It Was Sad
By Tony Candela
On Sunday, June 18, 2023, the tourist-submersible Titan lost contact with its mother ship as it descended in the north Atlantic toward its namesake, the RMS Titanic. Five souls were aboard. They cane to rest on the bottom at a depth of nearly 12500 feet and about 1600 feet from the bow of the Titanic which they never got to see. Titanic lies in two large and separate pieces at the bottom around 370 miles south-southeast of Newfoundland. That is where it sunk on April 15, 1912.
The Titan had made the trip before. Its design may or may not have been up to industry standards (its owner, OceanGate Expeditions eschewed regulation in the name of innovation) but considered the unique amalgam of materials comprising its hull well up to the job of withstanding the pressures at that depth. There is some opinion out there that the carbon-fiber and titanium components may have disconnected because carbon fiber may not react the same way at extremely high pressure (roughly 6,000 psi, pounds per square inch) as it does in normal or very low pressure. Or, perhaps the cumulative effects of multiple exposures caused the Titan’s hull to crush and break apart.
Under the amount of pressure submersibles must withstand even after descending “only” a mile, even the slightest structural flaw can lead to an implosion. If one descends to 1000 meters (3300 feet), the water is very cold, photosynthesis cannot take place, and it gets pitch-black. Long before that, say at 130 feet for SCUBA divers and 500 feet for technical divers, external pressures begin to exceed human safety-levels. Occasionally, things go wrong, but rarely to the point of the catastrophic failure that appears to have occurred with Titan. It is comforting to think that in all likelihood, the occupants of Titan never knew what hit them. On June 28, their remains along with pieces of the broken hull appear to have been recovered by a deep-water vessel. Analysis will take a while, but it may comfort family members to know that their loved ones will not spend eternity at the bottom of the ocean.
It has been almost 60 years since one of the first deep-sea submersibles, Alvin, began probing the ocean bottom. Alvin reports more than 5100 dives as of December 2022, at an average depth of 2076 meters 6811 feet), and an average time per dive of around 7 hours. Its missions have included studies of biology, geology, chemistry, and engineering; search/survey/recovery; and more.
The stories of Titanic and Titan contain parallels and differences. Both were exotic vessels which took fateful trips contributing to the “tragic formula”: overweening pride leading to disaster. The American folk-song “Wreck of the Titanic” (ca. 1915), spoke of the juxtaposition of the rich and the poor on board. While the rich danced in the ballroom, the poor, well, “they put them down below, where they were the first to go.” The Titan had no such divide, costing $250,000 per head for the 2-1/2-hour descent plus exploration and return to the surface.
Like Titanic, there were fascinating personages on Titan, including Richard Stockton Rush, the founder of OceanGate, the company that created the Titan and a descendant of a couple which died on the Titanic. He also descended from two signers of the Declaration of Independence. Also on board were a British-Pakistani father and son, billionaire Shahzada Dawood and Suleman between whom all reports describe a warm relationship; Hamish Harding, a British businessman and adventurer; and Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a French diver.
Hamish Harding had already done a few incredible things, including a descent into the Mariana Trench to 37,000 feet; a trip to Antarctica with his son which he had done the year before with astronaut Buzz Aldrin; a flight around the world over the poles; and a sub-orbital flight with the New Shepard spacecraft, from Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin space tourism company.
Paul-Henri Nargeolet, a French maritime expert, had made over 35 dives to the Titanic wreck site. He was married to a New York TV news anchor, Michele Marsh upon whom I had a giant crush as a young man. Ms. Marsh died in 2017 at age 63 from cancer, leaving Mr. Nargeolet behind to pick up the pieces of his life. May they all rest in peace.
There are a few lingering questions. First, why did the Titan implode? Investigations are underway, probably along two lines. One is whether there was negligence according to industry standards, including the efficacy of the materials used to construct Titan’s hull and use of appropriate inspection and fail-safe methods. The other is whether the event will lead to increased governmental regulation of the industry. There is also speculation that waivers signed by the passengers might not prevent lawsuits by their next of kin.
The second is a more human question. Why do people risk their lives to do the things represented in the portfolios of some of the Titan passengers? As George Mallory said in the 1920s when asked why climb Mt. Everest, “Because it is there.” The simplicity of the statement should not be confused with its complexity. That which is wondrous and complex often leads back to the simple. Humans are, more or less, programmed to push themselves beyond the mundane, beyond their homeostatic (calm and humming) nervous systems into ones that jump into hyperdrive. Who among us wouldn’t like to see and do the things some of the crew of the Titan have done? It is a matter of being a risk-taker, possessing the physical qualities required for the adventure, undertaking excellent preparation and training, and alas, having lots of money. (Note: In the case of blind mountain-climber and all-around great athlete, Erik Weihenmayer, adventures can be made real by having a superlative support system around you.)
Some people approach these adventures with arrogance (the “Man against Nature hubris). When they reach their goals they say, “Look, I did what they said couldn’t be done.” Others have the opposite view. When they achieve their goal, like William Shatner did in a suborbital flight he also took, they feel closer to their God and the universe, the latter of which was disappointing to Shatner because all he saw was deep blackness out there. Looking down at the Earth was appropriately awe-striking, but he also felt sadness thinking about what we are doing to the cradle of life within which we live.
Finally, some have raised the moral-ethical question around whether it is time to leave the Titanic alone. It has at least unofficially been declared a tomb as well as a wreck. Should those who want to “look” for other than scientific reasons be stopped from doing so? This is an issue that deserves serious consideration outside of the recent disaster.
There appears to be consensus that the ocean will ultimately turn the Titanic to dust, but probably not for centuries. Some feel we should look but not touch; others feel plucking small pieces of the ship but no personal items is OK. Still others believe unmanned scientific vehicles that take pictures and scientifically relevant samples are sufficient.
Studying the abyss informs us of the structure and functioning of planet Earth, not to mention the wonders of life in extreme conditions, that is, life outside the relatively friendly confines of the surface of our planet. While the Titanic might provide a spicey goal for some, perhaps it should not be the end-goal of such trips. Also, there are other more extreme places to go such as the Mariana trench, inside volcanoes, outer space, and other worlds.
It was indeed sad when Titanic went down, as much for the loss of life as for the destruction of a state-of-the-art vessel. It was a lesson in hubris, for they thought Titanic was unsinkable. The same goes for Titan. Reminders of the gulf between rich and poor and how death often does not discriminate between them are ones we should always heed, but if we are inclined to take the risk, let’s take them properly and for the right reasons.
Anthony R. Candela, Author
Saying aloud what should not remain silent.
Books by Tony…
Stand Up Or Sit Out: Memories and Musings Of a Blind Wrestler, Runner, and All-around Regular Guy
A memoir about life lessons learned, especially through sports
Vision Dreams: A Parable
A sci-fi novella about how a dysfunctional society forces people to go to extremes, including four blind people who seek out artificial vision.
More About Tony…
Tony Candela has worked as a Rehabilitation Counselor, supervisor, manager consultant and administrator for more than 40 years in the field of blindness and visual impairment. His work has included promoting literacy and employment of blind persons and a special interest in enhancing the career preparation of blind persons who wish to work in the computer science field. He is a “retired” athlete, loves movies, sports, reading, writing, and music, including dabbling in guitar.