The Titans

“If you look in your dictionary you will find: Titans – A race of people vainly striving to overcome the forces of nature. Could anything be more unfortunate than such a name, anything more significant?”
– Arthur Rostron, Captain of the rescue ship Carpathia


Since my seven-year-old son became obsessed by the story of the Titanic (through Roblox, out of all things), we have been visiting exhibitions, museums and memorials, watching movies, and talking about it — every day. Through my son I came to learn the stories of the Olympic, the Britannic, the Mauretania, and the Carpathia, I’ve read the long list of the disaster victims so many times the names have become familiar, I’ve touched the replicas of everything Titanic — the grand staircase, the luxurious suites, the third-class bunk beds, the iceberg itself. I held my hand on the “iceberg” for as long as I could bear, as advised by the New York Exhibition we had been visiting — to experience what it must feel like in those cold waters of the Atlantic — and I could bear it for fifteen seconds only. People who died in those waters on the 15 of April in 1912 had to endure it with their whole bodies for at least half an hour before hypothermia claimed their lives, I was informed.

There is no definite number of Titanic Museums and Experiences floating freely in the world, but here’s just the tip of it: the Titanic Museum in Southampton, where the ship had sailed from; the Titanic Museum in Belfast, where she had been built and where her tender sister, the Nomadic, still awaits; the Titanic Experience at Cork, the ship’s last port of call; the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, the city whose name she carried on her stern, registered there by the White Star Line; the Maritime Museum in Halifax, where one of her deckchairs, perfectly preserved, is still on display; The Titanic Artifact Exhibit in the Luxor Hotel in Vegas, where part of the starboard side of her hull, called “The Big Piece,” is kept; the Titanic Experience in Orlando, where the smaller part of the same hull, called the “Little Big Piece,” is, — and the list goes on and on and on.

The story of the most luxurious ship of its time, and the stories of her 2,240 passengers continue to pull people into the vortex of the tragic wreck, my seven-year-old proof it’s still novel, still relevant. People go far and deep to “touch” the Titanic, and to be touched by its devastating destiny. Sometimes as far as 435 miles south of St John’s, Newfoundland, and as deep as 12,500 feet, to the bottom of the Atlantic, where she still lies. The wreck, discovered in 1985, has been extensively explored since.


Last Sunday, five people in a submersible tourist vessel called “Titan” and owned by OceanGate Inc., went to visit that very place, and since Sunday they have been missing.

As I am writing these words, it is estimated that there are 40 hours of oxygen still left in the sub for the five people to breathe. The search for the sub continues, the 40-hour clock ticking forcefully. Various experts in multiple fields are in consultation. US and Canadian aircrafts are searching through 7,600 square miles of the ocean surface; a French team is bringing a vessel equipped with a subsea robot.

Nobody knows what happened when communications were lost one hour, forty-five minutes into the dive. Nobody, but the five people on board of the submersible. Hamish Harding, a British businessman explorer, who dived to the deepest point of the Mariana Trench and also set the world speed record for the fastest circumnavigation of Earth by aircraft. Stockton Rush, the chief executive and founder of OceanGate, the owner of the sub. Paul-Henri Nargeolet, the vessel’s pilot known as Mr. Titanic in France for the number of his expeditions to the Titanic site. Mr. Nargeolet is also the director of the American company that owns the salvage rights to the wreck and displays its artifacts at Titanic exhibitions. Shahzada Dawood and Suleman Dawood, father and son from a prominent Pakistani family. Shahzada Dawood is on the board of trustees for the SETI Institute, which searches for extra-terrestrial intelligence, and Suleman is a student with a passion for science fiction.

Last weekend, it was not a certainty they would get to dive. Mr. Harding said on social media that because of the “worst winter in Newfoundland in 40 years, this mission is likely to be the first and only manned mission to the Titanic in 2023.” He then announced that a weather window opened up. On Sunday morning the adventurous crew climbed into the submersible, 6.7 metres long, 2.5 metres high and 2.8 metres wide; a tiny space for five men, with only one person at a time being able to stretch their legs fully. The hatch was closed and sealed shut from the outside with 17 bolts.


A submersible vehicle is different from a submarine in many ways, most crucially in its limited power reserves, and a need for a support ship to launch and to recover it. The depths it goes to cuts the GPS off, so the only communication possible is with the mother ship, on the surface of the water, right above. Some submersibles have two communication systems with independent power supplies: an acoustic beacon that regularly pings its location to the ship, and another one that carries messages. If the main power supply fails, the beacon still allows for tracking of the vessel. Titan does not have an acoustic beacon, only text-like messages, for its communications.

In the 2022 video filmed by the BBC, Mr. Rush shows how the sub is operated. Inside, it looks minimalistic and simple.

“It’s got one button,” Mr. Rush presses the one button on the wall, it lights up green. “That’s it.”

Then he picks up and throws around what looks like a Playstation controller, and is in fact a $30 Logitech F710 controller the sub is steered with. It makes you marvel at the dare of it and shiver at the thought of that controller running out of batteries or malfunctioning. There are spares, of course.

“We run the whole thing with this game controller,” he says. “It should be like an elevator, it shouldn’t take a lot of skill.”

Mr. David Pogue from CBS News dived onboard of the Titan to the Titanic wreck in 2022, and wrote about his experience. He had to sign a waiver accepting that the technology had “not been approved or certified by any regulatory body, and could result in physical injury, disability, emotional trauma or death.” Mr. Rush personally reassured him that even though some of the components of the submersible vessel were off the shelf and some of the ballast was in fact abandoned construction pipes that rolled around the bottom, the “rock solid” carbon-fibre main capsule had been co-designed with Boeing and Nasa and the University of Washington. He said, “Everything else can fail, your thrusters can go, your lights can go. You’re still going to be safe.” Safe. But where?

Mr. Pogue’s experience on the sub did not go smoothly. On the first attempt to dive was cut short because the submersible did not come off the platform the way it was supposed to. The second time, communication with the surface ship that was guiding the sub (there’s no visibility at that depth) had been lost, it “somehow broke down.” The sub itself had been lost, too, for two-and-a-half hours. On the third attempt, the Titan reached the Titanic and Mr. Pogue obtained those disquieting, magnificent pictures of the wreck for CBS News.

There are other accounts from those who took the trip to the Titanic, though understandably not many of them — the cost of a seat on the vessel being $250,000 per person.

Mike Reiss, a TV comedy writer, said communication was lost during all three of his dives on the Titan last year.

Dr. Michael Guillen, a scientist who visited the wreck in 2000, said during his trip their submersible became caught in a strong underwater current that slammed them into the ship’s propellers. He thought it was “the end,” but they survived.


Communication with Titan was lost on Sunday morning. As time passes, hope trickles down, like sand.

At this paragraph, 10,000 square miles have now been searched and the crew is down to 30 hours of oxygen left to breathe, while waiting for the rescue. The terribly hopeful news is that the crew is waiting, because banging noises have been detected at 30-minute intervals from the vicinity of their last known location, through the sonar devices of a Canadian aircraft deployed on the surface water.

The exact location is still unknown. What’s worse, there appears to be no easy way to recover the sub, even if it is found. There are very few vessels capable of going as deep as the site of the wreck. There is no possibility of transferring people from sub to sub at the depth where the atmospheric pressure is almost four hundred times what we experience on the Earth’s surface. Maybe the vessel could be pulled up with attached toggles and ropes, as was done in 1973 with the submersible “Pisces III,” trapped at half the depth (Roger Chapman, one of the two crew-members who survived with just 12 minutes of oxygen supply to spare, published an account of his rescue in the book titled No Time on Our Side).

The hope is that maybe the Titan would float to the surface by itself — then it could be spotted and saved, the bolts unscrewed before oxygen runs out. That would be the best.

It has not resurfaced yet. What has resurfaced is that it has been widely acknowledged that a sub is a dangerous thing to operate, having only one window and limited visibility. It does not seem to be as safe as Mr. Rush claimed it was, just like the Titanic, lying on the bottom of the ocean, was not, as claimed, unsinkable. The combination of carbon fibre and titanium used for its hull is inferior in its ability to withstand pressure to the pure titanium plates used by most other manned submersibles, such as the Nautile and the Mir. Add to that the fact that the Titanic wreck is a particularly dangerous place to operate a sub in, other submersibles in years past getting stuck under propellers or behind walls. Add to that the court case filed by OceanGate’s former director of marine operations, David Lochridge, for unfair dismissal after raising safety concerns about the vessel. OceanGate responded that Mr. Lochridge was not an engineer, and should have just accepted the lead engineer’s assurances. The case was settled out of court.

Suddenly, it is remembered that submersible experts voiced concerns over the experimental nature of the Titan and the potential “catastrophic” issues with its design. Suddenly, a letter from the Marine Technology Society is unearthed by the New York Times, urging Mr. Rush to carry out prototype testing to adhere to “the safeguards that protect all submersible occupants,” even though “this may demand additional time and expense.” Suddenly, the 2019 press release from OceanGate, explaining why the Titan had not been approved by an independent body — “Bringing an outside entity up to speed on every innovation before it is put into real-world testing is anathema to rapid innovation” — sounds reckless rather than reasonable.


All those days we have been talking about the Titanic, I was saying to my son that what happened to her could never happen again because there are rules and regulations that have been paid for, in lives. I have not researched that, I’ve just assumed that’s how it is. There is no more saving space on decks with a lack of lifeboats for everyone on board, is there? There is no more dismissal of the reports and warnings in order to maintain an impressive speed, is there? There is no more cost cutting achieved by saving on safety, is there? There is a system of obligatory measures in place, to ensure that everyone is safe, that a nineteen-year-old boy who loves science fiction and signs a waiver for the trip that “could result in physical injury, disability, emotional trauma or death,” is safe.

Isn’t there?

I have not told him about the Titan yet. I still harbor illusions that there are plans for recovering the vessel that haven’t been shared with the public, that I have misunderstood all that I’ve read, that I’ve read obtusely.

If the brave, experienced people on board the Titan are not coming up with the plan to go home, and if no one else is coming to help, I pray that Titanic, wronged by human ambition and unforgiving to their dreams, in her eternal, predestined downfall to the bottom of the ocean, unfurls the black tendril she grasped them with, and lets them go.

And that they make it.




Image: photo by NOAA on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Yelena Chzhen
Latest posts by Yelena Chzhen (see all)



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.