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Rescuers race against time to find the missing Titanic submersible

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The search continues, but hopes are dimming for the five people, including tourists, lost since their deep-water expedition to the site of the Titanic wreck on Sunday. U.S. and Canadian teams are adding more vessels, more aircraft to help the search, which is unfolding some 900 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass. NPR's Tovia Smith is following this. And, Tovia, what's the latest?

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Well, we know they're searching the waters, and they are watching the clock 'cause there's now less than two days left of their emergency oxygen supply. But we don't know what happened to this sub, where it is or why it lost communication Sunday with its support vessel on the surface. It just went silent in the middle of what should have been a 2 1/2-hour dive down to the wreckage site. So now Coast Guard Captain Jamie Frederick says the search and rescue effort is expanding. It's already an area the size of Connecticut.

JAMIE FREDERICK: These search efforts have focused on both surface, with C-130 aircrafts searching by sight and with radar, and subsurface. With P-3 aircraft, we're able to drop and monitor sonar buoys. To date, those search efforts have not yielded any results.

SMITH: Also, I may add, so far no explanation for what appears to be an hours-long gap between the time the sub lost contact and when the Coast Guard was called for help. The company that owns the sub, OceanGate, says it has - has said very little beyond that it's doing all it can to bring the crew back safely.

KELLY: Stay with that company, though, OceanGate. What do we know about them?

SMITH: Yep. It's a for-profit company that runs these expeditions for tourists at some $250,000 a pop. I'll play you a little vibe of their promo video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A 12,500-foot journey to the bottom of the sea earning raves from those who've taken our unforgettable dives.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There's no other trip like this.

SMITH: OceanGate also pitches how safe it is, but some have questioned that. I spoke to longtime Titanic diver G. Michael Harris, who raises concerns, for example, about what he believes is the sub's relatively weak hull, made of carbon fiber instead of steel, and about diving without another sub in tandem.

G MICHAEL HARRIS: It's always concerned me. This is an experimental vessel that they created, and so it's very cowboy. I wouldn't get in it. I'll tell you that.

KELLY: What do we know about the people who did get in it - the tourists who were on board?

SMITH: Yep. There are three paying customers, a father and son from Pakistan and a British businessman. He posted just before the trip about Sunday being finally a break in what's been a long stretch of treacherous and prohibitive weather conditions. And also aboard is OceanGate's CEO, who's piloting the sub, and a diver and researcher who happens to be a 30-year friend and colleague of G. Michael Harris.

HARRIS: It's just been so frustrating for me. I mean, it's one of those things that you hope will never happen, but I've just had such a bad feeling the last couple years.

SMITH: I'll add I also spoke with Mike Reiss, the TV writer who took this very same trip himself a couple years ago and, he says, with eyes wide open.

MIKE REISS: If you want to explore like this, you are very much putting your life in your hands. And you sign a waiver that mentions death three times on the first page. I mean, it's just a laundry list of ways you might die, so nobody walks into this blind.

SMITH: Still, those warnings are, of course, a small consolation for the families who are worrying about the fate of their loved ones.

KELLY: NPR's Tovia Smith. Thanks, Tovia.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.