The search for five missing passengers aboard an experimental submarine is now over, completing one of the largest joint search and rescue efforts in US and Canadian history.
As police and officials now sift through the facts to find out what went wrong, debates rage over who should be responsible to pay for the massive response to international waters.
U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral John Mauger was unequivocal when asked on Sunday.
“Under US law, we do not charge for search and rescue, nor do we charge for human life,” he said. “We always answer the call.”
Five people died after OceanGate Expeditions’ Titan submarine imploded on its way down to view the Titanic wreck last Sunday. The search lasted Monday through Friday, with the hope that the crew was still alive but caught somewhere on the ocean floor.
The law is clear: The US and Canadian Coast Guards will never bill anyone 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 world’s most advanced remote-controlled vehicles, experts are wondering if it’s time to change the rules.
“There’s been a heated debate for a long time about who bears the cost of a rescue,” 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 spent over the years looking for people who went on an adventure and suffered the consequences. Those missions are expensive, and he estimates the search for Titan will exceed $20 million when the final costs are added up.
“It’s debatable, I know, but I think there has to be some level of cost, or accountability for those costs,” Wiseman said.
His biggest problem is not money. Wiseman said people often don’t consider the risk to the search and rescue teams tasked with coming to their rescue. For example, on the Titan search, Wiseman said the pilots of the low-flying plane risked their lives daily and the crews aboard the ships were pushed to their limits during five days of constant searching across the unforgiving North Atlantic.
Wiseman would like explorers and adventurers to pay a deposit, which they get back when they get home safely or if they have a comprehensive plan in case something goes wrong.
“If there was someone out there flying past their pants with no financial means to do it, they might forget about the idea,” he said.
“Why would anyone watch?”
Engineer Bart Kemper was one of the submersible industry leaders who helped develop a letter warning OceanGate Expeditions CEO Stockton Rush of the possibility of “catastrophic” consequences in 2018.
The letter cautioned Rush against the experimental approach he was taking with Titan, and his decision not to have the submarine “classified” in a peer-reviewed process.
“I’m fine with people taking their own risks, but I think there’s an interesting debate about it,” Kemper told CBC Newfoundland and Labrador in an interview before parts of Titan were found on the ocean floor.
Kemper said the company was responding to some of the concerns raised in the letter, such as changing the marketing materials to emphasize that this was an experimental submarine and not a tourist expedition. However, they dropped out of a peer-reviewed certification process.
“They rejected codes and standards in general. They chose to say no,” Kemper said. “If you don’t do anything to be found, why would anyone search?”
Kemper said conditions could be placed on expeditions before they take place, such as a waiver that relieves search and rescue officials of the responsibility of rescuing them if something goes wrong. That would also guarantee that people understand the risks they face, he said.
Will this be the new standard?
Montreal’s Mylène Paquette understands the issue better than most. She paddled across the Atlantic Ocean in 2013, going from Halifax to western France in a 25-foot boat.
She capsized in the tail of a hurricane en route and was aided by the ocean liner Queen Mary 2 before ending her search.
Paquette agrees that explorers should pay something for their rescue, but said she couldn’t have contributed much if such a reaction happened in her case.
As she watched the search for the Titan’s five missing crew members grow, she wondered if the reaction would have been the same for her – or for others less fortunate than her.
“It’s not the same if it’s a fishing boat, or a rower like me, or the people of the Mediterranean,” Paquette told Radio-Canada on Monday. “I’m not sure if they would have looked for me this way in the North Atlantic 10 years ago.”
Wiseman said last week he heard from families of lost fishermen who wondered why the same resources were not deployed when their loved ones went missing.
He’s not complaining about the Titan quest, which he said was one of the most impressive he’s ever seen, but said it sets the standard for things to come – however unrealistic that may be.
“We have to equalize the equation, if you will, and everyone has to be treated the same,” he said.
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