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)


Deep sea rescues have a mixed track record. The Pisces III is one that succeeded? ›

The Pisces III is one that succeeded. An international mission rescued both occupants of a sunken submersible off the coast of Ireland in 1973 with just 12 minutes to spare. The men had spent three days in darkness and silence.

What was 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.

Has anyone been rescued from a sunken submarine? ›

Impromptu Escapes. Between 1900 and 1930, the U.S. Navy lost eight submarines to accidental sinkings. The only rescue option at the time, raising the submarine before oxygen ran out, saved two men. But the majority of those who survived — 84 submariners — lived because they found ways to escape their sunken subs.

What was the greatest sea rescue in history? ›

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's the deepest a submarine has gone? ›

Trieste is a Swiss-designed, Italian-built deep-diving research bathyscaphe which reached a record depth of about 10,911 metres (35,797 ft) in the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench near Guam in the Pacific.

What happens to bodies trapped in sunken ships? ›

Most times, the bodies of shipwrecked sailors are washed away by currents or eaten by fish. While bones have been retrieved from more recent shipwrecks, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, only a handful of human remains have ever been found in ancient shipwrecks.

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.

What was the worst submarine disaster? ›

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.

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.

What was the biggest Coast Guard rescue in history? ›

Forty-seven fishermen aboard the Alaska Ranger were donning survival suits for what would become one of the largest and most dramatic rescue cases in modern Coast Guard history.

What is the longest ever survival 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.

Have humans seen the bottom of the Mariana Trench? ›

Jacques Piccard, right, co-designer of the Trieste, and Ernest Virgil load iron shot ballast into the sub prior to a test descent into the Marianas Trench, Nov. 15, 1959. On Jan. 23, 1960, Walsh and Piccard made history when they made the five-hour, 6.78-mile odyssey to the world's deepest-known point.

How far can a submarine go down before being crushed? ›

As a result, the submarines are capable of diving to depths of up to two thousand feet, and crush depth estimates run from 2,400 to 3,000 feet.

Has any human been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench? ›

While thousands of climbers have successfully scaled Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth, only two people have descended to the planet's deepest point, the Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench.

Are there any skeletons on the Titanic? ›

No one has found human remains, according to the company that owns the salvage rights. But the company's plan to retrieve the ship's iconic radio equipment has sparked a debate: Could the world's most famous shipwreck still hold remains of passengers and crew who died a century ago?

Were any skeletons found on the Titanic? ›

Some 1,160 people went down with the Titanic. but no bodies have ever been found. There are multiple theories as to why, although experts have been unable to completely solve the mystery once and for all.

Have skeletons been found in sunken ship? ›

Archaeologists in Cape Cod have recovered six skeletons from the ruins of the Whydah, a British pirate ship that sank during a 1717 storm with 146 men—and a trove of treasures—on board.

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.

Was the thresher ever recovered? ›

Thresher's remains were located about 8,400 feet below the surface on the sea floor by the bathyscaphe Trieste, aided by USS Mizar (AK-272) and other ships.

Did a submarine ever sink an aircraft carrier? ›

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.

What was the most feared submarine in ww2? ›

German submarine U-864.

What is the most feared submarine? ›

1 Seawolf Class

At the top of the world, we only see the US Navy's Seawolf class of attack submarines. Their amazing capabilities and armament come with an impressively high cost.

What was the last US submarine lost at sea? ›

USS Scorpion (SSN-589)
United States
Stricken30 June 1968
FateLost with all 99 crew on 22 May 1968; cause of sinking unknown.
StatusLocated on the seabed of the Atlantic Ocean, 32°55′N 33°09′W, in 3,000 m (9,800 ft) of water, 740 km (400 nmi) southwest of the Azores
17 more rows

How deep can rescue submarines go? ›

The Navy's submarine rescue specialists can go down to a maximum depth of 2,000 feet of seawater, according to the Underwater Rescue Command.

What is the deepest sea depression? ›

They typically form in locations where one tectonic plate subducts under another. The deepest known depression of this kind is the Mariana Trench, which lies east of the Mariana Islands in the western North Pacific Ocean; it reaches 11,034 metres (36,200 feet) at its deepest point.

How far down did Victor Vescovo go? ›

In 2022 a submersible expedition piloted by Vescovo located the wreck of destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) (also sunk in the Battle off Samar in 1944), in the Philippine Sea at a depth of 6,895 metres (22,621 ft), making it the deepest wreck identified at this date.

How long do submarine crews stay submerged? ›

Submarines can submerge more than 600 feet below the ocean's surface for up to four months at a time, constantly patrolling and working classified missions.

How deep would a WWII submarine crush? ›

What is the crush depth of a ww2 submarine? World War II German U-boats generally had collapse depths in the range of 200 to 280 metres (660 to 920 feet).

What is the deepest life has been found in the ocean? ›

Scientist have found a thriving community of microbes living at the deepest known point on the surface of the Earth – a massive underwater canyon in the Pacific Ocean 11km (6.8 miles) below sea level.

Why can't humans go to the deep-sea? ›

The intense pressures in the deep ocean make it an extremely difficult environment to explore.” Although you don't notice it, the pressure of the air pushing down on your body at sea level is about 15 pounds per square inch. If you went up into space, above the Earth's atmosphere, the pressure would decrease to zero.

What is under the deep-sea? ›

The abyssal plain is the relatively level deep seafloor. It is a cold and dark place that lies between 3,000 and 6,000 meters below the sea surface. It is also home to squat lobsters, red prawns, and various species of sea cucumbers. For these creatures food is scarce most of the time.

Has anyone been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench? ›

While thousands of climbers have successfully scaled Mount Everest, the highest point on Earth, only two people have descended to the planet's deepest point, the Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench.

What is the deepest dive without oxygen? ›

The maximum depth reached by anyone in a single breath is 702 feet (213.9 metres) and this record was set in 2007 by Herbert Nitsch. He also holds the record for the deepest dive without oxygen – reaching a depth of 831 feet (253.2 metres) but he sustained a brain injury as he was ascending.

Who did the deepest dive in history? ›

Deepest Scuba Dive – Male

PADI® Instructor Ahmed Gabr holds the world record for deepest scuba dive. Gabr trained for four years before the attempt, which culminated in a dive to 332.35 meters (1090 feet).


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