A Doomed Watercraft Full of Billionaires Brought Out the Worst in Us
Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images

A Doomed Watercraft Full of Billionaires Brought Out the Worst in Us

The Titan submersible story, which ended in tragedy, moved so fast we barely had time to wring all the schadenfreude out of it

On Tuesday, when it still seemed possible (but not likely) that a submersible carrying five passengers to visit the Titanic wreckage might still be recovered, we made jokes about reckless rich people.

It was in a group chat, and we took comfort in the idea that we would probably never be rich enough to afford a doomed voyage to 12,500 feet below sea level where we would die, yelling at each other, "We could have been sipping margaritas on a beach in Aruba right now, not in a tiny minivan sized coffin!"

It seemed funny at the time.

Two days later, when it was confirmed that the OceanGate Titan vessel piloted by CEO Stockton Rush had most likely suffered a "Catastrophic implosion," the jokes didn't seem so laughable. No matter what you think about the deep-sea-exploration-and-tourism company's apparent safety failings and the hubris-against-nature of its five well-off passengers on Titan, it's still hard to wrap your brain around "catastrophic implosion" and how horrific a death like that might be, even if it was over quickly.

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But we knew it would probably end like this. News reports in the days since the ship lost contact suggested that, best-case-scenario, Titan was still intact, but quickly running out of oxygen. They'd have two days of air left, then one day, and then… no chance. We knew there wasn't a lot of hope, but we still shared memes and made eat-the-rich jokes as if it was likely that their money and status was going to save them and all the ribbing was going to be harmless. Until it wasn't, but nevertheless, the jokes continued, at least from some of the internet's more callous corners.

As if to counter our own morbid takes on the crisis, we tut-tutted that the Titan story was getting so much more attention than a shipwreck involving migrants off the coast of Greece. But, if you pressed us, we had to admit that we knew a whole lot more about what was happening with the Titan failure than the fishing vessel in Europe. The Titan story was just a much juicier story, one that was so much easier to dunk on, to meme, to discuss, to have an opinion about beyond, "How sad, that sounds awful."

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It's the news cycle, we say. We've been trained to react and re-react and regurgitate and share. At least most of us aren't as bad as, say, those who use a news event to spread misinformation and advance a wack agenda.

It feels very wrong to think that a kid trying to do the right thing by his father is being lumped in with the risk-takers he was surrounded by.

But somehow, this time, it doesn't excuse the ugliness of what feels like a collective shrug regarding the Titan saga. I keep thinking about 19-year-old Suleman Dawood, who was reportedly terrified to go on the submarine and only did it to please his dad. That sounds like every son with a demanding dad I've ever known, and it feels very wrong to think that a kid trying to do the right thing by his father is being lumped in with the risk-takers he was surrounded by.

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Interestingly, as the New York Times points out, even some of the people churning out content and seeing ballooning subscriber numbers thanks to Titan said they have tried to be careful and have had second thoughts about potentially exploiting a horrible tragedy. TikTok creators, of all people, tried to thread the needle between talking about a breaking story that was on everyone's mind and avoiding putting out bad information or crossing lines of bad taste.

Hearing a TikTok creator quoted as saying they have moral qualms about the whole thing gave me a glimmer of hope that we haven't completely dived into the abyss of dark tidings. Maybe there's hope for all us on dry land, that we can extend a little humanity to those we secretly think deserve to suffer for the luxury of taking unnecessary risks with their lives and the lives of others.