Documents detail OceanGate's battle with whistleblower years before fatal Titan submersible implosion

Five people were killed during an expedition to the Titanic wreckage in June.

February 8, 2024, 6:12 AM

Years before an OceanGate submersible tragically imploded on its way to the wreckage of the Titanic, a former employee warned company executives about the inefficiency of their hull design and the company's testing methods. The employee, who worked on the predecessor to the vessel that imploded, claimed his warnings went "dismissed on several occasions."

The search for OceanGate's submersible, Titan 2, after it disappeared with five people onboard in June 2023 and the subsequent discovery that it imploded made headlines worldwide. Among the passengers who died were British entrepreneur Hamish Harding, Pakistani investor Shahzada Dawood and his son Suleman, French diver Paul-Henri Nargeolet, and OceanGate's own CEO Stockton Rush. Descending on June 18, the passengers embarked with the hope of exploring the Titanic wreckage, until the vessel imploded at some point during its descent.

The exact cause of the implosion is still under investigation by federal authorities, but there's been intense scrutiny of the Seattle-based company's past legal and regulatory battles.

David Lochridge was OceanGate's director of marine operations until he was terminated from the company in 2018. ABC News previously reported on lawsuits between Lochridge and OceanGate shortly after he left the company.

In this undated file photo, the Titan submersible, operated by OceanGate Expeditions to explore the wreckage of the sunken SS Titanic, is shown.
EyePress News via Shutterstock, FILE

Those lawsuits give a surface summary of a "Quality Report" that Lochridge performed on the "Cyclops 2" submersible, also known as Titan. ABC News has obtained the report and more documents detailing Lochridge's pleas to Rush to find a new method of testing the hull for cracks or holes.

Despite Lochridge's warnings about the previous vessel's hull monitoring system, OceanGate used the same testing system on the doomed Titan 2. The company claimed in a court filing that the testing system they used was the best one available.

OceanGate and Lochridge did not immediately respond to ABC News' requests for comment. OceanGate suspended all exploration and commercial operations after the tragedy, saying at the time that "Our hearts are with these five souls and every member of their families during this tragic time."

ABC News Studios will air "Truth and Lies: Fatal Dive to the Titanic" on Thursday, Feb. 8, detailing the OceanGate tragedy and exploring what may have led to the disaster. The two-hour special will include new interviews and details surrounding Rush and his ambition to be a deep-sea pioneer.

The 'Quality Report'

In January 2018, Lochridge penned a report titled "OceanGate Cyclops 2 Quality Control Inspection Report," addressed to the executives at OceanGate.

At the beginning of his report, Lochridge emphasized the urgency of addressing safety risks, writing, " is the time to properly address items that may pose a safety risk to personnel." He went on to say that his prior attempts to address these items/issues "have been dismissed on several occasions, so I feel now I must make this report so there is an official record in place." He concluded that "Cyclops 2 (Titan) should not be manned during any of the upcoming trials."

The report claimed the flooring of the sub was layered with flammable materials that release "toxic fumes."
ABC News

In the report, Lochridge listed 25 issues he said he found with the submersible, ranging from glue coming away at the seams to zip ties that took the place of sturdy fasteners or clamps, the report shows. In one instance, Lochridge claimed the flooring of the sub was layered with flammable materials that release "toxic fumes."

In the report, Lochridge dedicated several pages and pictures to the carbon fiber hull.

Stockton Rush and OceanGate set out to pioneer the creation of a carbon fiber hull for a deep-sea submersible. Some experts in the submersible field criticized Rush's approach, with many claiming there was a reason no one had made a submersible out of carbon fiber: the material wouldn't hold under immense ocean pressure.

Lochridge took pictures of the excess carbon fiber used to make the hull of the submersible. He demonstrated the material's porosity by shining a light through a piece of excess carbon fiber, which, while not from the hull itself, raised concerns about potential imperfections in the material.

Lochridge dedicated several pages and pictures to the carbon fiber hull, demonstrating alleged porosity in the material.
Obtained by ABC News

Due to the nature of carbon fiber manufacturing, "some but not an excess of porosity (voids)" should be expected," Lochridge wrote in the report. However, he noted that a carbon hulled vehicle had never experienced "such immense pressures" it would find in the deep Atlantic.

Lochridge said he feared that if the hull had similar porosity that was not as visible as this excess piece of carbon fiber, the hull would get weaker with each, according to the report.. "We run the risk of potential inter-laminar fatigue due to pressure cycling, this especially if we do have imperfections in the hull itself," he wrote.

Lochridge's report cited a deviation "from standard design process" in the design of O-ring grooves on the submersible.
Obtained by ABC News
PHOTO: Lochridge's report cited a deviation "from standard design process" in the design of O-ring grooves on the submersible.
The report cited a deviation "from standard design process" in the design of O-ring grooves on the submersible.
Obtained by ABC News

The hull monitoring system

A meeting between Lochridge and OceanGate executives, including Rush, occurred the day after Lochridge sent his report with Rush recording the meeting. A copy of this recording has been given to both U.S. and Canadian investigators looking into the OceanGate tragedy, ABC News has learned.

The meeting lasted nearly two hours and mostly concerned one topic: the hull and its monitoring system, according to documents reviewed by ABC News. OceanGate had been using acoustic testing to check the carbon fiber hull's integrity – using sensors placed throughout the hull to listen for cracking or breaking in the hull.

Lockridge claimed these sensors would not allow enough time for a pilot to act, his lawyer later writing in a lawsuit against OceanGate "this type of acoustic analysis would only show when a component is about to fail – often milliseconds before an implosion."

Many times throughout the two-hour meeting. Lochridge requested that Rush find another way to test the carbon fiber hull, according to the documents. Stockton and the other executives claimed that no such method existed. In OceanGate's lawsuit against Lochridge, its lawyers claim that he refused to accept assertions that "the acoustic monitoring and incremental testing protocols were, in fact, better suited to detect vessel safety issues, if any."

Lochridge also requested that any tests on the vessel be unmanned, but OceanGate dismissed this – stating that the CEO would be the only one on board and at risk.

"Again, and again," OceanGate attorneys write about the meeting, according to the documents reviewed by ABC News, "Lochridge insisted that a hull scan was necessary and the only way he would be comfortable signing off on manned marine tests of the Cyclops II, even when Mr. Rush was the only person on board."

The Lochridge aftermath

Three days after the meeting, OceanGate fired Lochridge. During the meeting "it became clear to Stockton that he, and you were at an impasse regarding the Cyclops 2 hull and the only option was the termination of your employment," OceanGate's then-Chief Operating Officer Neil McCurdy wrote Lochridge, according to the documents reviewed by ABC News.

McCurdy did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

In the weeks after his firing, Lochridge filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – claiming OceanGate violated the Seaman's Protection Act (SPA). The SPA prohibits persons from retaliating against seamen for engaging in certain protected activities pertaining to compliance with maritime safety laws and regulations.

He sent OSHA his quality report and met with an OSHA investigator on several occasions, according to a source familiar with the matter.

In February 2018, OSHA sent a letter to OceanGate informing them that a preliminary investigation was underway – OSHA did not name Lochridge in its letter. OceanGate lawyers responded with a five page letter detailing their side of things, including an audio copy of their meeting with Lochridge.

The lawyers said Lochridge was asked to inspect Cyclops II, but claimed he "went well beyond what was asked of him by preparing" his report, according to the letter.

The company's lawyers again claimed that Lochridge's pleas for another form of testing was unnecessary, telling OSHA that "acoustic monitoring would provide the data points necessary to assess the safety of the hull at every point of the testing process."

A month after writing a response to OSHA, OceanGate wrote to Lochridge and threatened him and his wife, Carole, with legal action.

Assuming he was the one who filed a complaint with OSHA, OceanGate requested Lochridge acknowledge that his claim "was not well-founded." OceanGate attached a copy of a potential lawsuit and settlement in its letter to Lochridge.

In the settlement, Lochridge would agree to "resolve" all claims against Oceangate and Stockton Rush and would have to "withdraw the OSHA claim." David and Carole Lochridge would agree to pay about $10,000 for OceanGate legal fees. They would also agree to sign a nondisclosure agreement, agreeing not to "disclose any information about OceanGate, whether or not such information is confidential in nature or a trade secret."

David and Carole declined to sign the settlement and OceanGate followed through with its lawsuit in June 2018. Lochridge filed a countersuit in August 2018. By November 2018, the two parties settled out of court, with no specifics regarding the final settlement.

OSHA quickly shelved its investigation after OceanGate's lawsuit against Lochridge, according to a source with direct knowledge on the matter. "OSHA was overwhelmed and assumed it would get settled in or out of court," the source told ABC News.

OSHA has declined to comment to ABC News on the matter and has declined requests for copies of the recorded meeting between OceanGate and Lochridge citing a proprietary information clause.

Titan 2 and the OceanGate tragedy

In October 2019, the vessel Lochridge worked on underwent an unmanned pressure test at a Maryland facility and failed, according to sources. That test continued to use the acoustic monitoring that Lochridge warned against, though the "cracking sounds were audible to the naked ear," according to those same sources.

After Cyclops 2 (Titan) failed, Rush and others began work on Titan 2 – the vessel that imploded last summer. Several new steps were taken in the development of Titan 2 to address earlier industry criticism, according to sources, but the new hull was still carbon fiber and the acoustic sensor tests remained.

By 2021, OceanGate tested a scale model at the same facility in Maryland. The test went "beautifully," said the sources. The sounds from the hull caught by the acoustic monitors were "quieter than expected."

The Titan 2 made 13 successful dives to the Titanic wreckage until its fatal implosion. The exact cause of the implosion is still unknown and still being investigated by officials in both the U.S. and Canada.

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