Titan submersible disaster and migrant boat tragedy shows how wealth distorts our thinking – Laura Waddell

Wealth may be the ultimate confidence trick, affecting both our perception of risk and the value we place on human lives

In series two of Succession, the family business empire’s scandal-hit cruise division, responsibility for which lies with Matthew McFadyen’s slow-blinking Tom Wambsgans, tries to bury the evidence. Workers or guests who meet with tragic ends, sometimes in suspicious circumstances, are referred to in company paperwork as NRP, shorthand for Not Real Person, in other words, of too low a social or financial status for the company to worry about a lawsuit, bad press, or other repercussions. Until the corporate cover-up becomes the bigger scandal, they’re able to brush the negligence under the carpet.

A week before running updates on the hunt for the missing Titan submersible took over newsfeeds, with presidents and prime ministers sending their regards, a boat filled largely with Pakistani migrants sank off the coast of Greece. More than 500 are still missing. Responsibility for the tragedy is being passed around. Doubts have been raised about the veracity of the Greek coastguard’s account, with a CNN analysis of available maritime data suggesting the authorities were aware of the distressed vessel for over 13 hours before it sank. Frontex, the EU border and coastguard agency, last week discussed temporarily suspending activities in Greece.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The contrasts in these tragedies echo a general truth about the travellers of this world. If you’re going down with the ship, wealth is the benchmark for whether governments will cooperate to save you or sabotage you. These migrants paid traffickers up to 8,000 euros for their passage and the chance of a better life. Now there is political bickering over whose responsibility their human rights were.

But, I can’t deny I got hooked on the Titan story. It was difficult to believe the unfolding events, the stuff of spy thrillers, were truly happening. Oxygen was estimated to run out around noon last Thursday. When debris was found later that day, indicating a catastrophic failure of the submersible’s hull and marking a decisive end to their chances of survival, it also indicated, mercifully, limited suffering. The worst-case scenario of sentient humans waiting days for rescuers who would not come in time did not occur.

Visiting the Titanic wreck seemed like the trip of a lifetime, a fantasy thrill ride from a billionaire’s bucket list. It turned out to be just a glimpse into the expensive life of an ‘explorer’. Several passengers of the Titan’s doomed plunge had already seen the historic wreck in sounder-looking submersibles, making it all the more surprising they trusted an experimental vessel. Some had journeyed to space, the Arctic, and the world’s highest peaks, excursions referenced by fellow travellers giving worried comments during the search.

The technical details were themselves intriguing: going on a deep dive was like poring over an encyclopedia. I found myself reading about carbon-fibre hulls and their propensity for failure. The 2018 open letter from industry experts, voicing their concern over Oceangate’s dismissal of safety accreditation showed a community less keen than the explorers to claim Stockton Rush.

As I hurtled along on the Glasgow underground, my £1.70 fare including a seat, I wondered what convinced billionaires to part with hundreds of thousands of dollars to squat inside an unclassified metal vessel. Wealth, the ultimate confidence trick? An excess of optimism? Hunger to amass a trophy experience few others had? The self-belief of Stockton Rush, a chief executive so confident in his experimental creation he would personally pilot it 13,000 feet underwater, to a site fewer than 250 others had ventured to before?

BBC documentary Take Me To Titanic shows a prior excursion. A “mission specialist” (as Oceangate called paying passengers) emerges and hugs Rush. She is overjoyed he helped fulfil her lifelong dream. In this moment, through the eyes of an enthusiast, Rush appears almost Messianic. It is an insight into how renegade innovators gain cult followings.

It is remarkable the debris from the Titan was located at all. When governments cooperated hastily to send high-end rescue vessels, their advanced capabilities and build stability starkly underlined the rudimentary nature of the lost submersible, with its one operational button, off-the-shelf components, and repurposed wireless gaming controller. A young man named Jay Bloom revealed Rush turned up in a two-seater experimental plane to make his sales pitch. “I started to think about it. He’s coming in on a two-seater experimental plane to pitch me to go on a five-seater experimental sub that he has built down to the ocean floor to see the Titanic… I’m a pilot. I have my helicopter pilot’s license. I would not get into an experimental aircraft.” The spaces eventually went to father and son, Shahzada and Suleman Dawood.

Humans know more about the surface of the moon than the mysteries of marine life at its deepest. What would we learn about the planet we live on if as much was spent on ocean exploration as on space exploration? Staggeringly, more than 80 per cent of the ocean is yet unmapped. It remains to be seen whether humans could be trusted not to riddle it full of holes.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Although its sleek white design made it difficult to spot in ocean surf, Stockton Rush described the steamlined Titan as “to other submersibles what the iPhone was to the Blackberry”. The Oceangate chief executive, whose family wealth was established generations prior in the fields of oil and gas, also saw potential for his subs to inspect and maintain mining sites – but manned subs weren’t in demand.

Rush, who frequently complained about safety restrictions on commercial innovation, said gas and oil companies “don’t take new technology. They want it proven, they want it out there.” The trend away from manned subs seems unlikely to reverse; why, when robots have advanced so far, risk human lives unnecessarily in the deep sea? Where is the line between being intrepid or reckless? Brave, or foolish? As the Titanic was followed by the Titan, the next submersible to tour the wreckage in hubris might well be called the Tit.

Related topics:



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.