Stockton Rush and the Andrea Doria
Seven years ago, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate, after OceanGate’s Cyclops I captured images of the sunken Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria. Rush is among the five passengers on the submersible that went missing during a dive to the sunken Titanic this week. Below is the story that I wrote for The Cape Codder newspaper in June 2016.
For 60 years, the details surrounding the wreck of the Andrea Doria have been one of the great mysteries lurking beneath the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
Last week, the crew of OceanGate’s five-man submersible Cyclops I began to fine-tune that fuzzy picture, returning from an eight-day expedition utilizing high-definition video and 3-D sonar technology to capture some of the finest images of the Italian ocean liner, which sank 50 miles off Nantucket after a collision with the Swedish ship Stockholm on a foggy night on July 25, 1956.
Five people on the Stockholm died, but 46 crew and passengers on the Italian ship perished. More than 1,600 others were rescued as the ship took 11 hours to sink.
In planning the expedition, OceanGate CEO and expedition leader Stockton Rush used a two year-old sonar image, which provided some detail of the wreck. Using OceanGate’s technology, several images of the bow were “stitched” together last week.
“The bow section image showed that the entire structure has fallen off in the last two years,” noted Rush, whose Everett, Washington-based group is working with Boston Harbor Cruises, which is providing the operational vessel, and iXBlue, which is in charge of navigation services. “There’s been significant degradation of the hull,” Rush said.
OceanGate’s mission is to document the vessel, which is over 600 feet long and submerged in 240 feet (72 meters) of water. Many have embarked on a deadly quest of salvaging artifacts. Sixteen divers have perished, including one last year, often succumbing to narcosis (a condition in which too much nitrogen builds up in the blood, clouding judgment). Currents can be unpredictable at that depth, and visibility is poor. When divers aren’t overtaken by the elements, they can only stay below for about 20 minutes.
“What we can do for the diving community is to give them a better sense of where they are,” Rush said. “By making these images available, they can plan their dives with better detail. Many of the fatalities have occurred because the people became disoriented and gotten lost.”
The Cyclops I, which is about the size of a small car, has four days of life support. It can stay below for hours at a time, and bout 80 percent of what’s on the submarine can stay below down to a depth of 6,000 meters.
As sophisticated as the vessel might be, some of the parts inside are relatively simple. Rush actually uses three Play Station joysticks from his pilot’s seat in the back of the submarine, and imaging is done with a GoPro camera.
The challenges, Rush noted, aren’t so much at the site; they start with getting out there. There were three truckloads used to get the equipment across the country. The equipment was then assembled it Boston before it was towed around the Cape in heavy seas.
“Expeditions are about getting to the site,” Rush noted. “Planting the flag on the top of the mountain is not the hard part. Getting there is the tough part.”
Organizing the crew is also a challenge, but the Rush and company are in good hands with the likes of Scott Parazynski, who is also an astronaut and mountain climber. He’s the only person to have flown in space and summited Mount Everest.
“I can say from experience that being at the bottom of the ocean is every bit as special,” Parazynski said. “The expedition team was hampered by difficult conditions, but that’s a reality you live with in any exploration.”
The exploration is highly unpredictable and challenging, Parazynski said, but he often gets through it by utilizing what he calls “MacGyver skills.”
“On one of my space shuttle missions, we had to perform highly complex repair,” he said. “Our expedition to the Doria certainly required a similar combination of ingenuity, flexibility, and teamwork to pull it off.”
A typical day had the Cyclops I doing two three-hour dives, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. The biggest challenges that the crew encountered were bouts with thick fog, and Hurricane Colin, which was passing out to sea just south of the location.
“We considered this mission a success from an operational standpoint,” OceanGate’s Joel Perry said. “We didn’t get in the number of dives that we would’ve liked.”
OceanGate will continue to use sonar to image the entire wreck, a project that could take several visits to the site.
“It’s a detail that’s never been done before,” Rush said. “We’ve got the first piece of that started. Once we finish with the wreck, we’ll start at the bow again. With the debris field, there’s things that have slumped off there, so there’s stuff to be explored there.
“We want to come back next year and continue the scan, and do that annually. It will give us an idea as to how much the wreck is decaying.”