Debris found on the ocean floor on Thursday near the wreck of the Titanic is thought to be from a missing tourist submersible, CNN reported citing an internal US Coast Guard document, a grim development five days into an international search to save the five people aboard.
OceanGate believes that the passengers on the Titan submersible have "sadly been lost" in a statement cited by CNN.
David Mearns, a rescue expert, told Sky News that the debris found in the search for Titan was "a landing frame and a rear cover from the submersible."
Mearns said he is part of a WhatsApp group involving The Explorers Club, adding he is friends with Hamish Harding and Paul-Henri Nargeolet, two of the men missing on the Titan.
"Again this is an unconventional submarine, that rear cover is the pointy end of it and the landing frame is the little frame that it seems to sit on," Mearns continued, adding this discovery confirms it was indeed the Titan.
"It means the hull hasn't yet been found but two very important parts of the whole system have been discovered and that would not be found unless its fragmented," Mearns said. "If the faring is off and the frame is off - then something really bad has happened to the entire structure On the news that we have yet, they haven't found the hull of which the men are inside."
Mauger said it was too early to tell when the vessel's failure occurred. The search operation had sonar buoys in the water for more than three days and had not detected any sort of loud explosive noise during the period, Mauger said.
The buoys had picked up some sounds on Tuesday and Wednesday that temporarily offered hope the people on board the Titan were alive and trying to communicate by banging on the hull.
The desperate search for a missing submersible near the wreck of the Titanic entered a critical juncture on Thursday when air was expected to run out for the five people aboard, but officials vowed to continue scouring the remote North Atlantic.
Britain has embedded a navy submariner with the team searching for a submersible that went missing near the wreckage of the Titanic, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Thursday.
The spokesperson told reporters that an aircraft was also carrying specialist commercial equipment from the United Kingdom to assist with the search.
A French ship carrying a deep-sea diving robot has reached the search area for a missing submersible that was exploring the wreck of the Titanic, the French marine research institute Ifremer said on Thursday.
The research vessel Atalante is first using an echo-sounder to accurately map the seabed in order for the robot's search to be more targeted, Ifremer said.
The minivan-sized submersible Titan, operated by US-based OceanGate Expeditions, began its descent at 8 a.m. on Sunday. It lost contact with its surface support ship near the end of what should have been a two-hour dive to the site of the world's most famous shipwreck, in a remote corner of the North Atlantic.
The Titan set off with 96 hours of air, according to the company, meaning its oxygen tanks would likely be depleted sometime on Thursday morning. How long the air would actually last, experts said, depended on various factors, such as whether the submersible still had power and how calm those aboard remained.
Still, the countdown to oxygen depletion posed only a hypothetical deadline, assuming the missing vessel was even still intact, rather than trapped or damaged in punishing depths at or near the sea floor.
Rescue teams, and loved ones of the Titan's five occupants, took hope in US Coast Guard reports on Wednesday that Canadian search planes had recorded undersea noises using sonar buoys earlier that day and on Tuesday.
The Coast Guard said deployments of remote-controlled underwater search vehicles were redirected to the vicinity where the noises were detected, to no avail, and officials cautioned that the sounds may not have originated from the Titan.
"When you're in the middle of a search-and-rescue case, you always have hope," Coast Guard Captain Jamie Frederick said at a press conference on Wednesday. "With respect to the noises specifically, we don't know what they are."
Frederick added that analysis of the sonar buoy data was "inconclusive."
In one highly anticipated addition to the search, the French research ship Atalante was en route late on Wednesday to deploy a robotic diving craft capable of descending to a depth well below that of even the Titanic's ruins more than 2 miles down, the Coast Guard said.
The French submersible robot dubbed the Victor 6,000, was dispatched at the request of the US Navy, which was sending its own special salvage system designed to lift large, heavy undersea objects such as sunken aircraft or small vessels.
Drama in the deep
The drama was playing out in the icy waters beyond the east coast of Canada, where the British luxury liner RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, killing more than 1,500 people.
The wreck of the cruise ship lies on the seabed at a depth of about 12,500 feet (3,810 meters), about 900 miles (1,450 km) east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and 400 miles south of St. John's, Newfoundland.
The Titan was carrying its pilot and four others on a deep-sea excursion to the shipwreck, capping a tourist adventure for which OceanGate charges $250,000 per person.
The passengers included British billionaire and adventurer Hamish Harding, 58, and Pakistani-born business magnate Shahzada Dawood, 48, with his 19-year-old son Suleman, who are both British citizens.
French oceanographer and leading Titanic expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet, 77, and Stockton Rush, founder and chief executive of OceanGate, were also reported to be on board.
Sean Leet, who heads a company that jointly owns the support ship, the Polar Prince, told reporters on Wednesday that "all protocols were followed" but declined to give a detailed account of how communication ceased.
"There's still life support available on the submersible, and we'll continue to hold out hope until the very end," Leet, CEO of Miawpukek Horizon Maritime Services, told reporters.
Even if the Titan were located, retrieving it would present huge logistical challenges.
If the submersible managed to return to the surface, spotting it would be difficult in the vast open sea, and it is bolted shut from the outside, preventing anyone inside from exiting without assistance.
If Titan is on the ocean floor, a rescue would be even more challenging because of the immense pressures and total darkness at that depth. Titanic expert Tim Maltin said it would be "almost impossible to effect a sub-to-sub rescue" on the seabed.
The French submersible on its way could be used to help free the Titan if it is stuck on the seabed, although the robot cannot lift the 21,000-pound (9,525-kg) craft on its own. The robot could also help hook the sub to a surface ship capable of lifting it, the operator said.
Questions about the Titan's safety were raised in 2018 during a symposium of submersible industry experts and in a lawsuit filed by OceanGate's former head of marine operations, which was settled later that year.