Clodagh Finn: Two tragedies at sea led to two very different responses

Clodagh Finn: Two tragedies at sea led to two very different responses

At least now we know the Titan was lost following a likely catastrophic implosion shortly after contact broke down last Sunday. 

That means the noises detected from the search area did not come from the 22ft vessel. Knowing that their loved ones were not desperately banging on the sub’s walls as oxygen was running out might provide some shred of comfort for relatives, cold as it is.

Now, international media coverage of the tragedy is focusing on what happens next.

Contrast that response to the fading coverage of the mass drowning of hundreds of people after a fishing trawler, packed with people from Syria, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Palestine, sank off the coast of Greece last week.

It is not true to say that the tragedy did not make headlines. It did, but it took a few days before the story got top billing, and then it dropped down the running order with speed. 

The story of the loss of the Titan made it almost disappear from news feeds.

How can that be?

What kind of world quickly moves on from the loss of up to 500 people — we don’t yet know the exact number of the deaths — to concentrate all its attention on efforts to save five people lost at sea?

I’m not that naïve, either. I can see that exploration or extreme tourism — it’s hard to know how to describe a deep-sea tour that costs $250,000 per person — is going to trump the deaths of ordinary people every time.

Repugnantly banal

And the loss of people — I refuse to call them migrants — fleeing violence, political turmoil, financial insecurity and/or violence from unseaworthy death vessels has become repugnantly banal.

It is too familiar a story. And there are too few big names. In fact, there are relatively few names at all, which makes it much easier to turn a blind eye.

Having said that, the photograph and short video showing Mohammad (18) from Syria, being reunited with his elder brother Fadi, who had come from the Netherlands looking for him, is heart-rending. 

And it brings the reality of this increasingly unequal world uncomfortably to the fore.

There are other welcome reports of the grief shared by families as they wait to hear news of their missing relatives.

If we got to know the people behind the statistics would that shake us out of our collective apathy? 

I don’t know, but I’m entirely certain that the 50,000-plus people who died trying to reach Europe since 1993 represent an incalculable loss.

The lost potential in that number is unknowable. There are those abhorrent commentators — including a former president of the United States — who refer to people seeking a better life as potential criminals.

In any big number, there will be some who commit crime, but there will be so many more who build communities, contribute to the workplace, innovate, create and invent as well as forge lasting, loving relationships.

It’s easy to ignore the truth of that by calling these people ‘migrants’. The word appeared in almost every report on the fishing-vessel disaster and it’s one that, alas, whips up fear, resentment, and intolerance.

On the other hand, the adjective ‘billionaire’ was included in all reports of the people on board the Titan. It doesn’t matter a jot how much money they had; their lives are absolutely precious regardless. 

Race against time

Affluence, however, coupled with daring proves to be a heady mix that grabs attention.

The Titan submersible.
The Titan submersible.

The fact that there was a race against time guaranteed wall-to-wall coverage too. 

Recall how the world watched with bated breath for 18 days in June 2018 when divers risked their lives to rescue 12 boys and their soccer coach from a cave in Thailand.

They had ventured inside to mark one of the boy’s birthdays and got trapped when heavy rain flooded the cave system. 

The successful rescue effort involved more than 100 divers, 10 helicopters, thousands of police officers, soldiers and several government agencies. It united a divided country, one Thai journalist said, explaining how the collective will to save young lives brought people together.

The boys and their coach were rescued but one rescuer, Saman Gunan, a Royal Thai Navy Seal who came out of retirement to help, died during the operation.

There is something of the Kursk about the Titan story too, the nuclear-powered submarine that sank in the Barents Sea on 12 August 2000 following an explosion during a Russian naval exercise. 

The world’s media gathered as rescuers tried to locate the submarine.

The plight of the 118 personnel on board was felt in every corner of the globe as divers searched for the sunken vessel. However, all of them had died by the time rescuers reached them eight days later.

We saw that same collective spirit take hold as frantic efforts were made to locate and rescue the lost submersible earlier this week.

The fact it was lost on its way to the depths of the ocean to tour the Titanic, possibly the world’s most famous shipwreck, added to the poignancy.

It is an irony, cruel beyond words, that they got lost at sea as they set out to visit the site where some 1,500 others were also lost at sea. The fascination, for good or bad, with the “unsinkable” luxury ocean liner endures a century after an iceberg split it in half in April 1915.

In 100 years’ time, you can be pretty sure that there will be no submersible going to visit the site of the fishing vessel that sank in deep waters last week.

The real tragedy is that there is so little interest in it in the present day.

Imagine how different the world would be if we could develop a shred of empathy for the people leaving their homes due to conflict, human rights violations, or as a result of climate change. Like those on board the Titan, they paid large sums (at least to them) to face danger, but in radically different circumstances.

In the meantime, the proximity of these two tragic events at sea casts an unsettling light not only on our skewed news values, but on our attitude to people without means.

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