A transnational inquiry has been launched to determine accountability for the deaths of five passengers aboard the OceanGate Expeditions submersible that imploded during a descent to the wreckage of the Titanic in the North Atlantic, the United States Coast Guard announced Sunday.
Maritime agencies from Canada, France and Britain are joining an investigation that will be led by the Coast Guard, Capt. Jason Neubauer said during a news conference at Coast Guard Base Boston.
Neubauer said the priority of the investigation, known as a Marine Board of Investigation, or MBI, “is to recover items from the seafloor.”
Neubauer said investigators will also determine “the cause of this marine casualty” and establish accountability. Although the MBI is not leading a criminal investigation, Neubauer added that recommendations could be made “to the proper authorities to pursue civil or criminal sanctions as necessary.”
The MBI was officially opened Friday. That was the day after all five passengers on a dive to explore the wreck site of the Titanic instantly died when their 21-foot vessel suffered a “catastrophic implosion,” according to U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. John W. Mauger.
Neubauer said he would serve as MBI chair. He classified the investigation as being in the “initial evidence collection phase,” which includes salvage debris operations near the incident site and coordination with Canadian authorities at St. John’s Newfoundland, an island off Canada’s Atlantic coast.
Two Canadian agencies have already initiated investigations.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police of Newfoundland and Labrador announced Saturday on Facebook that it was “examining circumstances that led to deaths of those aboard the submersible Titan.”
“Such an investigation will proceed only if the RCMP’s examination of the circumstances indicate criminal, federal or provincial laws may possibly have been broken,” the law enforcement agency wrote. The mounted police did not clarify whether the agency would be contributing to the MBI investigation.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada previously announced the start of an investigation on Friday involving the Canadian-based cargo vessel Polar Prince, which was providing support from the surface to the Titan about 325 nautical miles southeast of Cape Race, Newfoundland and Labrador, on June 18. The safety board said it would contribute to the MBI investigation.
“Our mandate is to investigate from a safety perspective, identify what happened, why and what can be done to reduce the risk of it happening in the future,” Kathy Fox, chair of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, told the Associated Press on Saturday.
Canadian officials had already begun interviewing crew members from the Polar Prince as of Friday.
In a span of less than two hours, the Polar Prince lost communications with the Titan, which never contacted anyone again.
There were 17 crew members and 24 people aboard the Polar Prince at the time of the Titan’s descent.
Neubauer confirmed that interviews with the Polar Prince crew were scheduled, but did not provide a timeline.
Previously, a Canadian vessel named Horizon Arctic dispatched a robot that discovered crucial debris from the Titan in a field located about 1,600 feet from the bow of the Titanic.
Families of the five deceased members aboard were notified of the discovery.
Stockton Rush, the pilot of the exploration and chief executive of OceanGate Expeditions, was one of the five people aboard, along with; Hamish Harding, chair of Action Aviation, a Dubai-based aircraft dealer; Paul-Henri Nargeolet, an underwater specialist, former Navy officer who specialized in mine clearance and accomplished diver with more than 30 trips to the wreck site; and Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and son Suleman.
“As a senior investigator I have witnessed the personal impact associated with these types of events and my primary goal is to prevent a similar occurrence by making the necessary recommendations to enhance the safety of the maritime domain worldwide,” Neubauer said.
Neubauer said the investigation included the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, the Canadian Transportation Safety Board, French Marine Casualties Investigation Board and the United Kingdom Marine Accident Investigation Branch.
As evidence is collected, Neubauer said, the MBI will hold a “formal hearing to gather additional witness testimony and evidence in a [public] setting.”
Neubauer offered no timetable for investigation, nor could he offer an estimate on the expenses or types of resources that will be used.
In the initial search and rescue operations, 20 assets from the surface, sea and air completed “39 search and rescue sorties,” or takeoff and landing rescue missions, totaling 13,000 square miles, Mauger said.
“We conduct disciplined operations with warranted risk to put our resources and our lives at risk to save others,” Mauger said. “That’s who we are.”
Neubauer neither confirmed nor denied the Coast Guard had the resources to recover any remains.
“We are taking all precautions on site if we are to encounter any human remains,” he said.
Times staff writers Alexandra E. Petri and Noah Goldberg contributed to this report.