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June 21, 2023

Philadelphia University grad among 5 missing on OceanGate submersible near Titanic wreck

Shahzada Dawood, a British-Pakistani businessman, and his 19-year-old son are aboard the lost vessel Titan, which is expected to run out of oxygen Thursday morning

Investigations Missing People
Titan OceanGate Expeditions Source/OceanGate

Titan, the OceanGate Expeditions submersible shown above, vanished during a voyage to the Titanic wreck about 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Five crew members are aboard the vessel, including Philadelphia University grad Shahzada Dawood and his son.

A Philadelphia University graduate and his son are among the five crew members aboard the missing OceanGate submersible that was on an expedition to explore the wreck of the Titanic in the north Atlantic Ocean. 

The deep sea vessel carrying British-Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his son, Suleman, 19, went missing Sunday, sparking a frenzied, international search. The submersible, named Titan, is expected to run out of oxygen Thursday morning.

Shahzada Dawood, a billionaire from one of Pakistan's richest families, is the vice chairman of the fertilizer company Engro Corporation, a division of the Dawood Hercules Corporation. Dawood received a masters degree in Global Textile Marketing from Philadelphia University — now Thomas Jefferson University following a merger six years ago — in 2000, a university spokesman confirmed.

Dawood and his son reside in London, where Suleman is a college student described as a big fan of science fiction literature. 

The father and son are among the tourists who paid $250,000 for the OceanGate trip, which ventures thousands of feet into the ocean to visit the site of the Titanic, the historic passenger liner that struck an iceberg and capsized in 1912.

The other crew members are OceanGate Expeditions CEO Stockton Rush, British businessman and explorer Hamish Harding and French maritime expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet, who has been involved in more than 35 other dives to the Titanic wreck site.

On Sunday afternoon, during the submersible's voyage to the sea floor, it lost contact with its mothership on the surface and could no longer be traced. The deep sea vessel is sealed shut from the outside to withstand the intense pressure at the depths it is built to explore. It is one of the world's only privately-owned submersibles capable of traveling 13,000 feet below sea level, far beyond the 2,900 feet reached by the deepest-diving U.S. military submarine, the BBC reported. The wreck of the Titanic is about 12,500 feet below sea level.

Submarines are not the same as submersibles, which require support ships for deployment and communication since they have comparatively less power and range. 

Titan is considered an "experimental" design that pushes the boundaries of industrial standards. The vessel raised alarm five years ago among experts in the world of deep sea exploration, who had warned of possible "catastrophic" problems with OceanGate's Titanic expeditions. The company previously made two other tourist expeditions to the Titanic site in 2021 and 2022. The vessel has about 96 hours of oxygen reserves onboard, making the rescue effort a race against time and dangerous, deep sea conditions.

During the ongoing search, Dawood's family provided a statement to the Associated Press requesting prayers that the passengers can be located and safely rescued.

"We are very grateful for the concern being shown by our colleagues and friends and would like to request everyone to pray for their safety while granting the family privacy at this time," the Dawood family said. "The family is well looked after and are praying to Allah for the safe return of their family members."

Early Wednesday morning, the U.S. Coast Guard said a Canadian surveillance aircraft detected "underwater noises" in Titan's search area, which is now about twice the size of Connecticut. In addition to remote-operated vehicles that are searching the water at depths of 13,000 feet, aircraft have been deployed to scan the surface for signs of the submersible. Sonar probes dropped from the sky enter the water to collect acoustic data that's interpreted by the U.S. Navy to help narrow the search.

"The data from (Canada's) P-3 aircraft has been shared with our U.S. Navy experts for further analysis which will be considered in future search plans," the Coast Guard said.

Rolling Stone, citing internal emails sent to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, reported that the aircraft detected "banging" sounds in 30-minute intervals in the search area. 

'With respect to the noises specifically, we don't know what they are," U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jamie Fredrick said Wednesday afternoon. "The P3 detected noises. That's why they're up there. That's why they're doing what they're doing. That's why they put sonar buoys in the water. The good news is we're searching in the area where the noises were detected and we'll continue to do so."

The review of the noises detected Tuesday and Wednesday involves eliminating natural and other man-made sources that may produce the sounds picked up by sonic buoys, officials said. U.S. and Canadian fleets involved in the search will be getting more support and technical assistance from France and England in the hours ahead. 

If the vessel is located, retrieving it from the ocean would be a difficult feat. The remote vehicle needed to recover the submersible must be transported by a ship that may not be able to travel quickly enough to reach the site in time to rescue the crew. It's also unclear whether a remote vehicle would be capable of towing Titan to the surface, depending on its depth and location. The vehicle measures about 22 feet long, weights about 23,000 pounds and is made of carbon-fiber and titanium.

"This is a search and rescue mission, 100%," Fredrick said. "We are smack dab in the middle of a search and rescue and we'll continue to put every available asset that we have in an effort to find the Titan and the crew members."

Fredrick added that all of the agencies involved in the search are conscious of the oxygen limitations on the Titan, but noted that there are various data points that need to be considered when determining how to use resources. 

OceanGate Expeditions encountered technical issues with its surface communication system during an expedition last summer. CBS News tech correspondent David Pogue, who was aboard Titan for that voyage, reported that the submersible lost contact with the mothership for several hours during its final descent to reach the Titanic wreck. The vessel relies on an accompanying surface ship for navigation instructions because GPS does not work underwater.

Another former Oceangate passenger, Bucks County businessman Alfred "Fred" Hagen, told the Bucks County Courier Times that he was aboard Titan for the 2021 and 2022 voyages. On several occasions, Hagen said the submersible lost contact with the surface before regaining communications.

Hagen recalled a harrowing experience during one of the expeditions, when Titan was briefly trapped in the wreckage of the Titanic. Nargeolet, the French explorer, used the Titan's navigator to free the vessel. The submersible is steered using a Logitech video game controller, which is not uncommon for similar vessels and submarines

The possibility that the submersible is trapped in the shipwreck is one of several theories about what may have happened to it. Some experts have suggested Titan may be floating somewhere on the ocean surface, or it could have suffered a catastrophic implosion due a mechanical failure under the pressure of the deep sea.

"Whether it's operable, or whether it's sitting on the ocean floor, whether it's in the sea column, whether it's on the surface, it's all speculation," Fredrick said. "We're just not in the business of speculation."

OceanGate Expeditions has come under fire in the days since the vessel went missing because the company reportedly took eight hours to notify authorities that Titan had lost contact with Polar Prince, the ship on the surface, The Daily Mail reported. The private company contends that government officials have stalled some aspects of the search and rescue effort.

Hagen, who runs a construction company based in Bensalem, praised the skill and experience of the OceanGate crew and told 6ABC it has been difficult to watch the search for Titan play out from afar — especially having been aboard the vessel just a year ago.

"That concept that you're sitting there comfortably having hot coffee and (they're) freezing and suffering and gasping for air, it tortures you at a certain level," Hagen said.