Deserving Better Words: A Tale of Two Maritime Disasters


On Wednesday, June 14 a decrepit fishing boat Adriana, crammed with 450-750 desperate Egyptian, Pakistani, Palestinian, and Syrian migrants, sank in the Mediterranean Sea fifty miles off the Greek city of Pylos.  A few days later, on Sunday, June 18, Titan, a submersible carrying a crew of five, imploded while diving to the wreck of RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic, killing all on board.  

Those desperate refugees on the Adriana were from countries representing desperation, kleptocratic mismanagement, and institutional collapse.  Famine and violence drove many from these homelands to a watery grave.

Unlike the vast majority of victims on the Adriana, it is possible to name all who died when Titan imploded.  All were wealthy enough to afford the $250,000 fee Stockton Rush, CEO of OceanGate, the Everett company that built the vessel, charged for the dive — with the possible exception of Suleman Dawood, 19-year-old son of Pakistani billionaire businessman and investor, Shazada Dawood.  

Another passenger,  Paul-Henri Naregeolet, was a French naval officer, diver, and explorer, who had retrieved thousands of artifacts from the sunken Titanic, an internationally recognized grave site. Another was George Hamish Livingston Harding, billionaire British “businessman, pilot and adventurer.” Harding was headquartered in the United Arab Emirates and had visited the South Pole and outer space and is listed in Guinness World Records for three deeds above and below the sea.

The migrants also paid thousands of dollars to the smugglers and traffickers promising to take them on June 10 from Tobruk, Libya, to asylum in Italy.  Official sources describe a series of events as Adriana crossed the Mediterranean.  Alarm Phone, a volunteer group monitoring migrant vessels, reported a distress call from a vessel, possibly Adriana.  Early on Tuesday, the 13th, the Italian Coast Guard raised an alarm.  EU aircraft, the Greek Coast Guard, and merchant vessels observed Adriana traveling north at high speed. The hundreds of passengers seriously overcrowding the board could only stand, and none had life jackets.  That afternoon merchant ships offered assistance as did the Greek Coast Guard, but all reported that terrified passengers refused.  Survivors said they asked for and were provided food and water by Coast Guard personnel and a Maltese flagged vessel. The investigation continues.    

On Wednesday morning, Adriana’s engines failed and she drifted for several hours.  Survivors said the Greek Coast Guard took the ship in tow.  Greek officers claimed that Adriana’s sharp turns underway caused her to capsize and sink in 15 minutes.

High winds and rising seas complicated rescue efforts. Super-yacht Mayan Queen IV transported 104 survivors, mostly men and several dead, to shore.   Survivors said most Pakistanis, women, and about 100 children had been locked below deck.  The ship’s captain also drowned.

As for the Titan, at 9:30 am, Sunday, the submersible was launched from the Canadian research and expedition ship, MV Polar Prince. Titan began its dive, communicating with Prince every 15 minutes.  But at 11:15, at a depth of 5,500 feet, communication with the submersible ceased.  It did not resurface as expected at 4:30 pm.  At 7:10 Prince notified the U.S. Coast Guard that the submersible vessel was missing.  

Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards, Canadian and U.S. naval vessels, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and U.S. Air National Guard, a French research vessel, and several commercial vessels equipped with Remotely Operated Underwater Vehicles participated in the five-day search.  On June 22, Titan’s wreckage was spotted on the ocean floor at a depth of 12,300 feet.  

Subsequent investigation indicated that Titan’s communication blackout resulted from a general power failure halting control of the vessel and release of ballast.  It dove nose-first to a depth of 9,000 feet when the bow porthole frame fractured, triggering a massive implosion killing all on board.  During the time the vessel plummeted from 5,500 to 9,000 feet, the passengers, in the dark, knew their fate, much as did the Pakistanis, women and children locked in Adriana.

Investigation also revealed that Titan was an accident waiting to happen, the result of hubris and disregard of a rising tide of warnings and criticism.  The trajectory of rushed production, limited testing, and disaster resulted from a drive to push boundaries and break records.  Years earlier, Rush had protested that increased regulatory requirements for submarine tourism were “understandable but illogical.”  He argued that Congressional passage of the Passenger Vehicle Safety Act in 1993 “needlessly promoted passenger safety over commercial innovation.”  

But the fatal spectacle of silly rich men on an egotistical lark is far less disturbing than the monstrous attention paid to their foibles while the yearly deaths of desperate thousands at sea elicit a concern like that voiced over the demise of a shoal of herring.

Add to the migrants’ death the deaths of millions more from famine, desertification, deforestation, pollution, and the drowning of entire nations.  The problems are so vast, so complex, and the human contributions to them are so perverse, so cruel and senseless that these catastrophes are effectively beyond words.  

But the horrors victims endure require better words.  Pause to remember the migrants’ desperate desire for a better life, as well as all those thousands of service people who, on dangerous seas, found Titan’s wreckage.



  1. Mr. Buerge’s comments are insensitive and arrogant in the face of the Titan tragedy. I would invite him to be more considerate, I ask if we would write the same headline standing in front of the bereaved families.

  2. Thank you for this. Once again, a remarkably fine and beautiful write. Those desperate and frightened migrants certainly deserved more than the brief mentions they received. Compared to the rich men who died on the Titan:

    “….the yearly deaths of desperate thousands at sea elicit a concern like that voiced over the demise of a shoal of herring.”

    That’s more like it! Shared.

  3. These are two different subjects, even though they both involve the sea. This is an unfair comparison by Mr Buerge and an inappropriate article. No true newspaper would have published this. There are daily tragedies involving immigrants in the Mediterranean, and we feel badly about it. Adventurers and innovators trying something brave, pushing the boundaries of our world, are how progress happens. They are not “silly” men. Delete yourself from Post Alley please.

    • Who gets to decide what makes an article “inappropriate”? And what does that word mean, anyway? This is thoughtful, considered, articulate opinion. Your agreement with the content is not a requirement for publication

    • I agree completely with you and with H.S. Wright III’s comment above.

      The only thing these two tragedies have in common is that they occurred in the sea.

  4. “…and we feel badly about it.” Yes, we do. But does the world rush a vast global rescue operation involving France, Canada, the United States, and involving both the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard… when a boatful of immigrants sinks?

    The five billionaires aboard the Titan met a terrible end, nobody would dispute that.

    But let’s be honest here. The desperate immigrants aboard the Adriana might have been saved, if there had been anything close to the gargantuan effort spent to find and rescue the Titan passengers, who were surely doomed. It’d be a challenging rescue, no doubt. But Doctors Without Borders rescued 440 immigrants from stormy seas in April, according to the Washington Post article, linked in this story.

    Deeply disturbing, too, are the elephantine differences of media coverage. The Titan rescue mission including nearly nonstop live coverage from CNN, also The NY Times, the BBC, and other outlets.

    And of Greek officials’ repeated statements that Adriana passengers rejected rescue attempts? Those should also be examined closer. Who exactly was shooing away the rescue boats, and why? Some Adriana survivors said they were terrified that the larger rescue vessels would overcome the Adriana. Moreover, “Legal experts insisted that authorities had an obligation to intervene, regardless of the wishes of some on board” according to the Washington Post.

    We can and should look askance at why we so value the novelty, the exploratory romance of a mission to visit the depths of the ocean, financed by billionaires, when compared to immigrants so desperate for a new life that they would board a vessel like the Adriana. And even after the sad fate of the five aboard the Titan was known, the hugely expensive recovery effort continued to find survivors. Not so for the Adriana! It is entirely appropriate to compare the coverage and the vast resources spent on both tragedies.


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