Engineering to Avoid Disaster: Learning from the Titan Implosion and Other Tragedies


Innovation is one of the biggest driving forces in our economy. We revere those who cross new boundaries and do things that have never been done before. And a common refrain among innovators is that regulations, protocols, certifications, and traditional engineering rigor are impediments to their goals. 

Stockton Rush, the deceased CEO of OceanGate, echoed those sentiments. 

We’re breaking the rules . . .

Protocol stifles innovation . . .

Innovation often falls outside of the existing industry paradigm . . .

For those who try to uphold the standards of engineering as a profession, and especially those of us investigating engineering failures, and specifically marine engineering failures, statements like those above from Rush are chilling. Not because we are stodgy impediments to new ideas or new technologies, but because we know the all-too-real costs of neglecting diligence and protocol.

The loss of Titan, the submersible owned and operated by OceanGate, is a reminder that the codes, standards, and rules we follow as engineers exist for good reason. 

Hard Lessons Drive Change

The field of engineering has been shaped by tragedies. As far back as ancient Babylon, people knew the risks of substandard engineering. Babylonian King Hammurabi codified into law that “builders” who did their job improperly would be held accountable, which, at the time, included execution if a building’s failure was determined to have contributed to the loss of life.  

Today, every state in the U.S. regulates and licenses the practice of engineering. Those laws and professional boards were often created in the wake of tragedy. 

After the St. Francis dam failed in 1928 and took the lives of more than 500 nearby residents, California determined that the unregulated design of construction projects constituted a hazard to the public, and the state’s legislature passed laws to regulate civil engineering. Within a year of the dam’s failure, the state Board of Registration for Civil Engineers (now the Board for Professional Engineers, Land Surveyors, and Geologists) was created. 

Texas passed its Engineering Registration Act in 1937 after the New London School exploded .  

Similarly, the various codes and standards that govern the engineering profession were often created following disasters. The National Electric Code was created in the wake of building fires. Plumbing and sanitation codes were born out of pandemics caused by waterborne pathogens.  Mechanical codes were created after fires and boiler explosions. Seismic codes emerged after entire cities were leveled by an earthquake.  

You might notice a pattern here. Vehicle safety regulations, aircraft design standards, manufacturing standards, OSHA regulations, etc. They are all the result of painful lessons.

Regulations and Oversight Are Essential to Maritime Safety

In the maritime industry, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a congress of all countries which have interest in the maritime industry, sets standards and guidelines for safe maritime operations. IMO has subcommittees that draft resolutions that may become international codes or standards.

Commercial Submersible Vehicle

Design, construction, and operation of a ship or submersible is governed first by its flag state, the state in which the ship or submersible is registered and from which it operates. For example, a ship operating out of the United States would fly an American flag. After the flag state, the vessel is governed by a "recognized organization."

Recognized organizations are independent from government and industry control. In the maritime industry, these organizations are the class societies—independent organizations whose charter is to promote safety at sea. Class societies follow their charter through rules on construction and outfitting combined with in-service inspections. Those rules are drafted to conform and/or exceed the codes and guidelines of the IMO.

Flag states have representatives on the IMO, so they have a voice on how the codes are written and a responsibility to enforce those codes. Some flag states impose additional regulations on top of the IMO codes. For example, the United States Code, under Title 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations, requires that ships meet the construction requirements of the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) class society and additional federal interpretations of IMO codes. 

A Costly Decision to Pursue Innovation at Any Cost

The IMO and other entities are mentioned to illustrate how robust and integral regulations are to anyone operating a ship or submersible. Following the implosion of Titan, the investigation revealed that OceanGate sought to avoid even the most basic scrutiny.

  • OceanGate chose to operate under the flag of the Bahamas, which is known within the maritime community as a flag state which loosely enforces the IMO codes and guidelines.
  • OceanGate did not contract with a class society to oversee construction and provide in-service verification, despite the fact that most of the major class societies have rules for the construction and operation of submersible passenger craft.
  • OceanGate chose to not follow IMO guidelines on the Design, Construction, and Operation of Passenger Submersible Craft (IMO Marine Safety Committee [MSC] Circular 981)

Anticipating and Adapting to Innovations

There are few things that excite engineers more than trying to do something new and innovative. But there is a right way to do it. Attempting something completely new requires more scrutiny, more rigor, more double-checking, more peer review, and more testing. Never less.  

The rules created by the class societies are regularly reviewed by field inspectors, ship owners, flag states, and ship builders to adapt to new technologies as they are introduced. These rules also address novel designs, providing guidance on how to validate previously untested concepts against the framework of safety. To dismiss rules as ‘stifling innovation’ shows an ignorance of the context of classification rules or can indicate that the designer believes—wrongly—that they know more than the experts in the field.

Above All Else, Do No Harm

When working on concepts at the forefront of technology, it is important to keep first principles as the guidance for a project. When engineers speak of ‘first principles,’ it is mostly in the context of the basic equations which engineering is built upon: force, pressure, power, speed, and other basic concepts. For a professional engineer, the ‘first principle’ above all is that which is the basis of all professional licensing boards and is embodied in the first canon of the NSPE Code of Ethics:

Engineers, in fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.

This statement of professionalism closely mirrors the third verse of another, more well-known treatise that practitioners of medicine are sworn to uphold: the Hippocratic Oath. It states, in part, "Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm." This is often re-interpreted to mean ‘above all else, do no harm.’  

Be it the practice of medicine or engineering, both practitioners are duty-bound to secure the safety of persons above all else. This is where the uninformed design of the OceanGate Titan went astray. In flaunting the established standards and guidelines developed from painfully realized knowledge, the submersible was doomed to violate the first canon of the engineering Code of Ethics.

The lessons of the past should guide us in how to take those next steps into the unknown. Especially when human lives are the price of getting it wrong. Simply put, determining the cause of a loss incident is essential to understanding changes that can be made to prevent a similar loss incident in the future.  

At EDT, we have extensive experience with new and emerging technologies, including renewable energy, electric vehicles (EV) and lithium-ion batteries. Our professional engineers have the knowledge and broad experience to provide comprehensive analysis of complex technologies involved in loss incidents of all sizes. 

Reach out to one of our engineers today to get the answers you need.