By Celina Tebor, CNN
(CNN) — Two former OceanGate employees separately voiced similar safety concerns about the thickness of the now-missing Titan submersible’s hull when they were employed by the company years ago, and a statement from a research lab appears to show conflicting information about the engineering and testing that went into the development of the vessel.
David Lochridge, the company’s former director of marine operations, claimed in a court filing he was wrongfully terminated in 2018 for raising concerns about the safety and testing of the Titan, which vanished Sunday with five people on board during a trip to view the wreckage of the Titanic.
Details about Lochridge and another former employee’s concerns come as officials scour a swath of ocean about 900 miles east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, racing to locate the submersible and rescue the crew inside. If the vessel is intact, they have a dwindling supply of oxygen, with perhaps less than a day of breathable air as of early Wednesday, based on a US Coast Guard officials’ estimate.
Lochridge worked as an independent contractor for OceanGate in 2015, then as an employee between 2016 and 2018, according to court filings.
The company terminated his employment and sued Lochridge and his wife in 2018, claiming he shared confidential information, misappropriated trade secrets and used the company for immigration assistance then manufactured a reason to be fired. The lawsuit noted Lochridge is not an engineer, calling him a submersible pilot and a diver.
Lochridge said in a countersuit he was tasked by Stockton Rush – OceanGate’s CEO, who is among the five onboard the Titan – to perform an inspection of the submersible.
Lochridge brought up concerns that no non-destructive testing had been performed on the Titan’s hull to check for “delaminations, porosity and voids of sufficient adhesion of the glue being used due to the thickness of the hull,” the suit says. When Lochridge raised the issue, it says, he was told no equipment existed to perform such a test.
The lawsuit was settled and dismissed in November 2018. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed, and Lochridge could not be reached for comment.
Court filings from the company indicate there was additional testing after Lochridge’s time at OceanGate, and it’s unclear whether any of his concerns were addressed as the vessel was developed.
Another former OceanGate employee who worked briefly for the company during the same time period as Lochridge had similar concerns, he said, speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly.
The former employee became concerned when the carbon fiber hull of the Titan arrived, he said, echoing Lochridge’s concerns about its thickness and adhesion in his conversation with CNN. The hull had only been built to five inches thick, he said, telling CNN company engineers told him they had expected it to be seven inches thick.
The former employee worked at the submersible company for two and a half months in 2017; he was an operations technician who assisted with towing submersibles out into the ocean and preparing them for the diving operation.
He said more concerns were raised by contractors and employees during his time at OceanGate, and Rush became defensive and shied away from answering questions during all-staff meetings. When the former employee raised concerns directly to Rush that OceanGate could potentially be violating a US law relating to Coast Guard inspections, the CEO outright dismissed them, the former employee said, and that’s when he resigned.
CNN has reached out to OceanGate for comment.
OceanGate touted safety features of Titan in 2021 court filing
In a 2021 court filing, OceanGate’s legal representative touted the specs and a hull monitoring system built into the Titan that he called “an unparalleled safety feature.” The legal representative informed the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia – the court that oversees matters having to do with the Titanic – of the company’s expedition plans at the time.
The filing lays out the Titan’s testing details and its specifications, including that it had undergone more than 50 test dives and detailing its five-inch-thick carbon fiber and titanium hull.
The filing says OceanGate’s vessel was the result of over eight years of work, including “detailed engineering and development work under a company issued $5 million contract to the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory.”
But according to the University of Washington, the laboratory never dealt with design or engineering for OceanGate’s Titan vessel.
The lab’s expertise involved “only shallow water implementation,” and “the Laboratory was not involved in the design, engineering or testing of the TITAN submersible used in the RMS TITANIC expedition,” Kevin Williams, the executive director of UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory, said in a statement to CNN.
In 2022, the legal representative updated the Virginia court on OceanGate’s expeditions in another court filing.
“On the first dive to the Titanic, the submersible encountered a battery issue and had to be manually attached to its lifting platform,” the filing reads. “OceanGate decided to cancel the second mission for repairs and operational enhancements” after the vessel “sustained modest damage to its external components,” it reads.
There were not any submersible-related issues that canceled dives on the third, fourth, or fifth missions, according to the court filing.
OceanGate explains choice not to class the Titan submersible
In a 2019 blog post on OceanGate’s website, the company said most marine operations “require that chartered vessels are ‘classed’ by an independent group such as the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), DNV/GL, Lloyd’s Register, or one of the many others.”
But the Titan is not classed, the blog post says, adding that classing innovative designs often requires a multiyear approval process, which gets in the way of rapid innovation.
Classing agencies “do not ensure that operators adhere to proper operating procedures and decision-making processes – two areas that are much more important for mitigating risks at sea. The vast majority of marine (and aviation) accidents are a result of operator error, not mechanical failure,” it says.
“Classing assures ship owners, insurers, and regulators that vessels are designed, constructed and inspected to accepted standards. Classing may be effective at filtering out unsatisfactory designers and builders, but the established standards do little to weed out subpar vessel operators – because classing agencies only focus on validating the physical vessel,” it reads.
“By itself, classing is not sufficient to ensure safety,” the blog post says.
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CNN’s Dakin Andone contributed to this report.