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Focus on sub ‘rescue’ despite oxygen crunch: US Coast Guard

BOSTON (AFP) – A multinational mission to find a missing submersible near the Titanic wreck is still focussed on rescuing the five-member crew alive, the United States (US) coast guard insisted on Thursday, despite fears that the vessel’s oxygen may already have run out.

Two more unmanned subs were deployed on Thursday as the massive hunt for the Titan, lost somewhere in a vast swathe of the North Atlantic between the ocean’s surface and more than two miles (nearly four kilometers) below, moved to the critical stage.

Based on the sub’s capacity to hold up to 96 hours of emergency air, rescuers had estimated that the passengers could run out of oxygen in the early hours of Thursday.

An art school student gives final touches to a painting depicting five people aboard a submersible named Titan, that went missing near the wreck of the Titanic, in Mumbai, India. PHOTO: AFP

But as that possible deadline passed US Coast Guard Rear Admiral John Mauger said rescuers were “fully committed”.

“People’s will to live really needs to be accounted for as well. And so we’re continuing to search and proceed with rescue efforts,” he told NBC’s Today show.

A surge of assets and experts have joined the operation in the past day, and sonar has picked up unidentified underwater noises.

Organisers of the multinational response – which includes US and Canadian military planes, coast guard ships and teleguided robots – are focussing their efforts in the North Atlantic close to the underwater noises detected by sonar.

The French research ship Atalante deployed an unmanned robot able to search at depths of up to 6,000 metres below water earlier on Thursday, the Coast Guard tweeted. Experts have called the Victor 6000 “the main hope” for an underwater rescue.

The Canadian vessel Horizon Arctic has also deployed a robot that has already reached the ocean floor and begun its search, the Coast Guard also said in a tweet.

Mauger has also said that vessels carrying medical staff and a decompression chamber are en route to the area.

The sounds raised hopes that the passengers on the small tourist craft are still alive, though experts have not been able to confirm their source.

“We don’t know what they are, to be frank with you,” said US Coast Guard Captain Jamie Frederick.

“We have to remain optimistic and hopeful.”

The submersible, named Titan, began its descent at 8am on Sunday and had been due to resurface seven hours later, according to the US Coast Guard.

The 6.5-metre tourist craft lost communication with its mothership less than two hours into its trip to see the Titanic, which sits more than two miles (nearly four kilometers) below the surface of the North Atlantic.

Titan was carrying British billionaire Hamish Harding and Pakistani tycoon Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, who also have British citizenship. 

OceanGate Expeditions charges USD250,000 for a seat on the sub.

Also on board is the company’s CEO, Stockton Rush, and a French submarine operator Paul-Henri Nargeolet, nicknamed “Mr Titanic” for his frequent dives at the site.

Ships and planes have scoured around 20,000 square kilometres of surface water – roughly the size of the US state of Massachusetts – for the vessel, which attempted to dive about 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada.

After the noises were detected by a Canadian P-3 aircraft, rescuers relocated two remotely operated vehicles (ROV) that search under the water and one surface vessel with sonar capability.

The ROV searches have not yielded results but data from the Canadian aircraft has been shared with US Navy experts for acoustics analysis.

The Navy has sent a specialised winch system for lifting heavy objects from extreme depths along with other equipment and personnel, while the Pentagon has deployed three C-130 aircraft and three C-17s.

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.

It was found in 1985 and remains a lure for nautical experts and underwater tourists.

The pressure at that depth as measured in atmospheres is 400 times what it is at sea level.

In 2018, OceanGate Expeditions’ former director of marine operations David Lochridge alleged in a lawsuit that he had been fired after raising concerns about the company’s “experimental and untested design” of the craft.