A whistleblower raised safety concerns about OceanGate’s submersible in 2018. Then he was fired.

The Director of the Navy OceanGate, the company whose submersible disappeared in the North Atlantic on an expedition to Titanic on Sunday, has been fired from operations after raising concerns about its unique carbon fiber hull and other systems ahead of its maiden voyage a filing in a 2018 lawsuit first reported by Insider and New Republic.

David Lochridge was terminated in January 2018 after delivering a damning quality control report on the ship to OceanGate's senior management, including founder and CEO Stockton Rush, who is reportedly on board the missing vessel.

According to a Lochridge court filing, the preamble to his report read: “Now is the time to properly deal with items that could pose a safety risk to staff.” Oral communication of the key points I raised in my attached document has been rejected on numerous occasions so I feel I must now produce this report for an official record to exist.”

The report “listed numerous issues that raise serious safety concerns,” the file says. These included Lochridge's concern that “visible flaws” in the carbon fiber supplied to OceanGate increase the risk that small flaws will propagate into larger cracks during the “pressure swing”. These are the tremendous changes in pressure that the submersible would experience on its way off the deep sea floor. He noted that a previously tested scale model of the fuselage had “common deficiencies.”

Carbon fiber composites can be stronger and lighter than steel, making a submersible inherently buoyant. However, they can also be prone to sudden failure under stress. The hull that Lochridge wrote about was made by Spencer Composites, the only company that had previously made a carbon fiber hull for a manned submersible. (This submersible was commissioned by explorer Steve Fossett for a record-breaking dive, but died in a plane crash before it could be used.)

Lochridge's recommendation was that non-destructive testing of Titan's hull was necessary to ensure a “solid and safe product”. The filing states that Lochridge was told that such testing was impossible and that OceanGate would instead rely on its much-vaunted acoustic surveillance system.

The company claims that this self-developed technology is used Acoustic sensors listen for the telltale sounds of deteriorating carbon fiber in the hull to “allow the pilot early warning detection, giving him sufficient time to stop the descent and return to the surface safely”.

However, Lochridge feared in the lawsuit that the system would not detect deficiencies until the ship descended, and then might only give “milliseconds” a warning of a catastrophic implosion.

Russell McDuff, a veteran oceanographer and chair of OceanGate's Science and Research Foundation for three years, noted that contact with Titan was lost after just an hour and 45 minutes on Sunday. “That suggests to me that they might still have been in the water column and were going down to the Titanic,” TechCrunch said in a phone interview.

Lochridge also strongly recommended that OceanGate have the Titan inspected and certified by a classification agency such as the American Bureau of Shipping.

A day after submitting his report, Lochridge was invited to a meeting with Rush and the company's human resources, engineering and operations directors. There, the filing says, he was also told that the manufacturer of Titan's forward viewport would only certify it to a depth of 1,300 meters due to OceanGate's experimental design. The filing states that OceanGate refused to pay the manufacturer the cost of building a viewing window that would match Titan's planned depth of 4,000 meters. The Titanic is about 3,800 meters below the surface.

The filing also alleges that hazardous combustible materials were used in the submersible.

At the end of the meeting, Lochridge was fired and escorted out of the building after stating that he would not authorize manned testing of the Titan without a hull scan.

Lochridge, who claimed he was fired in retaliation for his whistleblowing, filed his lawsuit after OceanGate sued him in federal court in Seattle in June. OceanGate has accused him of leaking confidential information to two people as well as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In the OceanGate lawsuit called Lochridge's report false and accused him of fraud by providing a reason for dismissal.

The lawsuit was settled in November 2018. Neither OceanGate nor Lochridge responded to requests for comment. OSHA could not immediately provide details of the alleged report. A routine OSHA inspection of OceanGate in 2021 found only three minor workplace safety violations resulting in no financial penalties.

A few months after Lochridge's dismissal, the company published a blog post It explained the reasons why Titan was not certified by the American Bureau of Shipping or a similar organization.

“The vast majority of accidents at sea (and in aviation) are due to operator error, not mechanical failure,” it says. “Therefore, solely focusing on the classification of the ship is not enough to account for the operational risks. Maintaining a high level of operational security requires constant, dedicated effort and a focused corporate culture – two things that OceanGate takes very seriously and which are not evaluated in the classification.”

In 2019, Rush gave one Interview with Smithsonian Magazine where he said, “There hasn't been any harm in the commercial sub-industry for over 35 years.” It's incredibly safe because there's all these regulations. But there has also been no innovation or growth – because there are all these regulations.”

After Lochridge's departure, the Titan was safely tested on deeper and deeper dives, including to 4,000 meters in the Bahamas. However, it seems that one of Lochridge's concerns would soon be confirmed. In January 2020, Rush gave an interview to GeekWire in which he admitted that Titan's hull “showed signs of cyclic fatigue.” For this reason, the depth rating of the hull was reduced to 3,000 meters. “Not enough to get to the Titanic,” Rush said.

In 2020 and 2021, Titan's hull was either repaired or rebuilt by two Washington state companies, Electroimpact and Janicki Industries, primarily engaged in the aerospace industry. The Titan came onto the market at the end of 2021 first ride down to the wreck of the Titanic.

Spencer Composites says the Titan didn't use its carbon fiber hull during Sunday's dive. Presumably aside from the hull work, a source familiar with the company told TechCrunch that not much has changed at all at Titan since 2018.

At the time of publication, Titan remains missing with Rush, French diver Paul-Henri Nargeolet, British billionaire Hamish Harding, Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and his son said to be on board. A massive search and rescue operation is underway.

“They're doing everything they can logically do,” McDuff said. “But I'm a little pessimistic because so much time has passed.”

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