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A Retired USCG Officer’s Thoughts on the M/V TITAN

After the submersible, Titan, was reported out of communication and declared missing I received a lot of calls and emails from people who knew of my 33 year U.S. Coast Guard career and wanted to know what my thoughts were about what was unfolding.

This submersible case was very interesting to me as it touches on four of the five professional areas I worked in during my Coast Guard career; Operations and Search and Rescue (SAR) Planning; as a Senior Marine Inspector; National & International Emergency Response Planning Coordinator & Incident Command System Branch Chief and then at the end of my career,  Safety and Environmental Regulatory Develop Management.

On my other blog, The Pitt POV, there were many comments with rather specific questions about the case and the following are my responses to those.  Note please that I cleaned up some text…and that my answers were based on my experiences back in the mid-80s to my retirement in 2011.  Especially changes to the Search and Rescue world with modern technologies, etc. are very different than what I had at hand.…  So – things may not be perfectly factual below.

A Reader asked what I felt was happening with the Search efforts on Monday morning…

I ran the U. S. Coast Guard’s (USCG) Guam Operations Center and did all the Search and Rescue (SAR) planning for an area of responsibility of five (5) million square miles of water. This case is the same deal but in addition to surface area they must add that 3rd dimension – depth.

In other words, as soon as I heard the news, I told my wife the personnel would not be found unless there is a U. S. Navy (USN) submarine in very close proximity already. I very much doubt there is. Even if one arrives on scene the only way the submersible could be found would be by “echo location”.

It is a lost cause at this point even with two days air left. Genuinely like finding a needle in a haystack 12,500 ft deep and 50+ miles across. But you do what you have to do until you are very sure there is no chance of survival.

This bit was in response to a question of if the Coast Guard still does actual search and rescue…

The Coast Guard certainly still does SAR. However, the six years I was doing SAR planning in the mid-1980s was like the stone age compared to the technology of today…GPS, cell phones, satellite visuals etc.

This submersible response reminds me very much of the Kennedy son who crashed his plane in the Cape Cod fog with his wife and a friend.

If it were you or I in that sunken plane the search would have been 72 hours (daylight only) maximum and I personally would have called it off at 60 hours, probably, due to distinct possibility of hypothermia. Because he was a Kennedy it dragged out to a full week. The difference between the two cases is that water would have automatically filled the plane’ s body and even in July hypothermia takes hold rather quickly. Not so with the submersible as they could still be dry with air reserves, even on ocean bottom.

Searching that many days longer than practicable only ties up resources that might be needed elsewhere, costs a ton of money and endangers the search personnel.

Again, regarding how USCG executes SAR cases now…

Dan, what you heard is semi-true. Back in the late ’80s a federal law was passed that if no lives are in danger (like a boat that has only lost power or something minor like that) the Coast Guard must stand by and let commercial salvage companies have the shot to make money off towing the vessel.

However, if there is any indication at all that there could be injuries or worse due to the vessel/crew’s emergency we will respond asap. I would always send out a resource if there was any doubt at all because some salvers would turn around and leave if their fee charges were not accepted by the vessel master.

One thing I always did it ask up front if anyone was sick or injured. Even if they said “no” I would ask if all passengers had at least 24 hours of important medications on hand. If that answer were “no” then I’d send out CG resources immediately and, in that case, would execute the rescue.

Forgot to mention that if the weather worsened, we would go out also and get the boat no matter what because of the circumstances were such that salvors might not be able to work in that kind of weather whereas the Coast Guard could.

Next day of searching…

Re: the submersible’s chances; I said the above based on what the news reported. It could well be that the info the Coast Guard has is much more detailed which would expand the chances for rescue.

I read that the last trip to the Titanic by the vessel and carrying passengers was recalled because they could not find the Titanic even though they had been there a few times before. If that is the case today, not finding it, they are screwed because the search will be in direct proximity to where the Titanic lies.

Deep currents are extraordinarily strong and completely variable in direction and that throws a lot of negative aspects into the search planning.

In response to a reader stating this whole situation is horrible and bad luck…

This is harsh to say…or it was stupid for passengers to do it with a for profit company that does not already have major SAR resources on hand and on site. The owners had a shaky record already.

Plus, waiting eight hours after the company’s surface ship lost communications to call for emergency resource deployment was a terrible decision and will come back to bite them in the ass.

They should have notified both the US Coast Guard and the Canadian Coast Guard (who were co-On Scene Commanders) as soon as the loss of communication happened so that we could at least stage for deployment to be ready to sortie an aircraft with sonar when it was determined they had to be on scene. The aircraft could then have been airborne within five to ten minutes.

Note: in this article the company owner bitched about the existing federal safety regulations stifling innovation. Coincidentally I ended my Coast Guard career as the Regulation Office’s Development Manager. I heard stuff like this all the time. Businesses always insist they should self-regulate because of fear of lawsuits.

That is utterly ridiculous because they would absolutely cut corners on safety and environmental issues and so risk lawsuits that may or may not happen. There is no way this should every be allowed to happen (and this is not a political issue but ‘what is best for American citizens’).

Next Day’s searching…

Just read that a Canadian Naval airplane picked up underwater noises from sonar buoys last night – best if it is hull tapping but not sure why hull tapping would be every 30 minutes. More likely the pilot would be tapping SOS ”…—…” every so many minutes and much more rapidly than every half hour.

This is a type of advanced sonar technology we did not have back in the day when I was doing search and rescue. I hope that this means they can effectively narrow down the search area for the five people on board.

This is a good development but the fact that they’re doing it from the air through the surface of the water isn’t as great as if it was a resource down inside the water, like I mentioned above – a submarine in the vicinity, to be able to accurately pinpoint the horizontal direction of the noises would be ideal.

Envision an underwater pyramid shape with the sonar buoy as the peak. If they can narrow the bottom of that pyramid, it would give them at least one vertical Line of Position (LOP). Two horizontal LOPs with a vertical LOP from the air would most probably find them.

The responders already know, I’m assuming here, that the craft lies on the ocean bottom. Had the submersible jettisoned its ballast they would have surfaced already and most probably found by now.

Someone asked me last night why Navy submarines were not already in the area. I responded by telling them that the naval submarine service is deployed mostly toward danger zones, Russia & China for example, and not just around the coast of the United States or Canada. So, they are pretty far away both in the Atlantic and Pacific and even if they were deployed out of a port on the east coast of North America it would still take at least a day or two maybe depending, to get to the search area.

How do I know these things?…

I’m familiar with these SAR response details because in addition to being the Operations Center Supervisor in both Guam and CG Air Station Port Angeles, WA I was also the SAR Planner and planned all the rescue responses for all involved.

That entails gathering all the daily search and weather info results. I’d then compile all that with natural info such as winds, tides and currents, then work up the individual search patterns for each available resource – all aircraft and surface response vessels, ships at sea already (including merchant shipping) in the greater vicinity, and other federal (Navy at sea & Air Force if inland), state and local response operations that could lend a hand. However, the final SAR decision making laid with me as the SAR Planner and Operations Center Supervisor.

All that had to be finalized at least an hour before first light for deployment as soon as possible for visuals.

I miss doing all that…

Update on submersible next day…:

Missing Titanic submersible live updates: Search expands ‘exponentially’; more sounds heard.

Underwater noises were detected, and rescue efforts were expanding Wednesday in the search for the missing Titanic submersible carrying five passengers, a Coast Guard official said Wednesday.

An expert submariner from the British Royal Navy, a team of French ROV specialists and more ships and underwater vessels were joining the search, said Capt. Jamie Frederick, the First Coast Guard District response coordinator, in a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

The search was expanding “exponentially” across a surface area roughly two times the size of Connecticut and 2.5 miles deep, he said.”

OK, what this means that instead of being able to narrow the horizontal area of interest they have had to expand it. The top of the triangle mentioned above is no longer a reasonable distinct point but is expanding the triangle into more of a square.

This makes the search area ‘looser’ than before and, with air running out – it is already passed the 72 out of 90-hour mark and the effective odds of clear vessel placement and personnel recovery are getting less by the hour.

I’ll be shocked if a successful personnel rescue takes place. If not, it will be interesting to see if the contributing national and private resources stay and try to recover the bodies.

The Coast Guard On-Scene Commander will have to make that decision for the US. I will say that if there is “No Joy” (successful personnel rescue) by Friday morning, which is well past the 90-hour mark, I personally would recall all US assets.

BTW: The 90-hour mark is 7am EST on Thursday the 22nd of June…tomorrow. The water pressure at 12,500 – 13,000 feet is 6,000 lbs per square inch which means if the hull was breached there would be basically no recognizable bodies to recover. Any bodies recovered after the Titanic hit the iceberg were all on top of the water specifically because of this – I believe that not even skeletal remains have been found there– again due to horrendous water pressure.

Well, all those Search and Rescue lessons I posted above and I forgot to say they should look in the most obvious place! That would be exactly where the submersible was going when they dove… I’m being facetious here as everyone busted balls to get something concrete to work with.

Thursday morning after submersible’s hull fragments were found visually…

Looks like they found it with an imploded hull 1600 yards from the Titanic – bodies are distorted I’m sure, in their defense it took the deep-sea ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) to be able to get eyes down there and that arrived on-scene just today.

Too bad really but something obviously gave out. I wonder if it was the window that was only certified for a 4,000-foot depth.  Whatever happened it would have been horrifying but over very quickly.

This was a fascinating case and with tons of Lessons Learned for future cases.

To show just how weird SAR working can be, I ran a case in the Straits of Juan de Fuca where a missing diver was reported overdue by his wife.  He was sitting on a channel buoy no more than 30 yards from where our 41′ boats were passing him by numerous times without seeing him waving or hearing him screaming at them. He had to sit there overnight, cold and pissed off in his wet suit, and wasn’t too happy with us during my debriefing with him after we brought him into the OpsCenter.

When he asked if we had found his boat he had anchored and dove off I cringed and send our guys out again to get it (the current took him about a mile away from it). I did not even think about how he got out there… As I said – lessons learned!

Not the best day in the Operations Center, although that story has won me free beers when drinking with other Coasties…

Here is an answer to a question about how the Coast Guard goes about Search and Rescue (SAR), especially the financial aspects of it.

One thing to note: in my time as a SAR Controller any commercial merchant ship requested to alter course to render aid did so. One, because it was a time-honored Maritime tradition and two, because the insurance companies (mostly Lloyd’s of London) wrote that into the policies…because chances were the ship in distress, and/or its cargo, was also insured by them.

Here is an interesting article about the subject...

One point not raised in the article linked above is that in case of false alarm Mayday calls we not only charge the caller for any cost of the resources that we sent out which could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but we also now prosecute them as committing a crime.

Some of the ‘pranksters’ have already done jail time depending on what else happened out on the seas while we were diverting our resources to the fake Mayday call.  In at least one case there was a death because we had to divert resources from another Coast Guard air station as our helicopters were on the fake mayday call.

What will be happening now is that there will be pressure to fully regulate these submersibles on both their construction and operations. That is not being done now but I’m guessing it will be heavily pushed for and will fall directly into the CG’s lap.

As it stands now the CG regulates any vessel that carries over six passengers for hire, any vessel that carries over 250 gallons of petroleum products as cargo (excluding vessel’s fuel), and deep-sea Oil Rigs in US waters.

We also do inspections and certifications on every cruise ship built and in operation that carries ANY US citizen anywhere in US waters…which meant we inspectors spent tons of time in Europe and North Africa as no cruise ships are built in the US any longer (at least back in my day). A friend of mine and fellow Marine Inspector, LCDR Chris Woodle, had a passport that opened like an accordion as he had been on so many overseas inspection tours. He was also one the best Marine Inspectors I served with (and there were a lot of good ones).

That is a huge and expensive mission already and every prospective CG Marine Inspector already must have certified sea duty and extensive hull & machinery training before being qualified.

So, as it stands this submersible was in international waters and carried only five passengers so a separate set of regulatory criteria would have to be applied – and would entail both the CG and every commercial submersible company millions, maybe billions, of dollars to develop, enforce and abide by the new regulations.

Which BTW would have to approved by Congressional policy dweebs… and believe me, I had many contentious visits to Capitol Hill to lay out and seek approval for even slight changes to current regs. Mostly with twenty-something Congressional Aides who knew nothing about the subject and had their heads firmly up their asses.

I do not know if this is something that we will see happen for US flagged vessels in the near future. If we drop the number of paying passengers carried to five or lower, we would be regulating many thousands more of sport fishing and small tour vessels and the pushback from those owners, and from the CG itself, will be tremendous.

But it will be a major topic of conversation for a good while.

Note: here is one example of a regulation I wrote and helped pushed through Congress that governed commercial oil vessel operators. It took two years, six Public Meetings and some real give and take with the oil lobbyists…and cost $500 million to institute in its first two years…

I finally had to convince the oil ship lobbyists that if they created their own Salvage and Marine firefighting businesses and located them in the US ports they used they would not only be paying themselves on the required contracts but would also get tax breaks.

Plus, and this is big, they would know exactly the quality of response they would receive if something bad happened to their vessels. You should have seen their faces when I presented that plan to them at a national conference.

This bit was in response to a reader who stated the the Coast Guard continued the search after Sunday, when the Navy reported sounding of an implosion, only because the current Administration wanted to draw attention away from the Hunter Biden news…

The Coast Guard Admiral and his staff are not beholden to the current administration, or any past or future administration, in their operational decision making. The First District Admiral did exactly what I would have done in the same position – continued the search until firm and irrefutable evidence presented itself that there were no surviving personnel. That was the concrete visual evidence of the wreckage that was recorded by the French ROV yesterday.

A report of ‘sounds underwater’ by the US  Navy is but one piece of the large overall search puzzle and to have called off that search based on one piece of a rather vague and debatable report, even from the Navy, would be almost criminal – and not one Coast Guard On-Scene Commander I know would have done what you are suggesting. Never.

Not everything is politically motivated and certainly not when it comes to the lives of US citizens that the Coast Guard is responsible for.

One final point here – that search effort was a Unified Incident Command System headed by both the US and Canadian Coast Guards. The Canadians would not give two shits about what the current administration did or did not want made public.   It was not only the US Coast Guard who extended that search past Sunday – the Canadians were also involved in that decision making.  Even though the US Coast Guard did all the public relations stuff they did NOT do all the search and rescue decision making.

Not everything is a grand conspiracy…To have called off the search at that point would have been morally and ethically reprehensible.

Well, that’s it folks. I’m sure I’m wrong on some points but that is the gist of it…

One Comment

  1. Eric Matthews
    Eric Matthews June 23, 2023

    Excellent Reed. Man, you covered some ground in the Coast Guard in those 33 years. I feel fortunate to have served with you, and hope in some small way contributed to your time in the the Coast Guard. My 30 years in the CG took me through FTCS then, at the 23 year mark into the M field. It was quite a ride getting fully qualified as a Marine Inspector Dk and Machinery, then going on to be a Marine Investigator. I hope you are enjoying retirement. Take care.

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