I have been fascinated with the story of the Titanic ever since I was in grade school and I learned that Dr. Robert Ballard had located it during the summer of 1985.
The following summer, Ballard became the first person in nearly three-quarters of a century to lay eyes on the ill-fated luxury liner when he and his team returned to the ship’s North Atlantic resting place.
Plunging into the ocean depths that the Titanic is found in is no simple task; the Titanic sits under 12,500 feet of water. That is around 3.8 kilometres.
When Ballard and his team dove on the wreck, they went down on one of the few deep submergence vessels (DSV) of the time rated to that depth, the DSV Alvin, operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
Since the Titanic’s resting place was discovered in the 1980s, the site has become one of heavy research and, unfortunately, extreme tourism.
With my interest in history, particularly marine history, if I ever have the opportunity to dive on the wreck of Titanic I would probably take it, depending on the trip being offered.
When the story of the OceanGate sub losing contact with its surface support vessel broke into the news cycle during its dive on the ill-fated ocean liner, I watched the reports come in, along with much of the world, with keen interest.
I also watched the revelations that OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush pushed the limits and “broke the rules” with the design of the submarine, having it built out of a mixture of carbon fibre and titanium as a way to cut down costs. In a video making the rounds on social media, Rush points out parts of the interior which had been purchased off the shelf from RV World and at one point he even holds up a video game controller which he says runs the entire machine.
Prior to its destruction, the OceanGate Titan was one of 10 DSVs capable of reaching the depths of the Titanic; the Titan was also the only one of the 10 that was not safety certified or classed by an outside agency, meaning that it had never been properly assessed for safety.
I’m paraphrasing, but Rush believed that in order for innovation to take place, rules had to be broken and that the costs of safety often weren’t worth it. He, and four others, paid for this belief with their lives when the Titan imploded on its descent to the Titanic during their dive on Sun, June 18.
I grew up on the West Coast. A byproduct of growing up with a commercial diver father, I was a SCUBA diver before I moved to Alberta and I have always had a fascination with the maritime environment. I’ve also had a healthy respect for it.
However, the more reading I’ve done on the OceanGate submarine and the entire situation, the worse it gets. While I would jump at a chance to see the Titanic in person, there is definitely enough to the story of this tragedy to give me pause; there are enough red flags just looking at the photos and videos of this submarine, like the game controller for instance, that I, even with my limited knowledge, would likely never have set foot on that DSV.
That is easy to say, having the luxury of 20-20 hindsight; but, I also have the benefit of having grown up on the ocean and having learned from a young age that it is an unforgiving environment.
Besides the human costs of this tragedy, the saddest part of Titan’s loss is that it has been reduced to a punchline.
In the days since the Titan was lost and the rescue mission began, social media began overflowing with memes and jokes making light of the situation.
In full disclosure, I couldn’t help but laugh at some of them; I honestly wasn’t sure whether or not I should be impressed or horrified at the creativity behind the humour that people were sharing.
What does it say when we, as a society, take so much pleasure in other people’s suffering?
Kindness and compassion seem to be traits that are rapidly evaporating from a world where every single flaw of every single person is left open to the world, should someone care to look for it.
Rush made poor choices. His passengers acknowledged that they could be going on a one-way trip, based on an extensive waiver they each had to fill out. But, the final result of Rush’s hubris is that five people died in a tragic incident and on top of the pain of losing family members, the survivors have to deal with the pain of having their loved ones mocked and ridiculed online.
Ocean exploration is dangerous, and no matter how well-trained or how well-prepared someone is to undertake it, there will always be times when something will go wrong and the ocean will take those willing explorers.
When that time arrives, they deserve to be more than a punchline.
Kevin Sabo is the editor of the Castor Advance and Stettler Independent newspapers