The fatal Oceangate submarine mission last month that killed five people trying to explore the Titanic raises questions about the safety of the largely unregulated submarine tourism industry and how safe the vehicles are in general.

The U.S. Navy went through its own soul-searching with submarines 60 years ago and came up with a program that is often considered the gold standard for safety.

In April 1963, one of the Navy’s first nuclear submarines imploded off the New England coast, killing 129 people. The boat was still undergoing post-overhaul testing when an accident caused the sub to sink below its rated depth until it was crushed under the pressure, said James Bryant, a retired submarine captain. 

“As the hull compresses, things groan and creak,” Bryant said. “Things move around. You probably would have seen brackets holding up pipes, breaking. There was very likely spraying of water.” 

Bryant is part of a group that has been filing Freedom of Information Act requests, hoping to press the Navy to release the full investigation into the 1963 submarine accident. Sixty years after the accident, the cause if still heavily debated, he said.

Since 2017, the Navy has been slowly releasing documents. 

During the early years of the Cold War, the Navy wanted to get nuclear subs into the fleet quickly. Like most U.S. submarines at the time, the USS Thresher was based in part on World War II diesel-powered subs, rather than designed specifically for nuclear reactors. The boat was fitted with new equipment, including new sonar, which changed how the boat looked inside. The manuals were out of date and the crew wasn’t given enough time to train, Bryant said. 

“They didn't really understand ... operating the submarine, training on it. So when they went to sea, whatever happened quickly, and probably many things happened at once, and they were overcome," he said.

The accident may have been caused by a faulty reactor design, a defective part, or a crew that couldn’t react quickly enough to stop whatever disaster they experienced. 

Each April, memorial services are still held at bases and shipyards around the country to commerate the loss. They read the names of each of the 129 people who died. 

South Florida native, Petty Officer 2nd Class Harlie Williams III, a sonar technician (submarines), takes sonar readings aboard the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Newport News. Newport News is currently preparing to depart Naval Station Norfolk for a brief underway.
Photo courtesy of Department of Defense 

A Naval sonar technician on the Norfolk-based USS Newport News tests the system that guides the submarine before the sub left for a mission in 2010.

After the Thresher accident, Adm. Hyman Rickover ordered a complete overhaul of the Navy sub program. Rickover was considered the father of the Navy’s nuclear program.

After the disaster, every part added to a submarine would be thoroughly tested. Each sailor, and each ship builder, is drilled on their role in safety. The Navy lost 16 submarines to accidents before the USS Thresher.

Afterwards, the Navy lost only one in 1968. That one, the USS Scorpion, hadn’t been built through the new Submarine Safety Program (SUBSAFE). 

Even the memorials are part of the safety culture, said Nancy Leveson, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Engineering Systems Laboratory at MIT.

“One of the biggest problems in SUBSAFE today is it's been so successful that they try to keep up the memory,” she said. “Because otherwise, if you haven't had an accident in your whole career, how do you keep people believing that you still can have one?”

Leveson has spent a career analyzing major disasters. NASA brought her in after the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on reentry in 2003. She took NASA engineers to see a Navy sub being built. In the Navy, the people in charge of safety can’t be overruled by project managers in charge of deadlines and controlling costs.

She’s frustrated by comments from Oceangate founder Stockton Rush. He was one of five people who died on board the Titan June 18 as it descended into the deep ocean as part of a commercial venture to take paying customers to see the wreck site of the Titanic. Before his death in the Titan catastrophe, Rush had said in interviews that safety could stifle innovation.

Leveson says she’s fought that argument her whole career. 

“You don't stifle innovation when someone tells you that your innovation is unsafe, but you use it anyway,” she said. “Stupid engineering — that is what we want to stifle. We can build all kinds of things by building things that we know are going to fail. What good is that?”

The SUBSAFE culture may be the gold standard for safety for decades but it’s a hard ethos to duplicate, she said. 

“Overtime there can be drift. You have to decide as an organization that you want to put safety at the center,” she said.

Even the Navy hasn’t adopted SUBSAFE uniformly throughout the entire service, she said. 

Oceangate intentionally avoided hiring former Navy submarine officers who would be steeped in SUBSAFE, like Tom Shugart, who works for Center for a New American Security. He thinks the Titan tragedy could’ve been avoided if people in the planning process had the right kind of training.

“The kind of questions when somebody saw that maintenance, designing and construction wasn't being done the way it's done in the Navy,” he said. “That maybe corners were being cut in the interest of innovation and whatnot. You could have raised some red flags about the way things are being done.”

But, he added, real problems have to be confronted before the boat dives. Especially in the unforgiving world around the Titanic. 

“When you have an implosion that occurs at a depth that the vessel is supposed to be safely operated, then, yeah, there is not much you can do at that point,” he said.

It’s something the Navy learned at great cost in 1963 with the USS Thresher – and works hard to remember, he said.