Friday 23 June 2023

Obduracy gave us the Titanic and now the Titan

What a rollercoaster of emotions

As the emotions are still raw and people are still coming to terms with the tragedy of the apparent Titan submersible implosion with the loss of 5 souls, this is a difficult subject to broach at any time, yet it is one we must not ignore for the pertinent lessons to be learnt.

As the news cycle played like an orchestra of emotions from the notification of the passengers missing through postulations about the urgency to rescue because of the limited oxygen supply, we even had that glimmer of hope that there was some banging noise at 30-minute intervals, suggesting some human activity indicating distress. The truth amidst the speculations that almost drove us to distraction was a catastrophic incident had already happened and the people we were introduced to over the last 5 days had perished.

We need to know why it happened

Everything is now down to a post-mortem of what happened, and probably more will be revealed in a possible coroner’s inquest with the verdict of death by misadventure. Then, misadventure would be an understatement if all we have learnt about the Titan submersible and the operations of OceanGate in facilitating the tourist event to see the Titanic wreck is reckoned with.

I am in no way against having a sense of adventure, even of the pioneering kind where you are doing what no one else has done before. However, the adventure should never exclude proper risk assessment and more pertinently safety. It has transpired that OceanGate was many times warned about their submersible design, that it had not undergone any independent testing, then certain engineers involved were dismissed when they raised questions, that parts involved in cobbling together the submersible might suffice for a hobbyist, but never for a commercial operation where a general public is put at immeasurable risk of the possible loss of life.

The invisible fatal flaw of hubris

That this submersible was lost along with the CEO of OceanGate pitches the positive attributes and virtues of courage, confidence, adventurism, and derring-do against the greatest flaw when things go wrong, hubris. He was against the essential safety inspections and certifications that might have prevented what many experts in deep-sea submersibles now consider totally preventable.

It is quite likely that those passengers took and derived some confidence from the fact that the CEO was riding with them, it might have suggested to them that if the CEO was willing to take such as risk on such a dangerous mission, they probably would be safer than being piloted by someone with no skin in the game. James Cameron compared the obduracy of the OceanGate’s CEO, Stockton Rush to that of the RMS Titanic’s captain, Edward John Smith, they both ended up at the bottom of the sea beside each other.

Trust but verify for yourself

It has become a somewhat fatal transference of trust, the fact that you can see someone else doing something that encourages you to dabble, even if you are totally unsure you will have the same outcome. In many things, we do need a trailblazer and some sort of example if we are to dare to tread where angels fear to go. We must do that with some knowledge of what we are getting into.

For instance, in a parachute jump, there are fundamental prerequisite checks to make long before the jump, to ensure that the parachute is intact, will operate, that the reserve is there just in case the main parachute does not open, and you do not jump to a conclusion without doing the essential checks, except if on a suicide mission, and that is a different thing.

I do wonder if any of the passengers would have reconsidered this adventure on seeing some of the other interviews with the CEO about the submersible and its record, along with the testimonies that we have now heard about some who ventured and did not consider a return because of their experience and those who pulled out after assessing the lax safety procedures amongst other things.

A tragedy totally preventable

There seems to be a lot of information out there that suggests this was a very dangerous activity and though a few scraps of pulling it off suggested a greater success than the myriad of issues and problems during the event. There is no saying that if the dive exploration that set off on Sunday were successful, not only would we have heard nothing of this adventurism, but it would also have steeled others to shell out about a quarter of a million dollars to see the wreck of the Titanic at 3,810 metres (12,500 feet; 2,080 fathoms) depth below sea level, rather than watch a playback on a National Geographic channel.

There is nothing to celebrate about this tragedy, but much to learn about how we perceive risk, the essential need for safety, the consideration of better-mitigating measures in case of adverse events, the readiness to abort missions when things turn precarious, and the decision to curb our sense of adventure at certain times, just to gain a bit more perspective of the fact that our humanity, whilst amazing resourceful is neither omnipotent nor omniscient.

May their souls, therefore, rest in peace, and may we that remain be humbled to listen and learn the hard lessons taught by the experiences of others.


BBC: Titanic director James Cameron accuses OceanGate of cutting corners

Wikipedia: 2023 Titan submersible incident

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