet.

Tuesday, June 20

Underwater banging sounds at 30-minute intervals are detected by Canadian aircraft. The Explorers Club which is dedicated to scientific exploration and has Hamish Harding as a member says: ‘There is cause for hope. Likely signs of life have been detected at the site.’

But many are sceptical, including James Cameron who said later: ‘They’re hearing something tapping against a hull over the sound of 11 ships operating in the immediate vicinity, moving giant pieces of deck equipment around? That’s like hearing a sparrow fart over the cacophony of an airport.’

Thursday, June 22

A remotely operated vehicle finds debris from Titan on the seabed. OceanGate issue a statement that confirms all five passengers had perished: ‘Our hearts are with these five souls and every member of their families during this tragic time. We grieve the loss of life and joy they brought to everyone they knew.’

The US Navy conclude that the underwater banging detected earlier in the week was ocean sounds or noise from other ships.

Aftermath

Experts believe that Titan’s carbon-fibre hull was the cause of the implosion. Bart Kemper of the Marine Technology Society, said: ‘It’s a design that’s not been used in this way at this depth. All it has to do is fail in one spot – and game over.’

Stockton Rush was blamed for his recklessness even by his friends. Paul-Henri Nargeolet’s daughter Sidonie said: ‘It’s better that he’s no longer around. It would have been hell for him to be alive with what happened.

In an interview given shortly after the tragedy, a grieving Christine Dawood said that she and her daughter Alina had promised each other that they would learn how to solve the Rubik’s cube in honour of their beloved Suleman.

Jonathan Mayo is the author of Titanic: Minute by Minute, published by Short Books at £10.99