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Who should pay for OceanGate’s experimental approach and subsequent disaster?

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The search for five missing passengers on board an experimental submersible is now over, winding down one of the largest joint search and rescue responses in American and Canadian history.

As police and officials now comb through the facts to figure out what went wrong, debates are raging over who should be responsible to pay for the massive response on international waters.

Rear Admiral John Mauger of the U.S. Coast Guard was unequivocal when asked on Sunday.

“As a matter of U.S. law, we don’t charge for search and rescue nor do we associate a cost with human life,” he said. “We always answer the call.”

Five people are dead after the Titan submersible operated by OceanGate Expeditions imploded on the way down to see the wreckage of the Titanic last Sunday. The search spanned Monday to Friday, with hopes the crew was still alive but snagged somewhere on the ocean floor.

The law is clear — The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards will never send someone a bill if they need to be rescued. But in the wake of a massive search involving 10 ships from four countries, constant aerial surveillance and the most advanced remote-operated vehicles in the world, experts are questioning if it’s time to change the rules.

Mervin Wiseman is a former search and rescue coordinator and advocate in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

“There’s been a hot debate for a long, long time about who bears the cost of a rescue operation,” said Mervin Wiseman, a Newfoundlander who spent 20 years as a search and rescue coordinator for the Canadian Coast Guard in St. John’s.

Wiseman said countless resources have been dedicated over the years to searching for people who set off on adventures and suffered the consequences. Those missions are expensive, and he estimates the Titan search will be north of $20 million when final costs are tallied.

“It’s debatable, I know, but I think there should be some level of cost, or responsibility taken for that cost,” Wiseman said.

His biggest issue isn’t with money. Wiseman said people often don’t consider the risk involved for the search and rescue teams that are tasked with coming to save them. In the Titan search, for example, Wiseman said the pilots of the low-flying aircraft were risking their lives daily and crews on board the ships were pushed to their limits over five days of constant searching on the brutal North Atlantic Ocean.

Wiseman would like to see explorers and adventurers have to pay a bond, to be returned if they make it home safely or if they have a comprehensive plan in case something does go wrong.

“If there’s somebody out there flying by the seat of their pants with no financial wherewithal to do that, then maybe they’d forget the idea,” he said.

‘Why should anyone look?’

Engineer Bart Kemper was one of the submersible industry leaders who helped develop a letter warning OceanGate Expeditions CEO Stockton Rush of the potential for “catastrophic” consequences in 2018.

The letter warned Rush against the experimental approach he was taking with Titan, and his decision to not have the submersible “classed” in a peer-reviewed process.

“I’m OK with people taking their own risks, but I do think there’s an interesting debate on this,” Kemper told CBC Newfoundland and Labrador in an interview before parts of Titan were found on the ocean floor.

Titan sub built by ‘MacGyver-ing’ off-the-shelf parts: journalist

CBS News correspondent David Pogue says OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush seemed to have a ‘swashbuckling’ attitude toward safety standards in building his Titan submersible. ‘There are a lot of rules out there that didn’t make engineering sense to me,’ Rush told Pogue in a 2022 interview.

Kemper said the company responded to some of the concerns raised in the letter — such as changing its marketing materials to emphasize this was an experimental submersible, and not a tourist expedition. However, they stopped short of a peer-reviewed certification process.

“They wholesale rejected codes and standards. They chose to say no,” Kemper said. “If you’re not doing anything to be found, why should anyone look?”

Kemper said there could be conditions placed on expeditions before they take place, such as a waiver that absolves search and rescue officials from the responsibility to save them if something goes wrong. That would also guarantee people understand the risks they’re facing, he said.

Is this the new standard?

Mylène Paquette of Montreal understands the issue more than most. She paddled across the Atlantic Ocean in 2013, going from Halifax to western France in a 7.3-metre boat.

She capsized in the tail end of a hurricane along the way, and was helped out by the ocean liner Queen Mary 2 before finishing her quest.

A woman in a small boat leaning over and smiling into the camera. She's out on the ocean.
Mylène Paquette is the first North American woman to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean from west to east. (Twitter/Mylene Paquette)

Paquette agrees explorers should have to pay something toward their rescue, but said she wouldn’t have been able to contribute much if such a response happened in her case.

As she watched the search growing for the five missing crew members of the Titan, she wondered if the response would have been the same for her — or others less fortunate than her.

“It’s not the same when it’s a fishing boat, or a rower like me, or the people on the Mediterranean,” Paquette told Radio-Canada on Monday. “I’m not sure they would have searched for me like this in the North Atlantic 10 years ago.”

Wiseman said he heard from families of lost fishermen last week, wondering why the same resources weren’t called into action when their loved ones went missing.

He’s not complaining about the Titan search, which he said was one of the most impressive he’s ever seen, but said this one sets the standard for future cases — as unrealistic as that may be.

“We have to equalize the equation, if you will, and everybody should be treated the same,” he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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