From Titanic To Titan: Death In Two Tragedies

From Titanic To Titan: Death In Two Tragedies
I woke up yesterday to news of a catastrophic implosion on the now infamous submersible Titan, taking down with itself all five passengers: Stockton Rush (CEO OceanGate Expeditions), wealthy British businessman and adventurer Hamish Harding, Pakistani corporate director Shahzada Dawood and his son, Suleman, and French dive expert Paul-Henri Nargeolet). Millions worldwide followed the drama involving the submersible Titan (OceanGate Expeditions operates these Titanic tours), that went missing in the North Atlantic about 435 miles south of St. John’s, Newfoundland on Sunday (18-Jun-2023). To recap, the Titan’s five passengers undertook the voyage to view the wreckage of the Titanic: the ocean liner that sank in April 1912, taking down all 1,500 passengers with itself.

Inevitably (and very obviously), such events (involving a race against time and elements) do attract the interest of masses world over. People will empathize with the victims and their families and (like what happened in this case), will hope against hope that the victims can somehow be plucked out of their predicament.

Ironically, though, the social standing of these individuals (stuck in the Titan) somehow did not affect our attitude. Keep in mind that the Titan submersible was on its way to get a view of the 1912 wreckage of the Titanic ship. And interestingly, some very intriguing ironies and similarities between the sinking of the original RMS Titanic and its present-day shadow, the Titan come to mind – if we give it a thought.

There were prominent wealthy victims of the 1912 disaster too: including the richest passenger onboard John Jacob Astor IV (American business magnate) and Pennsylvania Railroad executive John Thayer. Investigations show that the 1912 Titanic sinking was entirely avoidable. What happened can very easily be attributed to a capitalist mindset and / or lifestyle: corporate greed, ill-conceived plans, countless errors, and simple stupidity. Recall that the Titanic famously carried only 20 lifeboats, theoretically able to accommodate 1,178 people, i.e., just over half of the 2,200 people on board – but many of those lifeboats were put to sea only half-filled.

“Had it not been for the pride and pomp, the greed and luxury that paraded the upper deck, the Titanic never would have gone to the bottom of the sea,” American Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs later pointed out.

Connect this to OceanGate’s activities – which I do believe merit scrutiny. A 2018 correspondence to Stockton Rush did refer to an experimental approach being used:

"Our apprehension is 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."

This present tragedy does not cast “extreme tourism” in a positive light. Yes, many of us would have wanted to see these five individuals come home alive – but each new fact that comes to light makes this expedition look like a “foolhardy adventure”.

And this is where “class” makes itself glaringly obvious.

Fact: some 537 of the approximately 709 Titanic passengers died in third (steerage) class – because these passengers were confined to their area in the lower decks by grilled gates, some of which were never unlocked as the ship continued to fill with water. To explain, these “grilled gates” had been installed to keep different “classes” of passengers from interacting with each other.

111 years later, class differences are higher and (in a sense) malignant, too. Because you see, it is now the story of two distinct vessels:

  • The Titan (whose passengers were able to pay $250,000 per person to board) on the one hand; and

  • The fishing boat that sank in the Mediterranean, killing hundreds of desperate refugees, on the other.

Everyone knows that each of the Titan’s passengers paid a quarter of a million dollars each to board the vessel. We know their names, their backgrounds, where they were coming from and where they were going. But of those on the doomed fishing vessel en route from Libya to Italy we know nothing other than over half the passengers were Pakistani and the remaining were probably Syrians, Libyans and other North Africans: most likely, all poor. Being otherwise completely faceless and anonymous, has anyone considered that they, too, are worthy of (just as many) full-blown high-tech rescue efforts instead of being labelled and criminalized­ as “illegal”. But had any rescue efforts been made, everyone knows that the rescuers would risk being charged with “facilitating” asylum seekers.

I guess it would be hard to fathom Rush and the other wealthy individuals on board the same ship as the refugees, even on its upper decks. And heaven forbid, should those unfortunate people be anywhere near a submersible carrying a group of rich adventurers, paying $250,000 a ticket.

These are now two entirely separate realms, hostile, distant and impervious to one another.

Question: Why this disparity? To put it crudely: we live in a world where the lives of a few matter more than the lives of the many. This disparity intensifies along geopolitical, class, race and caste lines and is a stark reality in my part of the world. And what makes it worse is that this disparity is inherently built into our lives and lifestyles. On a minute scale, revisit the stories our domestics tell us when they relocate to bigger cities across the country to improve whatever lives they currently lead. These are the same people, who spend their entire life savings to go to “easier” destinations (Dubai, Malaysia, Muscat) to try their hands at better lifestyles. They travel as labour class and / or refugees / asylum seekers and their stories regularly play down the dangers they face in their pursuits. Usually categorized as “economic migrants” (read “greedy”), such people often come off as gullible – giving money to criminals in exchange for passage and risking their safety in vessels that are not seaworthy, by any means. Everyone knows what this means: refugees bringing implicit catastrophe upon themselves.

Now try comparing their plight to that of the five men in the Titan. These men have been described as “explorers” and “adventurers” – daring to venture into unchartered territories. Such expeditions have more to do with personal gratification than to find new horizons; just like space travel for fun touted by known billionaires. This can be explained by OceanGate’s selling point on their website:

Call it an irony or a similarity: there is no disparity when it comes to death, regardless of how mankind segregates. Where these refugees knowingly risked their lives by coming aboard an unseaworthy craft, the “experimental submersible” is also questionable. And maybe this is why these well-heeled clients had signed a waiver:

"The signer assumes full responsibility for the risk of bodily injury, disability, death and property damage due to the negligence of [OceanGate] while involved in the operation."

But if there is something that does make a difference in these deaths, it would be the circumstances. Allow me to explain. Many refugees, asylum seekers and labour class people don’t really have the luxury of choice in the matter. Because, after all, nobody leaves home – unless home is in the mouth of a shark.

In all honesty, any and all tragedies warrant grief: none should require us to forfeit our grief. But we do have an obligation to figure out whose lives are to be mourned and whose lives would be consigned to collective composure. Because every tragedy takes its premise on three basic questions:

  • Who gets to be the hero of an epic?

  • Who gets to be the villain of a tragedy?

  • And who should be relegated to the margins of human history?