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Deaths at Sea: From the Titan to the Mediterranean

Mortality at sea is becoming a theme of late. The nature of how that mortality has been represented, however, has varied. The death of a billionaire on a quest to see the sunken ruins of the Titanic is treated with saturating interest; the deaths of those making their way across the Mediterranean to seek sanctuary receives a relative footnote of interest.

News has now emerged that the five occupants on the Titan submersible have perished, joining those other unfortunates already entombed in the watery ruins of the steamship that sank in April 1912 off the coast of Newfoundland. They include Stockton Rush, the CEO of OceanGate, the company funding the venture, British-Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood and his son, Suleman, British businessman Hamish Harding and renowned explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet.

It was occasion enough to lead Hollywood film director James Cameron, himself a veteran of 33 dives to the vessel whose story he brought to the big screen in 1997, to make a few queries. On hearing of the sub’s disappearance, contacts in the deep submersible community were chased up. “Within about an hour I had the following facts. They were on descent. They were at 3,500 metres, heading for the bottom at 3,800 metres.”

The loss of both communications and navigation could only lead to one conclusion: “an extreme catastrophic event or high, highly energetic catastrophic event.” On June 22, an official in the US Navy revealed that “an acoustic anomaly consistent with an implosion” had been detected.

For almost a week, the coverage on the fate of the Titan remained unrelenting. Commentators with varying degrees of expertise were consulted over speculative minutiae and details. When would oxygen supplies run out? Were there banging sounds detected, suggesting signs of life? How would the Titan be retrieved?

None of this got away from the obvious point: the mission had been one of sheer folly and recklessness, a doomed reminder of humankind’s overconfidence. The submersible lacked standard certification protocols. Notables in the deep submersible community had also expressed their concerns to OceanGate, warning of the dangerously experimental nature of the vehicle. In March 2018, a letter from three dozen individuals, including oceanographers, deep-sea explorers and industry leaders, stated that “the current ‘experimental’ approach adopted by Oceangate could result in negative outcomes (from minor to catastrophic) that would have serious consequences for everyone in the industry.”

Within the company itself, the director of maritime operations, David Lochridge, wrote a damning report warning of “the potential dangers to passengers of the Titan as the submersible reached extreme depths.”

Indeed, the company was the subject of a 2018 lawsuit questioning the safety credentials of the craft. “It is, despite the exorbitant cost of what was supposed to be a short trip,” writes Alex Shephard for The New Republic, “almost comically shoddy, bolted together with parts intended for R.V.s and piloted with a video game controller.”

Those in the company, evidently aware of such risks, went so far as to make anyone making the journey sign multiple waivers. “To even get on the boat that takes you to the Titanic, you sign a massive waiver that you could die on the trip,” one former OceanGate passenger, Mike Reiss, told the BBC. “It lists one way, after another, that you could die on the trip. They mention death three times on page one. It’s never far from your mind.”

Perversely enough, the fate that befell the Titan had a resonance with the Titanic’s own fate. The point was not missed on Cameron, who was “struck by the similarity of the Titanic disaster itself, where the captain was repeatedly warned about ice ahead of his ship, and yet he steamed at full speed into an ice field on a moonless night and many people died as a result.”

While the focus on the Titan has become something of a mania, a different narrative, also featuring deaths at sea, has struggled to occupy the news. The Mediterranean has again become the watery grave for those making hazardous journeys to seek sanctuary. Deaths occur, not merely because of shoddy naval construction, but due to the continuing program of preventing desperate arrivals from entering Fortress Europe.

On June 14, up to 600 individuals may have perished off Pylos, Greece. Questions are being asked about the role played by the European border and coast guard agency, Frontex, the Hellenic coast guard, and the Italian and Maltese authorities. Certain testimonies from survivors, for instance, suggest that the Hellenic coast guard towed the boat away from Greek waters, a hazardous move that led to its capsizing. While the Greek State is being castigated, it is operating with an EU mandate increasingly hostile to irregular migrants. What a relief the Titan-Titanic affair must have been for policymakers.

Those who perished on the Titan should be grieved. But the incessant coverage of their fates has shown a latent snobbery towards the nature of death. Foolhardy explorers and doomed adventurers are to be admired, their names venerated; the anonymous refugee and asylum seeker is to be judged and reviled, their rights curbed, and coverage of their fates minimised.



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  1. Hotspringer

    One billionaire down, too bad it wasn’t Bezos.

  2. Phil Pryor

    This is such a silly tragedy, in that a “manned” vehicle must accommodate concepts of safety in the extreme, some space and comfort with aspects of food, water, oxygen, toileting, controlled environment, super safety, all in play. An umanned vehicle for space, depths, war, can be just “cobbled up”, by comparison. This lost vessel was made of possibly unsuitable meterials, was apparently tested only for 1500 or so metres depth, and could not be declared utterly safe and secure. There is vanity, money, carelessness, built in to attempts to get to planets or great depths. Only the rich can go out to “silly” aims. What would have been learned? The Titanic loss itself was a slap in humanity’s face, after decades of progress and prideful swollen imprudence.

  3. Canguro

    Conflation of financial abundance and lifestyle success – CEO’s, adventurers, business tycoons – with the intangible qualifier of ‘human worth’… a potentially toxic artifice under any set of circumstances and dramatically demonstrated in this all-too-avoidable set-piece showcasing unmeasured risk, hubris and arrogance, a modern revisiting of Icarus and his flight to the sun; juxtaposed, as Binoy aptly reminds us, against the deaths of hundreds in that deadly oceanic bathtub known as the Mediterranean, a Davey Jones locker on steroids if ever there was, and increasingly a showpiece of macabre indifference to the plight and sufferings of what are increasingly seen as merely human flotsam & jetsam. Shame on all of us, that it’s come to this, and shame, shame, shame on the international forces that brought these tragedies into being.

  4. leefe

    Four Darwin Awards and condolences to the loved ones of the youngster. This was always going to happen, given the shoddy nature of construction and the devil-may-care attitude towards safety protocols of the CEO/pilot; not necessarily inevitable that it would happen on this trip, but inevitable within a fairly short amount of time. One simply has to compare the construction and design with that of DSV – the vesel Ron Allum built for James Cameron’s record-breaking descent – to see how much Titan was lackiing.

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