Rush, 61, died last week after the missing submersible he had been piloting with his company, OceanGate Expeditions, imploded during a trip to the Titanic, killing all five people aboard.
“Charlie and I are mourning the loss of an irreplaceable, irrepressible, irreverent and fiercely loyal friend,” Eleanor Moseley Pollnow ’84 wrote in a statement with her husband, Charlie Pollnow ’84, who was Rush’s freshman roommate and remained close friends. “Stockton chose his path and pursued his dreams with passion. He loved and was loved. He lived the life he wanted — and it was a good life. A big life. We will miss him.”
Criticism has been leveled at Rush over the safety and structural soundness of the submersible Titan, but his friends say they’re grieving the kind and gregarious man who had an easy laugh and was prone to giving big, strong hugs at Reunions.
“Ask anyone in my Princeton University Class of 1984 which one of us would be brave enough to dare such a mission, and Tock would be at the top of the list,” Henry Payne ’84 wrote in a blog post about his friend. “Tock lived to conquer those risks. He — and his fellow passengers — died doing what they loved.”
The Titan was first reported missing on June 18 after communication with its expedition ship suddenly stopped while en route to explore the Titanic shipwreck nearly 13,000 feet below the ocean’s surface. A four-day search then began, with international support from Canadian and French search teams joining in the effort.
On Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that debris from the submersible had been found near the bow of the Titanic, and it was believed that the vessel had experienced a “catastrophic implosion.”
Seemingly round-the-clock news coverage of the missing submersible has led to some unfavorable characterizations of Rush as a risk-taker whose adventures trended toward recklessness. Deep-sea explorers, oceanographers, and other industry leaders were reported to have expressed concerns about OceanGate’s safety precautions in recent years. For example, the Titan was built of both titanium and carbon fiber, which is used in the aerospace industry but considered experimental for deep-sea pressure.
“I mean if you just want to be safe, don’t get out of bed, don’t get in your car, don’t do anything,” Rush told CBS Sunday Morning last year. “At some point, you’re going to take some risk, and it really is a risk-reward question. I think I can do this just as safely by breaking the rules.”
Rush’s friends said that quote has been used to misrepresent his “joie de vivre” outlook on life, and that the message of his quote was likely more along the lines of encouraging people to live their lives and not be afraid.
“History shows us that exploration and innovation are inherently risky and dangerous,” a group of alumni wrote in a statement to PAW, signing it “Proud and Grieving Friends of Tock.” “We’re disappointed, if not entirely surprised, at the outpouring of armchair quarterbacking about the science behind his work.”
Responding to reports of internal safety concerns at OceanGate, Rush’s co-founder, Guillermo Söhnlein, who left the company in 2013, told the U.K.’s Time Radio that there are many different opinions within the small deep-sea exploration community about how to design submersibles. “I know from firsthand experience that we were extremely committed to safety, and risk mitigation was a key part of the company culture,” he said.
At the University, he studied aerospace engineering and flew during the summers as a DC-8 first officer for Overseas National Airways in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He requested to take off the fall semester in 1982 so he could keep flying during the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca that he called “the largest annual mass movement in aviation.” That request was ultimately withdrawn.
He kept a private plane at the Princeton airport, and friends recounted adventures they took with Rush at the wheel.
David Siebert ’81 said one of the greatest adventures of his life was a last-minute flight with Rush and two others to Cape Canaveral to see the launch of the Columbia space shuttle in April 1981. Rush flew them through the night in one direction, and through rain and turbulence in the other. “He just seemed calm and poised beyond his age; nothing really rattled him.”
Another friend who flew with Rush on his private plane during college remembered the feelings of trust and safety she felt on board. “He cared for people deeply and he wouldn’t want to put me in a position where I was unsafe.”
After graduation, Rush worked for the McDonnell Douglas Corporation as a flight test engineer. He served on the board of BlueView Technologies, was chairman of Remote Control Technologies, and was a trustee of the Museum of Flight in Seattle before founding OceanGate in 2009.
Rush married Wendy Weil Rush ’84 in 1986 and they had two children, Ben ’11 and Quincy. The Rushes have storied ancestors: Tock is descended from Declaration of Independence signers Benjamin Rush 1760 and Richard Stockton 1748, while Wendy is descended from Isidor and Ida Strauss, two of the wealthiest people to die on the Titanic. Ida famously refused to get on a lifeboat and leave her husband, and their story was incorporated into James Cameron’s 1997 movie.
Wendy served as director of communications for OceanGate and was on board the expedition ship during the Titan submersible’s mission. She declined to comment through a representative.
“Tock’s pursuit of his dreams was inspiring, his ability to live those dreams and his encouragement and his example helped others chase and attain theirs,” wrote the “Proud and Grieving Friends of Tock.” “He challenged himself to reach new heights and was constantly seeking the betterment of the earth and its oceans.”
“The world lost a wonderful adventurer,” Siebert said.