Titanic Sub Firm: A Maverick, Rule-breaking Founder and a Tragic End


Stockton Rush wanted to be known as an innovator. It didn’t seem to matter how he did it.

Bright, driven, born into wealth, his dream was to be the first person to reach Mars.

When he realised that was unlikely to happen in his lifetime, he turned his attentions to the sea.

“I wanted to be Captain Kirk and in our lifetime, the final frontier is the ocean,” he told a journalist in 2017.

The ocean promised adventure, adrenaline and mystery. He also believed it promised profits – if he could make a success of the submersible he helped design, which he directed his company OceanGate to build.

He had a maverick spirit that seemed to draw people in, earning him the admiration of his employees, passengers and investors.

“His passion was amazing and I bought into it,” said Aaron Newman, who travelled on Mr Rush’s Titan sub and eventually became an OceanGate investor.

But Mr Rush’s soaring ambition also drew scrutiny from industry experts who warned he was cutting corners, putting innovation ahead of safety and risking potentially catastrophic results.

It wasn’t something he was willing to accept.

Last week, he and four other people on board the Titan lost their lives when it imploded.

“You’re remembered for the rules you break,” Mr Rush once said, quoting US general Douglas MacArthur.

The Titan submersible suffered a “catastrophic implosion” Image: Reuters

“I’ve broken some rules,” he said about the Titan. “I think I’ve broken them with logic and good engineering behind me.”

The Titan submersible suffered a “catastrophic implosion”

Stockton Rush III was born in California in 1962 into a family that made its fortune from oil and shipping.

He was sent to a prestigious boarding school, the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Princeton University in 1984.

At 19, he became the youngest pilot in the world to qualify for jet transport rating, the highest pilot rating obtainable. He worked on F-15s and anti-satellite missile programmes, with the hope of eventually joining the US space programme and being an astronaut.

But eventually that ambition lost its appeal, as a trip to the Red Planet seemed increasingly out of reach.

“If someone would tell me what the commercial or military reason to go to Mars is, I would believe it’s going to happen,” Mr Rush told Fast Company magazine. “It’s just a dream.”

So he shifted his gaze downward and in 2009 founded OceanGate, a private company that offered customers – Mr Rush preferred the term “adventurers” – a chance to experience deep sea travel, including to the wreck of the Titanic.

The company, based in Everett in Washington state, was small and tight-knit. Rush would chair all-staff meetings at its headquarters, while his wife Wendy – another member of Princeton’s class of 1984 – was his director of communications.

A junior employee who worked at OceanGate from 2017 to 2018, and asked not to be identified, said the company headquarters felt homey and lived-in, with wiring and equipment seemingly everywhere. “It was very free-flowing.”

At the helm was Mr Rush.

“He was just really passionate about what he was doing and very good at instilling that passion into everybody else that worked there,” the employee told the BBC.

At one staff meeting, Mr Rush brought virtual reality goggles for everyone to take a digital underwater tour. Mr Rush told them that this is what they were aiming for – to allow more people to have this view. “This is the world I want,” he told them.

Mr Rush was “not a leader from the back, telling people what to do – he led from the front”, said Mr Newman, the investor.

Mr Newman went on the Titan with Mr Rush to see the wreck of the Titanic in the summer of 2021.

The first time they met, Mr Rush “spent hours” talking with him about the potential of exploring the bottom of the ocean.

Mr Rush “followed his own path”, Mr Newman said.

Mr Newman’s recollection of OceanGate was of a team that looked out for each other.

And Mr Rush’s wife, Wendy, was “up at the top, looking over his shoulder, making sure that he was doing everything perfectly and not cutting corners or skipping things”, he said.

Mr Newman was so taken by Mr Rush that he decided to invest in OceanGate. “You know, I didn’t know if I’d ever see any return or not. That was not the point,” he said.

“The point was to be part of something that’s experimental and is breaking new ground, and pushing forward our technology, and how the world works, and going places and doing amazing things, that’s what this is about.”

Mr Newman described himself as a minor investor. As a private company, OceanGate is not obliged to publish all financial records. US financial records from January 2020 show that Mr Rush and his fellow directors sold a stake in the company worth $18m, thought to have been used to fund the development of Titan.

To recoup the costs, OceanGate’s sub, “well-lit and comfortable,” the company said, came with a price tag of $250,000 (£195,600) for an underwater trip.

Source: BBC News