The German satirist, Kurt Tucholsky, had one of his fictional characters dismiss the horrors of war by noting, “The death of one man: that is a catastrophe. A hundred thousand deaths: that is a statistic.” That quote was subsequently embellished by revising it to “a million deaths is a statistic” and attributing it to the Soviet dictator and alleged human being Joseph Stalin. Regardless of the exact wording and the original source, the sentiment implicit in the quote is true. We can agonize over the loss of a specific person or a few people, but we cannot truly absorb the enormity of massive death tolls. Events in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea in June, 2023, reminded us of our very limited capacity for grief or empathy.
On June 18, the submersible vessel Oceangate Titan lost contact with the Polar Prince surface vessel as it descended in the north Atlantic with five men on board. This was a routine trip to view the wreck of the Titanic, the legendary ocean liner that sunk on its maiden voyage in April,1912. More than 1,500 people died when that ship struck an iceberg and sank. It lay 2 ½ mile down on the seabed east of Newfoundland. The Oceangate company offered sightseeing trips in the Titan submersible to the Titanic wreckage for $250,000 per passenger. The Titan had already made more than 30 dives to the wreckage site in recent years. The descent to the wreck usually took two hours and the entire voyage to the bottom and back to the surface lasted no more than 10 hours.
Those purchasing trips to the remains of the Titanic were necessarily very wealthy and either very brave or very foolish. No light reached the depths where the Titanic rested. The water temperature was near freezing and the pressure on any material sitting below those 2 ½ miles of water exceeded 5,600 pounds/square inch. At sea level, the pressure on people, ships, and other material floating on the surface of the oceans is less than 15 pounds/square inch. The walls of the submersible kept its occupants from being crushed by the water pressure around them. Any breach in the vessel would lead to death for those inside within a fraction of a second. The force of an implosion would tear apart the vessel and its occupants instantly.
The Titan was carefully lowered into the Atlantic Ocean at the site of the Titanic wreckage on June 18. The Polar Prince abruptly lost contact with the submersible about 100 minutes into its dive. Soon after the Titan lost contact with the Polar Prince, a massive search was launched to find the vessel and rescue its five occupants. The U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards deployed ships and planes to scour an area twice the size of Connecticut. Unmanned remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) were sent to the ocean floor to look for Titan. A French ship joined the search, and the U.S. Navy monitored sound picked up by acoustic buoys in the area. News media in the U.S. and elsewhere followed the search for the Titan for days, as one news outlet posted a clock displaying the number of hours and minutes of oxygen left onboard the Titan if it was still intact. The search ended when debris from the Titan was discovered near the wreck of the Titanic. The world grieved for the five men onboard the ill-fated submersible, and news media told stories of their lives and interviewed family and friends of the dead.
During the week before the Titan and its five occupants were lost, more than a thousand migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea when the overloaded vessels they were crammed onto capsized and sank. In one well-documented incident, a fishing trawler that could accommodate 50 people was loaded with between 500 and 750 migrants. Women and children were stuffed below decks with men overloading the decks and contributing to the ship’s instability. The vessel left Libya during the second week of June and was spotted by a Greek Coast Guard ship that, according to survivors, contributed to the ship’s sinking. The Greek ship allegedly took the trawler in tow to divert it from Greek shores and redirect it toward Italy. The maneuver further destabilized the ship and led to its capsizing at 2:00 AM local time on June 14. Everyone on deck was tossed into the sea. Everyone below deck was trapped and drowned.
Some of those floundering in the sea were picked up by a megayacht, the Mayan Queen IV, owned by the Mexican billionaire Bailleres family. None was rescued by the Greek Coast Guard, despite its having monitored the fishing trawler for hours before it sank. Survivors reported that they each paid $5,500 to Egyptian smugglers to get them from Libya to Italy. The passengers were primarily from Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Pakistan. Most were fleeing war, religious persecution, and interminable poverty. A little more than 100 of the migrants were taken to Greek shores by the Mayan Queen IV.
Other overcrowded and underprovisioned ships were lost in the Mediterranean during the first two weeks of June, but some of these migrant vessels could only be documented on the basis of reports from people whose relatives failed to survive the journey. The lives lost in June by those who went down to the sea in ships in an effort to escape the horrors of their Asian, African, and Middle Eastern homelands may not have been ‘millions’ or ‘hundreds of thousands’ but it was certainly thousands.
There were obvious differences between the five that died on the Titan submersible on June 18 and the hundreds that died on the migrant ship that capsized on June 14. Those on the Titan were wealthy and curious: those on the migrant ship were poor and desperate. The 5 men on board the Titan have been described as pioneers or explorers, defying the odds and boldly going where not many have gone before. The hundreds who died with the sinking of the fishing trawler 4 days earlier have remained simply described as “migrants” or “refugees,” the collateral damage from competing self interests.
Regardless of how these maritime casualties are remembered or if they are remembered beyond one news cycle, the divergent responses to the Titan tragedy and the migrant ships tragedies confirms the claim by Tucholsky’s fictional character from nearly a century ago. The news media and local governments responded to the deaths of five men on the Titan as a catastrophe. The loss of hundreds on a migrant vessel in the Mediterranean was barely reported or responded to, except as an additional statistic in a world imploding with people dying in struggles to escape chaos, poverty, political oppression, and religious fanaticism.
Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.