On the 18th of June, 2023, a submersible named Titan owned by the company OceanGate, disappeared in international waters in the North Atlantic, 400 nautical miles (740 km) south of St.John’s, Newfoundland, close to the wreck of the Titanic ocean liner which went down 1912. The United States Navy picked up a loud sound in the vicinity of Titan on their SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System) as the multinational search was proceeding. But suspecting a problem with Titan, and not knowing much else, the search continued in a race against time, before Titan’s oxygen ran out. Yesterday, hopes were dashed as parts of Titan were found adrift on the ocean floor, signifying a catastrophic implosion of the pressure hull, which at 12,000 feet below sea level, must have instantly killed all on board.
An implosion of a 9′ diameter, 22′ long sub (about the size of a minivan) would have an energy about equal to a quarter ton of dynamite. It is likely that there may not even be bodies to recover, due to this magnitude of destructive force. At a depth of over 10,000 feet, the implosion would kill all on board in under 0.1 seconds due to the intense pressure at that depth. 0.1 seconds would not be enough time for anyone to comprehend their fate, nor for their nervous systems to react.
Among the 5 dead were vessel pilot Stockton Rush, age 61, CEO of OceanGate Expeditions, the owners of Titan. Others were tourists Hamish Harding (age 58), Shahzada Dawood (age 48) along with his 19 year-old son Suleman; and Paul-Henry Nargeolet (age 77). Suleman had initially not wanted to board the Titan, but decided that he would be in the capsule with his father Shahzada because it was just after Father’s day. Two of the 5 were billionaires.
The story has all the elements of tragedy if you choose as the tragic hero pilot and CEO Stockton Rush, whose hubris could fill volumes. He had a peculiar style of hubris, one of the innovative engineer, champion of free markets — that is, free of pesky regulations made to keep things like submarines, safe. In Stockton’s own words: “There hasn’t been an injury in the commercial sub industry in over 35 years,” according to Smithsonian magazine back in 2019. “It’s obscenely safe because they have all these regulations. But it also hasn’t innovated or grown — because they have all these regulations.” Stockton saw this as an obstacle to be overcome.
The four passengers signed a waiver before embarking on the trip. As part of their waiver they signed, the estates of the passengers would pay for any expenses for search and rescue, even in the event those efforts become fruitless. While for some that may be a warning, others would likely see it as an invitation to adventure.
Another way that this is a compelling story concerns the privelege of wealth. These expeditions cost $250,000US for each passenger. Only the rich could afford such luxuries.
The construction of the Titan appeared free of regulation. Apart from the dubious decision to make the pressure hull out of carbon fibre (a material that is not designed for that kind of stress), there was also no escape hatch, and no way to exit from within the vessel for any reason. Exiting would require someone from outside the vessel to undo bolts which fasten the exit hatch to the vessel body. This means that even if they would have successfully risen to the ocean surface, their oxygen can still run out unless there was someone outside the vessel waiting nearby with a socket wrench.
The Titan was controlled by a modified Logitech F710 Wireless Game Controller, which you could get at BestBuy in Canada for 40 bucks, and is similar to a GameBoy controller. While the carbon that make up much of its body is stronger than steel, it can be surprisingly brittle, and can shatter like an eggshell under the right conditions. OceanGate, makers of Titan claimed on their website, that the ship was “designed and engineered by OceanGate Inc. in collaboration [with] experts from NASA, Boeing, and the University of Washington“, all three of whom denied any association with OceanGate whatsoever.
Titan lacked an independent navigation system. The pilot relied on constant guidance from a support ship, which notified Titan’s position and direction information by text message. Its propulsion system lacked redundancy to guard against engine failures. It lacked a black box to record the operation of the vessel.
While 5 deaths of wealthy people have been decried as a tragedy and given wall-to-wall news coverage, other deaths of less wealthy people this week were treated as more of a statistic, and given much more marginal coverage.
Earlier this week, we hear about a fishing boat called the Adriana, headed for Italy, which recently sank in the Mediterranean near Pylos, Greece, carrying 700 migrants including 100 children. They sought refuge from war, poverty and the effefcts of climate change with little more than the clothes on their back. According to Democracy Now!, they paid human traffickers the equivalent of thousands of dollars to ferry them from Libya. Many of these passengers originated from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria and Palestine. The small boat was critically overcrowded, and soon capsized causing many to fall into the sea, according to The New York Times, after making some erratic sharp turns. 104 were rescued, with 78 known dead, and the rest missing, presumed drowned in that part of the Mediterranean, which was 13,000 feet deep, beyond the reach of divers.
Most of the survivors were men, as women and children were held below deck, presumably to protect them from the elements. It is likely that none held below deck survived the capsizing, according to a report from Al Jazeera.
Both news sources – Democracy Now! and The New York TImes – offer conflicting explanations as to why the Greek Hellenic Coast Guard didn’t activate a rescue. According to Democracy Now!, coast guard authorities knew well ahead of the tragedy that the Adriana was in trouble, but chose not to initiate a rescue operation. The Times cite a statement from the Hellenic Coast Guard themselves, who said the boat’s crew declined their offers of assistance on at least two occasions. These statements can be considered suspect, given Greece’s tough stance on migration.
Overall, the UN International Organization on Migration says that in 2022, of 3879 migrant deaths just from the Middle East and North Africa regions, 92% of them are unidentified. And since official statistics are so lacking, the actual number of dead from these regions may be much higher.