The story of a missing — later discovered to be destroyed — improvised submersible that had set out to visit the Titanic’s rusting hulk has been covered by every major news outlet on the planet over the past two weeks. It has provided some much-needed schadenfreude in our regimented modern lives. Not even the shiny new features on our streaming services with their diverse casts could compete with this tragedy as it unfolded in real time.
The ramshackle vessel, named the Titan, disappeared and was then declared long overdue on Sunday, June 18. Its surface support ship, the Polar Prince, alerted the US Coast Guard, and the story was picked up by the media. It was heartbreaking for many when the story broke that a handful of millionaire nabobs had vanished at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and speculation about what had gone wrong was rampant. The vessel might have been more appropriately named the George Floyd, given the concern that everyone aboard had been left unable to breathe.
Even though the so-called submersible, which resembled a septic tank that had had a few bits and bobs from the local junkyard added, did not look as if it could have survived a trip to the bottom of a swimming pool, let alone the ocean deep, some people with a lot of money decided that it was a good idea to fork over $250,000 apiece to be crammed into its rusting guts to see the Titanic firsthand.
The consensus among the experts at the end of a drama-filled week was that the makeshift sub had suffered a catastrophic implosion which completely destroyed the vessel and instantly killed all five passengers aboard. Some speculated that this had happened during the early stages of its dive. These theories were confirmed after a debris field was discovered on the ocean floor near the wreck of the Titanic, which it has been said is “consistent with the catastrophic loss of the pressure chamber.” In other words, the Titan was crushed as a result of the inordinately immense pressure of the implosion. The recovery of any human remains is unlikely given that the environment at the ocean floor is unforgivably harsh. Perhaps one day they will be unceremoniously dredged up by Newfoundland fishermen bound for the Grand Banks.
According to the United States Navy, sounds consistent with an underwater implosion were detected by a top-secret detection system, which is ordinarily used to detect hostile submarines, shortly after the Titan had gone silent. As some had speculated, it seems the vessel experienced the catastrophic failure during its initial descent. As a Navy official explained:
The US Navy conducted an analysis of acoustic data and detected an anomaly consistent with an implosion or explosion in the general vicinity of where the Titan submersible was operating when communications were lost.
While this data was not considered conclusive at that time, it was shared with the multinational team that was conducting rescue efforts.
The Titan was built and operated by OceanGate, a fly-by-night company that routinely skirts safety measures and carries out dives in international waters, where they are not subject to regulatory oversight. Stockton Rush, OceanGate’s CEO, was one of those who perished on the Titan. He had made some anti-white comments that will not age well. W speaking with an interviewer from Teledyne Marine in 2020, Rush had this to say about white men:
When I started the business, one of the things you’ll find, there are other sub operators out there but they typically have gentleman who are ex-military submariners and you’ll see a whole bunch of 50-year-old white guys.
One of the Titan’s most glaring safety risks was the use of a gaming controller to pilot it:
We’re taking approaches that are used largely in the aerospace industry, is related to safety and some of the preponderance of checklists things we do for risk assessments and things like that, that are more aviation related than ocean related and we can train people to do that. We can train someone to pilot the sub, we use a game controller so anybody can drive the sub. [emphasis mine]
Some concerned members of the Marine Technology Society (MTS) — most of whom are undoubtedly white guys – were prompted to send a letter to Rush, warning him that his methods went beyond the adventurous into the realm of reckless disregard for any modicum of safety. Their missive, dated March 27, 2018, expresses the MTS’ concerns about the Titan’s viability, along with other industry-related misgivings:
This letter is sent on behalf of our industry members who have collectively expressed unanimous concern regarding the development of TITAN and the planned Titanic Expedition. Our apprehension is that the current experimental approach adopted by Oceangate [sic] could result in negative outcomes (from minor to catastrophic) that would have serious consequences for everyone in the industry.
According to this prescient letter, the Manned Underwater Vehicles (MUV) industry had a well-deserved reputation for safety that Stockton Rush and his company were on the verge of compromising:
The MUV industry has earned itself an enviable safety track record over the past 40 years. This is partly due to the diligent engineering discipline and professional approach exercised by members of the industry, but also due to the collective observation of (and adherence to) a variety of safety standards. This reputation is solid because it was hard won over many years of diligence application and has resulted in a safe and successful record of operation. Our members are all aware of how important and precious this standing is and deeply concerned that a single negative event could undo this.
After it was learned that the submersible had been lost with all souls aboard, the MTS released the following statement on their website:
We are deeply saddened to learn of the loss of the crew of the submersible Titan. We appreciate the efforts of the hundreds of volunteers and professionals who have worked tirelessly on this incredibly complex and difficult search. Along with the entire marine technology community, we offer our sincere condolences and sympathies to the families and friends of the Titan‘s occupants.
Even though the tone of much of the online commentary regarding the incident has been hilariously mean-spirited — much of which is unfortunately well-deserved — I must admit to being very skeptical of the OceanGate CEO and his little putt-putt sub. Where I have sympathy for the crew and its proprietor is for their adventurous spirit. Sure, Suleman Dawood, the son of the Pakistani billionaire Shahzada Dawood, was scared witless prior to the dive, according to several news reports — but who wouldn’t be? I would. Moreover, other potential passengers were trepidatious about the prospect of sitting cross-legged in a plummeting rust bucket for ten hours.
In this case, however, a distinction must be made between the Faustian spirit of adventurous Western man and that of an opportunistic, corner-cutting grifter who sent five people, including himself, to a watery grave. Stockton Rush would have done well to heed the expert advice of the old white guys he claimed to despise.
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