Saturday: The drama begins
Hamish Harding reveals with pride that he is one of five passengers about to embark on an exclusive deep-sea tour of the Titanic wreckage in the North Atlantic.
In a post on social media, the billionaire adventurer excitedly says a “weather window has just opened up” that would allow the OceanGate Expedition to dive the following day.
With fellow Britons — Surrey-based tycoon Shahzada Dawood, 48, and his teenage son Suleman — Mr Harding has made the 400-mile journey from Newfoundland to the wreck’s site. Each has paid a staggering AUD 370,00 for the privilege of setting their eyes on the legendary Titanic, which sank in 1912 at the cost of 1,500 lives.
They would have been asked to sign a disclaimer acknowledging Titan was an uncertified “experimental vessel” and the trip could cause “physical injury, disability, motion trauma or death”. Despite the dire warnings, Mr Harding appears to be confident in the abilities of their escorts: French submarine pilot Paul-Henry Nargeolet and Stockton.
In his post, he describes them as a “couple of legendary explorers” who have done over 30 dives to the Titanic. Mr Harding signs off his last message from the mothership Polar Prince promising: “More expedition updates to follow IF the weather holds!”
But a few hours later, the submarine loses contact, triggering an unprecedented and monumental search effort with ships swarming the ocean and state-of-the-art robots being deployed to the sea bed. The mystery will seize the world’s attention for the next four days.
Sunday: Disaster strikes
Oblivious to the imminent catastrophe, the group would have excitedly boarded the submersible on Sunday evening, eventually launching after a short delay.
They would have seen the Titan’s dome window from which they expected to take in the breathtaking views.
The men are sealed in with limited food supplies and 96 hours of oxygen — sufficient for what is expected to be a seven-hour trip due to resurfacing at 9pm. A last haunting photo of Titan shows it being towed by Polar Prince in grey choppy seas shortly before the men embark on what is billed as a “once in a lifetime” adventure.
The submersible, programmed to “ping” every 15 minutes to indicate its location, begins its two-hour descent to the Titanic at 12,500ft. But disaster strikes before they even reach the shipwreck — all contact is lost after just one hour and 45 minutes.
Initial searches of the area are said to have been made, but disturbingly, the US Coastguard says it was not notified until almost eight hours later at 11.40pm.
Monday: The search is on
The following morning the authorities revealed that a massive maritime search operation was underway to find the “overdue submersible”.
A “unified command” centre is set up on Polar Prince while both us and Canadian Navy ships and the US Air National Guard are scrambled. They are soon joined by specialist aircraft — including P3 Aurora and P8 Poseidon with underwater detection capabilities.
But rescuers reveal that the sub could have become stuck on the 111-year-old wreckage, making it nearly impossible to locate without underwater robots.
John Mauger, a US Coast Guard rear admiral, admits they do not have the capabilities to search the bottom of the ocean. He says multiple assets, including three ROVs — remotely operated vehicles — are being mobilised.
Tuesday: Oxygen fears
The following morning the Bahamian research vessel Deep Energy arrives on the scene and can start vital ROV operations. At 7pm, coastguards hold a press conference beamed around the globe from Boston in which they reveal the passengers have just 40 hours of oxygen left.
With no sign of the missing sub despite more than 48 hours of intensive searching over 10,000 square miles, hopes for the passengers are beginning to fade.
France has now deployed the research vessel Atalante and its advanced ROV — Victor 6000 — that can dive to 20,000ft.
It is said to hold the key to the operation bit is not expected to arrive until Wednesday night.
Behind the scenes, an encouraging development is emerging. Canadian aircraft scouring the area have detected “banging noises” at regular 30-minute intervals and are thought to be from an area close to the Titan’s last known location.
Recordings are handed to experts in the US Navy for analysis while search efforts are redeployed to find the origin of the sounds.
Wednesday: Hopes rise
Further aircraft sweeps of the area pick up the “banging noises” again four hours later and again the next day, Wednesday.
Mr Harding’s cousin Kathleen Cosnett says the detection of the noises has given her hope that the crew are banging on the hull, signalling for help.
Mr Dawood’s sister Sabrina says the family entirely focuses on rescuing her brother and nephew.
Scathing documents then emerge that reveal safety concerns were raised about the Titan to OceanGate by former employees and industry experts as long ago as 2018. OceanGate has previously said that seeking safety certification delays innovation.
An open letter signed by 38 industry experts warned the unregulated “experimental” vessel was heading for catastrophe and required proper testing.
Meanwhile, other vessels arrive on the scene to assist the search, including the Canadian Coast Guard’s John Cabot, a ship with sonar capabilities, and commercial craft Skandi Vinland and the Atlantic Merlin.
By now, the area of the search is expanding “exponentially” because of the ever-changing weather conditions. Coastguards have five surface vessels searching the site, which is said to be twice the size of Connecticut.
At 7pm, a second press conference by the us Coast Guard is held in which they admit they have struggled to locate the origins of the “banging sounds”.
Captain James Frederick says initial analysis has proved “inconclusive”. However, search efforts — including sonar buoys — focus on where the sounds originated. A Hercules plane conducts a search covering a range of 879 miles on Wednesday afternoon.
Yesterday: Tragic end
A few hours later, Atlante finally arrives with the Victor 6000, which enters the water first thing on Thursday morning. It has lights, cameras and mechanical arms capable of cutting or removing debris.
The Canadian-flagged ship, the Horizon Arctic, also deploys an ROV supplied by the US Navy. By now, the Titan’s oxygen supply is dangerously low and scheduled to run out at 2pm.
But Rear Admiral Mauger says it is still a rescue mission with a robot now on the ocean floor.
A mobile decompression chamber is on standby, hoping the Titanic explorers have a fighting chance.
But then the us Coast Guard makes a disturbing announcement that dashes all hope.
In a tweet posted shortly before 6pm, rescuers announced that the robotic devices had found a “debris field” close to the Titanic.
David Mearns, a rescue expert who knows two of the five men on board, says two crucial parts of the system have been detected, with the hull yet to be found.
Mr Mearns tells Sky News: “They don’t use phrases like ‘debris field’ unless there’s no chance of a recovery of the men alive.”
He says the only saving grace is that the deaths would have been “immediate — literally in milliseconds”, and they would not have known what had happened.
Coastguards prepare to explain the grim discovery, which is expected to end the extraordinary four-day search.