U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jamie Frederick

U.S. Coast Guard Captain Jamie Frederick speaks during a press conference about the search efforts for the submersible that went missing near the wreck of the Titanic, at Coast Guard Base in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 20, 2023.

(Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

Critics Decry 'Unspeakable' Contrast Between Efforts to Save Titanic Tourists and Migrants

"Hundreds of refugees just died on a boat that collapsed in the Mediterranean," said one journalist, "and that situation has already stopped being news on most major platforms."

As a growing international team of rescue workers held out hope that the crew and passengers of a missing submersible vessel may be signaling that they're still alive on Wednesday, human rights advocates were among those who couldn't help but notice the juxtaposition between the rescue efforts and those that were carried out last week to save hundreds of migrants who were attempting to cross the Mediterranean when their overloaded boat capsized.

The Titan, a vessel owned by the deep sea exploration company OceanGate Expeditions in Washington State, lost contact with the ship that deployed it less than two hours after embarking on what should have been a two-and-a-half-hour journey to the Titanic in the north Atlantic Ocean. The submersible, which is 22 feet long and nine feet tall, was piloted by OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush and carried four tourists who paid $250,000 each to travel to the shipwreck.

The story of OceanGate, its history of dismissing safety concerns about its voyages on what one reporter called a "jerry-rigged" vessel, and the feared fate of the passengers—who include a maritime expert, an explorer and aviation executive, and a businessman traveling with his 19-year-old son—has captivated many since the submersible went missing, with The New York Times providing live coverage of the rescue mission.

The submersible was estimated to have enough oxygen to last the crew and passengers until Thursday if they are still alive. As The New Republic reported Tuesday, a former OceanGate employee raised concerns about the Titan's ability to safely travel to the Titanic, which lies nearly 13,000 feet below the ocean's surface. A vessel traveling to the wreckage would face crushing pressure changes, which submersible pilot David Lochridge told the company could cause "large tears" in the carbon fiber vessel. Lochridge was fired after voicing the concerns, and Rush has openly derided deep sea diving safety regulations.

But as four Canadian Coast Guard ships and other rescue vessels were deployed Wednesday to join surveillance aircraft and remote-operated vehicles that have been searching an area the size of Massachusetts following the detection of "banging sounds" underwater, human rights advocate Kenneth Roth was among those who contrasted the massive search operation with the "pathetic" response to an imminent shipwreck last Wednesday that left more than 500 migrants missing and presumed drowned.

The Greek Coast Guard said this week that "smugglers" in control of the overcrowded fishing boat, which was headed for Italy, rejected offers of help before the boat sank in front of authorities, and officials in Greece have noted that no "SOS" signal had been sent from the ship.

But experts say the Coast Guard violated a 2014 European Union law which requires governments to help ships when there is "the existence of a request for assistance, although such a request shall not be the sole factor for determining the existence of a distress situation."

"If the Greek Coast Guard recognized the boat as in distress, and this is an objective assessment, they should have tried to rescue them no matter what," Markella Io Papadouli, a lawyer at the Advice on Individual Rights in Europe Center, told The New York Times on Monday.

Those running the ship were reportedly intent on reaching Italy, but the boat's captain reported to the Hellenic Search and Rescue Center that overcrowding was causing it to rock "dangerously."

"You have an obligation to rescue," said Papadouli. "Negotiating with the smugglers is like negotiation with plane hijackers."

Critics also noted that the passengers who could afford a spot on the Titan and embarked on the trip despite OceanGate's acknowledgment on waiver forms that tourists could be "permanently disabled or killed" have also received outsized media attention in recent days compared to the hundreds of refugees who perished in the second-deadliest migrant shipwreck on record.

"The submersible's disappearance has arguably been the biggest news story of the last 24 hours. That's understandable in some ways," wrote Alex Shephard at The New Republic on Tuesday, "There is both the possibility of an improbably happy ending or of unspeakable tragedy—another element of a compelling news story."

But Shephard argued the migrant ship disaster should also have been treated as "a huge news story, one that hits at both Europe's ongoing refugee crisis and the callousness with which many European nations treat migrants who are desperately trying to reach their shores. Yet it has received scant attention in the American media—and the missing submersible story has dwarfed what coverage there has been."

Laleh Khalili, a professor of international politics at Queen Mary University of London, called the gap in attention paid to the two catastrophes "unspeakable."

"I want everyone in this submersible to be rescued and found alive because despite the sheer incredulity of this situation, they're human," said Kristina Drye, a communications analyst at USAID. "But hundreds of refugees just died on a boat that collapsed in the Mediterranean, and that situation has already stopped being news on most major platforms."

The 19-year-old passenger's "dad put him on this boat so they could feel something thrilling, something associated with invincibility," she added. "I don't think it ever crossed their mind that they would feel fear. And yet there are hundreds of kids, crossing dozens of borders, whose parents send them knowing they will only feel fear, and that no one is invincible."

"And if anyone needs to feel something that deep, that badly," Drye continued, "just watch the struggle of people who are escaping one life to try to create some semblance of another. And watch them fail in that effort through no fault of their own."

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