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Newfoundland university threw open its doors to Titanic dive operator, emails show

Newfoundland and Labrador's ocean marine polytechnic threw open its "proverbial doors" last year to the company that owned the doomed Titan submersible, which suffered a catastrophic implosion on a descent to the Titanic shipwreck in June, killing all five people on board. Debris from the Titan submersible, recovered from the ocean floor near the wreck of the Titanic, is unloaded from the ship Horizon Arctic at the Canadian Coast Guard pier in St. John’s on Wednesday, June 28, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A research institute at Newfoundland and Labrador's Memorial University threw open its "proverbial doors" last year to the company that owned the doomed Titan submersible, less than a year before the vessel suffered a catastrophic implosion while diving to the Titanic shipwreck.

Emails obtained by The Canadian Press show officials with Memorial's Fisheries and Marine Institute signed an agreement with OceanGate in December allowing the company to store equipment with the university and promising that students and faculty would have opportunities "to join OceanGate expeditions to support research endeavours."

The memorandum of understanding also says the marine institute would show off OceanGate's submersible to visitors, in an effort to promote ocean literacy and the "blue economy."

The Titan submersible is believed to have imploded on a descent to the Titanic shipwreck on June 18. Scattered pieces of the sub were found days later about 500 metres from the Titanic's bow, almost four kilometres below the ocean's surface. OceanGate founder and chief executive officer Stockton Rush died along with the four passengers on board.

The emails obtained through an access to information request make no mention of concerns among industry experts that Titan was unsafe and OceanGate was endangering its passengers, who paid a reported US$250,000 to dive to the Titanic. Nor were there questions about the company's public acknowledgment in 2019 that Titan hadn't been certified, as is standard practice in the industry.

But they do reveal officials' enthusiasm to team up with OceanGate.

"On behalf of Angie, Joe and myself many thanks ... and consider the 'proverbial doors' of the Marine Institute at Memorial University are open!" Rob Shea, then the Marine Institute's vice-president, wrote in a July 9, 2022, email to Rush. Shea sent the note after visiting the Titan in St. John's harbour with Angie Clarke, the institute's associate vice-president of academics and student affairs, and Joe Singleton, the interim head of the institute's school of ocean technology, the emails show.

A Memorial University spokesperson said this week that the document was a non-binding, general agreement, and that there were no formal plans for students or staff to board the Titan, since OceanGate's expedition schedule did not line up with the academic calendar.

"With no plans for students or staff to be aboard the Titan, there was no rationale to vet OceanGate," Chad Pelley, the school's manager of media relations, said in a statement emailed Tuesday.

Aiden Parsons, president of the Marine Institute Students' Union, said the situation raises many questions. "Our concern is just, is the due diligence, even for a basic agreement like this, enough?" Parsons said in an interview. 

A student from the Marine Institute was aboard the Polar Prince when the Titan was lost, but the institute said that was part of a summer job with OceanGate, not a work term connected to the school.

The emails, which cover four years between Jan. 1, 2019, and Jan. 1, 2023, show that Rush was eager to arrive at an agreement to store the Titan and accompanying equipment at the Marine Institute. However, there were several apparent snags the school officials had to work through in order to produce the final memorandum of understanding, dated Dec. 21, 2022. There are lengthy email chains between finance, contracts and customs officials with the school. A school lawyer is also involved, as are outside customs and marine logistics companies.

Much of the correspondence released was blacked out, citing reasons including the protection of a public body and a third party's economic interests. The school confirmed Tuesday that the redacted conversations were not about safety.

In late November, an OceanGate representative shared a link to a CBS report about Titan's 2022 journey in an email to Singleton and Clarke.

The report includes Rush showing off the Titan's bare-bones interior, which included a single power button, two video screens and a repurposed gaming controller to steer the 6.7-metre vessel.

CBS reporter David Pogue is also seen signing a waiver before he boards the Titan. "This experimental vessel has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body, and could result in physical injury, emotional trauma, or death," Pogue says, appearing to read directly from the document in front of him. "Where do I sign?"

Deep-diving experts had been issuing warnings about Titan's shoddy construction and lack of certification for years. In 2018, a group of engineers wrote a letter to Rush warning that the company's "experimental" approach could have catastrophic consequences.

That same year, a report by OceanGate's then-director of marine operations outlining serious safety concerns about the Titan wound up at the centre of a lawsuit filed in Washington state.

The company's agreement with the Marine Institute identifies OceanGate as "a group of ocean explorers, scientists, and filmmakers dedicated to manned exploration of the deep ocean." It focuses on collaborating on research and training opportunities, and promoting ocean literacy.

The document is signed by Rush and Paul Brett, who is listed as the institute's acting vice-president. Brett is not included in much of the discussion about the document. However, there is an email from him sent in 2019 in which he says he's aware of OceanGate's business. "They are doing tourism from what I know," he writes. "We met with them last year."

The school said Tuesday that the reference in the agreement to joining "OceanGate expeditions" did not specifically refer to missions aboard the Titan. It said the ultimate result of the partnership was that OceanGate used storage space at the institute, a service the school frequently offers to marine organizations. The Titan was seen by some tour groups visiting the institute's campus in St. John's, it added.

Pelley said the memorandum of understanding was a non-binding, "general agreement as to what types of partnerships there could have been." Due diligence is done when and if the institute enters into a binding partnership, he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2023.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press