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Submersible implosion may have been avoided if Navy design principles were followed

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating the cause of the catastrophic implosion that killed all five people on board the Titan submersible. Expert submariners say the tragedy could have been avoided by following the Navy's design principles. Steve Walsh with WHRO in Norfolk has the story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: In April 1963, one of the Navy's first nuclear submarines imploded off the New England coast, killing 129 people. Something caused the sub to sink beyond its rated depth until it was crushed under the pressure, says James Bryant, a retired submarine captain.

JAMES BRYANT: As the hull compresses, things groan and creak, things move around. You probably would have seen brackets holding up pipes breaking. There were very likely spraying of water.

WALSH: Bryant is part of a group that is pressing the Navy to release the full investigation. Sixty years after the accident, the cause is still heavily debated. During the early years of the Cold War, the Navy wanted to get nuclear subs into the fleet quickly. The USS Thresher was fitted with new equipment, and the crew wasn't given enough time to train, he says.

BRYANT: They didn't really understand, have had the experience operating the submarine, training on it when they went to sea. So whatever happened, they were overcome.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Ronald Eugene Wolfe.

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WALSH: The accident may have been caused by a faulty reactor design, a defective part or crew error.

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WALSH: Memorial services like the one held at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire in 2013 are still held at bases around the country.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Richard Kaye Fisher.

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WALSH: After the accident, the Navy ordered a complete overhaul of its sub program. Now every part added to a submarine is thoroughly tested. Each sailor and each shipbuilder knows their role in safety. The Navy lost 16 submarines to accidents before the Thresher. Afterwards, the Navy lost only one in 1968, and it hadn't been through the new SUBSAFE program. Even the memorials are part of the safety culture, says MIT professor Nancy Leveson.

NANCY LEVESON: One of the biggest problems in SUBSAFE today is it's been so successful that they try and keep up the memory, because otherwise, if you haven't had an accident in your whole career, how do you keep people believing that you still can have one?

WALSH: Leveson has spent a career analyzing major disasters. NASA brought her in after the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated on re-entry in 2003. She took NASA engineers to see Navy subs being built. There, people in charge of safety can't be overruled by project managers in charge of deadlines and controlling costs. She's frustrated by comments from OceanGate founder Stockton Rush. Before his death in the Titan catastrophe, he had said in interviews that safety could stifle innovation. Leveson said she's fought that argument her whole career.

LEVESON: You don't stifle innovation when someone tells you that your innovation is unsafe but you use it anyway. Stupid engineering - that we want to stifle. Building things that we know are going to fail - what good is that?

WALSH: The SUBSAFE culture is unique even in the Navy, and it's a hard ethos to duplicate, Leveson said. OceanGate didn't hire former Navy submarine officers steeped in SUBSAFE, like Tom Shugart. He thinks the Titan tragedy could have been avoided.

TOM SHUGART: The kind of questions when somebody saw that maintenance, designing, construction wasn't being done the way it's done in the Navy, that maybe corners were being cut in the interest of innovation and whatnot, could have raised some red flags about how business was being done.

WALSH: But, he adds, real problems have to be confronted before the boat dives, especially in the unforgiving world around the Titanic.

SHUGART: When you have an implosion that occurs at a depth that the vessel is supposed to be safely operated at, then, yeah, there's not much you can do at that point.

WALSH: It's something the Navy learned at great cost in 1963 with the USS Thresher and works hard to remember.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in Norfolk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Walsh