Deep sea rescues have a mixed track record. The Pisces III is one that succeeded (2024)

Divers begin to open the hatch of Pisces III as she breaks water under the John Cabot after being hauled from the Atlantic seabed off the coast of Cork, Ireland. PA Images via Getty Images hide caption

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Deep sea rescues have a mixed track record. The Pisces III is one that succeeded (2)

Divers begin to open the hatch of Pisces III as she breaks water under the John Cabot after being hauled from the Atlantic seabed off the coast of Cork, Ireland.

PA Images via Getty Images

The clock is ticking in the all-hands-on-deck search for the tourist submersible that went missing during a deep-sea dive to the Titanic shipwreck on Sunday.

The vessel has five people on board and, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, a dwindling oxygen supply of 40 hours.

That gives responders just two days to locate the Titan — which is believed to be hundreds of miles from the nearest coast and potentially thousands of feet below sea level — plus bring it back to the surface to rescue those inside.


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It's a complex mission, with retired U.S. Navy submarine Capt. David Marquet putting the odds of passengers' survival at "about 1 percent."

And it's certainly not the first of its kind: There have been several prominent rescue missions for both submarines and submersibles (which are not fully autonomous) over the course of the last century.

The deepest underwater rescue ever accomplished, officially, was that of the commercial submarine Pisces III, off the coast of Ireland in 1973.


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In that dramatic incident, two crewmen — both named Roger — spent three days trapped in a vessel measuring 6 feet in diameter, subsisting off a single sandwich and condensation licked from the walls, until they were rescued with just 12 minutes of oxygen to spare.

One of them, Roger Mallinson, told NBC News on Tuesday that the search for the Titan has evoked tough memories of his own experience.

"You just rely," he said, "on the thing being well-made."

The submersible after a routine dive

It was August 1973, and two British sailors were heading out on a routine dive to lay transatlantic telephone cable on the seabed about 150 miles southwest of Cork.

Senior pilot Mallinson, an engineer, was 35 at the time. Former Royal Navy submariner Roger Chapman, who died in 2020, was 28. They were clocking eight-hour shifts, crammed into a small vessel with very poor visibility, according to the BBC.

On the morning of August 29, as the two were getting ready to be towed back to their mother ship, a hatch was accidentally pulled open. Water flooded a self-contained part of the submersible, adding extra weight and plunging the vessel about 1,575 feet below sea level.


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"There was lots of banging of ropes and shackles — as normal during the last phase of the operation — when suddenly we were hurtled backward and sank rapidly," Chapman told the BBC in 2013. "We were dangling upside down, then heaved up like a big dipper."

The two hastily prepared to crash, dropping a lead weight to lighten their load, curling up in safety positions and stuffing cloth in their mouths so as not to bite their tongues off. They hit the ground in about 30 seconds, at 40 miles per hour.

They weren't injured, but they were stuck.

They had to conserve oxygen and food

Author Stephen McGinty, who recounted the rescue in his book The Dive (which is reportedly being made into an action movie), explained the severity of the situation in a 2021 Newsweek interview.

"Try to imagine you are in a phone box with a friend, the phone box is at the bottom of the Empire State Building, then everything around you floods to ten stories above the top of the Empire State Building," he said. "Then turn out all the lights and start bleeding oxygen, then you realize that a rescue — if it can even be attempted — is roughly two days away."


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Mallinson and Chapman didn't have a water supply, just one can of lemonade and a cheese sandwich, which they wanted to save for later.

By a stroke of luck, Mallinson had replaced the oxygen tank just before the dive — but they only had 66 hours left.

The two decided to conserve oxygen by doing as little as possible. Once they telephoned for help and made sure the nearly upside-down vessel was in order, they didn't talk or move.

They lay in the pitch-black submersible as high up as possible, where the air quality was better, thinking about their families.

"We hardly spoke, just grabbing each other's hand and giving it a squeeze to show we were alright," Mallinson told the BBC. "It was very cold — we were wet through."

The rescue operations suffered a series of setbacks

Meanwhile, an international rescue operation was underway, involving dive teams from the United Kingdom, Canada and the U.S.

"The plan was relatively simple: a sister sub would go down with a two-man crew and attach a specially designed grapple hook to the sub then lift it to the surface," McGinty explained. "But they do say: how do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans."


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McGinty said the floating buoy that ran on a rope from the surface had been disconnected from the submersible several minutes before it sank, so crews knew "where the haystack was, just not the needle." They were able to detect the vessel using sonar by making Chapman sing — "in the hope of picking up the high notes."

Then they had to actually reach it. Multiple attempts to raise the submersible failed over the next two days, leaving the responders with two broken vessels and the passengers without much hope.

"The first sub to go down lost its lift line; the second sub down couldn't find them," McGinty said. "On a third trip they finally found Pisces III, but when they attempted to fix the lift line it locked on then fell out."


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On Sept. 1, a team was finally able to make repairs to one of the other submersibles and send it back down, where it managed to attach a tow rope to the vessel.

Chapman told the BBC that it was only once the pilots knew the line was safely attached that they had the sandwich and lemonade. Mallinson later wrote that "it tasted like champagne to us."

The lift itself proved difficult and had to be stopped and restarted twice, with lots of swinging around. The crew described the ride up as disorienting, with Chapman saying rescuers "thought we'd died when they looked at us, it had been so violent."

Once they made it to the surface, it took them about half an hour to open the hatch and get fresh air. And there hadn't been a moment to waste.

"We had 72 hours of life support when we started the dive so we managed to eke out a further 12.5 hours," Chapman said. "When we looked in the cylinder, we had 12 minutes of oxygen left."

The incident left a lasting impact on both survivors

The doctor who examined the pair commented "incredible," McGinty said. They were dehydrated, and Mallinson had mild hypothermia, but they were otherwise in good shape.

The incident left a lasting impact on both Mallinson and Chapman in other ways, including forming a lifelong bond.

"Each year on the anniversary Roger Mallinson would call Roger Chapman at the exact moment they reached the surface," McGinty said.


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Chapman went on to set up a company specializing in submersible rescues and was able to help with several incidents, according to his obituary. The "grandfather of submarine rescue" said even years later that he occasionally felt uncomfortable in elevators.

Mallinson, who became renowned for his work on steam engines, was awarded an MBE at the beginning of 2023.

In a September 1973 Daily Mail column, Mallinson wrote that he owed his life to Chapman.

"The ex-Navy lieutenant, who was my second pilot and observer aboard the stricken Pisces III, pulled me through the blackest hours of that incredible rescue," he wrote. "Without him, I would not be here to tell this story."

Few other sub rescues have been as successful

The Pisces III incident took its place in the history books as the deepest underwater rescue ever achieved, according to Guinness World Records. Many others have been attempted, with varying degrees of success.

Take for example the USS Squalus, a submarine that sank 240 feet off the coast of New Hampshire during a test dive in 1939, killing 26 people immediately.

The remaining 32 crew members and one civilian used smoke bombs and, later, morse code to signal for help. A Navy submarine found them that same morning, and rescuers were able to bring the survivors to the surface in four separate trips over the next day or so. It took another three months to recover the vessel, by attaching pontoons to both sides and inflating them full of air.

'A Time to Die': The Kursk Disaster

Russia saw one of the world's worst naval disasters several decades later, in 2000, when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank during a training exercise in the Arctic Circle. All 118 crew members ultimately died, though some two dozen had survived the initial sinking.

The Russian government — led by newly minted President Vladimir Putin — was slow to launch search and rescue efforts, even rejecting offers of help from Western countries. By the time a team of British and Norwegian divers found the vessel nine days later, there were no survivors.

Five years later, when the Russian AS-28 sank in the Pacific Ocean after becoming entangled in fishing nets, the government took a different tack and called for international help. British and American rescue crews were able to free the vessel and save all seven people on board.

Deep sea rescues have a mixed track record. The Pisces III is one that succeeded (2024)


Has there ever been a successful submarine rescue? ›

Few other sub rescues have been as successful

Take for example the USS Squalus, a submarine that sank 240 feet off the coast of New Hampshire during a test dive in 1939, killing 26 people immediately. The remaining 32 crew members and one civilian used smoke bombs and, later, morse code to signal for help.

What is the deepest sea rescue? ›

In an incident that echoes the efforts to find and retrieve those trapped in the Titan submersible, Roger Chapman's and Roger Mallinson's lives hung on the success of the mission — which turned out to be the deepest known successful underwater rescue.

Did the people in the submarine get saved? ›

Hardly anyone has been rescued from a submarine or submersible. None of them were remotely as deep as the Titanic. A rescue effort is underway after a submersible exploring the Titanic wreck went missing on Sunday.

What is the deepest diving submarine? ›

Deepsea Challenger (DCV 1) is a 7.3-metre (24 ft) deep-diving submersible designed to reach the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the deepest-known point on Earth.

Has the U.S. Navy ever lost a submarine? ›

Scorpion was lost with all hands on 22 May 1968. She is one of two nuclear submarines the U.S. Navy has lost, the other being USS Thresher. She was one of the four mysterious submarine disappearances in 1968, the others being the Israeli submarine INS Dakar, the French submarine Minerve, and the Soviet submarine K-129.

What is the most successful submarine in history? ›

Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience places visitors aboard the most successful submarine in World War II for its fifth and final war patrol on October 25, 1944.

What is the greatest sea rescue ever? ›

The rescue of the Pendleton survivors is considered one of the most daring rescues in the history of the United States Coast Guard. All four crew of CG-36500 were awarded the Coast Guard's Gold Lifesaving Medal (rather than just the coxswain, the typical treatment).

What is the longest someone has survived stranded in the ocean? ›

José Salvador Alvarenga holds the record for the longest solo survival at sea. He was adrift for 438 days, and traveled over 6,700 miles.

What was the biggest sea rescue? ›

The Suevic rescue in 1907 set the record for the largest number of people saved in a single operation in RNLI history – a record that still stands today. On 17 March, the Suevic ran aground against the rocks of the Maenheere Reef, a quarter of a mile off Lizard Point in Cornwall.

What happens to human waste on a submarine? ›

Waste that is discharged overboard must either be pumped out against the ambient sea pressure or blown out using pressurized air. Waste materials are collected and periodically discharged.

What happens to bodies in sunken submarines? ›

Most times, the bodies of shipwrecked sailors are washed away by currents or eaten by fish.

What was the biggest submarine tragedy? ›

The nuclear-powered Project 949A Antey (Oscar II class) submarine K-141 Kursk sank in an accident on 12 August 2000 in the Barents Sea. It was taking part in the first major Russian naval exercise for more than 10 years. All 118 personnel on board were killed.

How long can a nuclear submarine stay underwater? ›

Nuclear power allowed submarines to run for about twenty years without needing to refuel. Food supplies became the only limit on a nuclear submarine's time at sea.

How deep can a Navy submarine go in feet? ›

The wreckage of the Titanic lies at a depth of about 13,000 feet. That is significantly deeper than the roughly 2,000 or 3,000 feet that a typical U.S. Navy submarine descends to.

How deep can humans go in the ocean in a submarine? ›

Record Depths and Submarine Classes

Military submarines are designed to operate in deep waters and can reach impressive depths. The Russian Navy's Project 941 Akula class submarine, also known as the Typhoon class, is the deepest diving submarine in the world. It can reach depths of up to 4000ft (1220m).

Did they ever find the USS Scorpion? ›

The United States Navy announced that the wreckage of the submarine was found 400 miles south of the Azores Islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with all 99 crew members still onboard on October 30, 1968.

What was the worst US submarine accident? ›

(April 9, 2023) — On April 10, 1963, the USS Thresher, while conducting deep water test dives 200 miles east of Cape Cod, lost power and imploded in 8,400 feet of water. All 129 men aboard were killed instantly. The incident remains the worst submarine disaster in history.

How many US subs have sank? ›

In the first sixty years after the end of World War II, no one was able to find any of the 52 American submarines lost during the War whose exact locations were not already known. In most cases, the submarines were lost with all hands, and the exact locations of their sinkings were lost to history.

What was the most feared submarine in ww2? ›

USS Tang (SS-306) was commissioned on 15 October 1943 at the Mare Island Navy Yard with Lieutenant Commander Richard H. O'Kane in command. On the boat's first war patrol, which began 22 January 1944, she was credited with sinking five enemy ships scoring hits on 16 of the submarine's 24 deployed torpedoes.

What ship sank the most ships? ›

During the war, Tang was credited with sinking 31 ships in her five patrols, totaling 227,800 tons, and damaging two for 4,100 tons.

What is the U.S. most sophisticated submarine? ›

The Virginia class, or the SSN-774 class, is the latest class of nuclear-powered cruise missile fast-attack submarines in service with the United States Navy.

What is the world's toughest rescue operation? ›

#1: Operation Thunderbolt

While many high-risk rescues after plane hijackings have been conducted since 1976, “Operation Thunderbolt,” also known as “Operation Entebbe,” is probably the most famous.

What was the most successful small boat rescue? ›

On February 18, 1952 the Coast Guard rescued a total of 70 men from two T2 tank vessels, the Fort Mercer and the Pendleton, which had both split in two under the pressure of navigating a raging storm with 70-knot winds and 60-foot seas off the coast of Cape Cod.

Has anyone ever survived being lost at sea? ›

Poon Lim BEM (Chinese: 潘濂; pinyin: Pān Lián; 8 March 1918 – 4 January 1991) was a Chinese seafarer. He was born on the island of Hainan, China. In 1942–43 he survived 133 days alone in the South Atlantic.

Has anyone been stranded in the middle of the ocean? ›

Japanese captain Oguri Jukichi holds the Guinness World Record for the longest known time that anyone has survived adrift at sea. Joined by one of his sailors, the skipper managed to survive for approximately 484 days after their cargo ship was damaged in a storm off the Japanese coast in October 1813.

How long can a human survive if stranded in the water? ›

A person can survive for around one hour in 5C water, two hours in 10C and six hours in 15C - but if the temperature is in the high 20s then it is possible to survive for around 25 hours, he says.

How long can you live in the ocean? ›

Assuming you're in warm waters and wearing a wetsuit and life vest, you could potentially survive for as many as three to five days, at which point you'll most likely succumb to dehydration. That is, unless a shark gets you first.

Who pays for ocean rescue? ›

In the United States, federal and state agencies, including the National Park Service, will cover the costs of search and rescue efforts, depending on where you are. For water rescues, the U.S. Coast Guard, which led the Titan rescue, is not legally allowed to charge for its operations, an agency spokeswoman said.

Who saves people at sea? ›

Air-sea rescue (ASR or A/SR, also known as sea-air rescue), and aeronautical and maritime search and rescue (AMSAR) by the ICAO and IMO, is the coordinated search and rescue (SAR) of the survivors of emergency water landings as well as people who have survived the loss of their seagoing vessel.

Do submarines have bathrooms? ›

Pressurised seawater is used to flush the toilets on a submarine. A simple ball valve operates the flush on the toilet which enables the toilet to be 'plumbing free'. Once flushed, you then manually turn a valve next to the toilet to refill the bowl.

Can you smoke on a submarine? ›

While air scrubbers remove most of the smoke, there are still unacceptable levels of secondhand smoke in the atmospheres of submerged submarines, according to the Navy study that led to the ban. Crouse remembers when thick smoke was acceptable.

Do Navy ships throw garbage overboard? ›

Answer: It dumps it into the ocean

Other waste is compressed, melted or shredded on board, and stored for disposal on shore.

Why does the Navy dump bodies at sea? ›

Military Funeral Honors: Burial at Sea Program. The Navy's Burial at Sea Program enables families to provide for the final disposition of their service member's cremated or casketed remains as part of a special onboard ceremony.

Are skeletons ever found in shipwrecks? ›

The first expeditions, in 1901, found treasures galore: dozens of marble statues, skeletons belonging to the long-dead crew and the spectacular bronze "computer" dubbed the Antikythera mechanism.

How long do bodies stay in shipwrecks? ›

Even a weighted body will normally float to the surface after three or four days, exposing it to sea birds and buffeting from the waves. Putrefaction and scavenging creatures will dismember the corpse in a week or two and the bones will sink to the seabed.

What was the highest submarine death toll? ›

USS Thresher (SSN-593) sank while conducting deep-diving tests southeast of Cape Cod on the 10th of April 1963. The accident, which took the lives of all 129 men onboard, remains the highest ever submarine death toll in history.

What is the biggest submarine missing? ›

Russian submarine Kursk (K-141)
Stricken12 August 2000
FateAll 118 hands lost in 100 m (330 ft) of water in Barents Sea on 12 August 2000
StatusRaised from the seafloor (except bow), towed to shipyard, and dismantled
18 more rows

What was the largest ship sunk by a submarine? ›

USS Archerfish (SS/AGSS-311) was a Balao-class submarine. She was the first ship of the United States Navy to be named for the archerfish. Archerfish is best known for sinking the Japanese aircraft carrier Shinano in November 1944, the largest warship ever sunk by a submarine.

How long does food last on a nuclear submarine? ›

Food for the crew is the bulkiest commodity in a submarine and becomes the limiting factor for patrol duration. Fresh food lasts about two weeks, then it is canned, dried, and frozen food for the rest of the patrol. When a submarine leaves on patrol, food fills every available corner.

How deep can you go in the ocean without dying in a submarine? ›

Submarines can generally dive to a depth of around 300m - for context, the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean, the Mariana Trench, is 11,000m deep. US Los Angeles-class submarines have a test depth of around 450m, but their maximum dive depth is believed to be around 675–900m.

Can submarines sit on the ocean floor? ›

For instance, the US Navy's nuclear-powered submarines usually operate at 800 feet or less - meaning they can't dive down to the ocean floor, where water pressure on the submarine hull could make it implode.

What submarine can go to Titanic? ›

The submersible Titan, operated by OceanGate Expeditions, is used to transport all kinds of passengers to the site of the world's most famous shipwreck, including scientists, artists, and well-to-do tourists. The OceanGate crew were in St.

How long can you stay down in a submarine? ›

Submarines with diesel-electric propulsion generally have to surface every couple of days to run the charging unit and recharge the batteries. However, with a special fuel cell system, subs can remain underwater for longer. The present record – set by an HDW Class 212A submarine – is 14 days.

What military sub can dive the deepest? ›

The deepest-diving large, military-style submarine was the Soviet submarine K-278 Komsomolets, with a hull made of, Titanium making it very expensive but able to withstand significantly deeper dives than the best subs made of high-grade steel, like American nuclear subs.

How far down is the submarine Titanic? ›

The wreck rests 3,800 metres below the water's surface on the ocean bed. At this depth, free diving to the wreckage is impossible, but extreme tourists and scientific experts have visited the site in specialised deepwater exploration vessels in the decades since its discovery.

How deep can a Russian submarine go? ›

It was, in fact, the fastest and deepest-diving submarine ever produced, able to cruise at 41 knots when submerged and dive as deep as 1,148 feet. Its speed allowed it to outrun NATO torpedoes, and its depth kept it out of range of other anti-submarine weapons.

Has a submarine ever reached the bottom of the ocean? ›

But reaching the lowest part of the ocean? Only three people have ever done that, and one was a U.S. Navy submariner. In the Pacific Ocean, somewhere between Guam and the Philippines, lies the Marianas Trench, also known as the Mariana Trench.

How long did the Kursk crew survive? ›

1. How long did Kursk crew survive? According to experts, 23 crew members took shelter in the 9th compartment and survived for six to eight hours.

What was the first successful submarine rescue? ›

May 23, 1939 | USS Squalus flooded and sank to a (then) record 243 feet deep. Twenty-six drowned in her flooded aft compartments. Charles Momsen led the rescue operation, the first true Navy submarine rescue, saving 33 survivors with submarine rescue chamber.

What was the worst U.S. submarine accident? ›

(April 9, 2023) — On April 10, 1963, the USS Thresher, while conducting deep water test dives 200 miles east of Cape Cod, lost power and imploded in 8,400 feet of water. All 129 men aboard were killed instantly. The incident remains the worst submarine disaster in history.

What is the longest someone has survived lost at sea? ›

José Salvador Alvarenga holds the record for the longest solo survival at sea. He was adrift for 438 days, and traveled over 6,700 miles. Alvarenga is a fisherman, and on November 17, 2012, he set sail from the fishing village of Costa Azul in Mexico.

Were any bodies found on the Kursk? ›

The Russian divers removed secret documents and eventually recovered a total of 12 bodies from the ninth compartment. This contradicted earlier statements made by senior Russian officials that all the submariners had died before the submarine hit the bottom.

Were the bodies recovered from the Kursk crew? ›

The ship sank in August of 2000, killing all 118 men on board. The bodies of 12 of them were recovered in November of that year. Most of the crew died instantly, but at least 23 were able to move to a rear compartment where, according to letters found on some of the bodies, they survived for several hours.

How far down was the Kursk? ›

The Kursk sank on Aug. 12, 2000, after suffering two powerful explosions. Most of the 118 members of the crew were killed instantly, but as the submarine sank to the bottom of the sea, only about 350 feet (108 meters) below the surface, 23 men were able to flee to a rear compartment, where they waited for help.

What is the oldest active U.S. Navy submarine? ›

USS Bremerton (SSN-698)

What is the oldest submarine wreck? ›

The Dokos shipwreck is the oldest underwater shipwreck discovery known to archeologists.

What was the most successful Allied submarine? ›

With 33 ships sunk, the USS Tang sank the most tonnage of shipping in World War II for the United States.

What was the worst U.S. Navy sinking? ›

The sinking of Indianapolis resulted in the greatest loss of life at sea from a single ship in the history of the US Navy.


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