NYC Explorers Club Used Global Reach for Doomed Titan Rescue

When word reached the Explorers Club that the Titan submersible had gone missing — with two of its members on board — the venerable New York City institution kicked into action.

(Bloomberg) — When word reached the Explorers Club that the Titan submersible had gone missing — with two of its members on board — the venerable New York City institution kicked into action.

Housed in a former mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the club has been supporting scientific expeditions since its founding almost 120 years ago. Its ranks have included legendary adventurers from Teddy Roosevelt to Charles Lindbergh to Buzz Aldrin, so having members on a sub journeying to the Titanic wreck site was not that unusual. 

After being notified that the support crew had lost contact with the Titan, the club began leveraging its influential and often wealthy members to make sure everything possible was being done to mount a rescue, for which no playbook existed. 

“We started a pressure campaign,” said club President Richard Garriott, an online-gaming pioneer and the son of a NASA astronaut.

It began with an email to the Coast Guard and turned into a longer chain urging that the US Navy’s remotely operated Magellan submersible with a robotic arm be deployed to the search site. The club also asked members to write their congressional representatives with a similar plea, while others reached out to officials in Canada and England, tapping into a global membership. 

One member got Marc Gustafson, who works in the White House Situation Room, to ask President Joe Biden for help. 

The effort fed appetite for a story that rapidly captivated a global audience. The world learned about each passenger during the frenzied few days of the international search-and-rescue mission. Explorers Club members James Cameron, the director of the film Titanic, and deep-sea scientist David Mearns gave interviews to give context about deep-sea exploration.

The outsize focus on the five mostly wealthy individuals who voluntarily undertook this mission drew criticism from some — including former President Barack Obama — who questioned whether more coverage should have gone to events like the sinking of a refugee-laden ship off Greece that happened around the same time and resulted in hundreds of deaths.

The Explorers Club, though, was in a position of being able to access the media and policymakers and used that influence to try and rescue its friends and those pursuing the spirit of the organization.

Bezos Eats Iguana

It wasn’t the first time the club has activated its network on behalf of members in trouble. Plenty of expeditions have run into difficulties over the club’s long history, though it’s mostly the artifacts of successful ones that decorate the club’s East 70th Street headquarters. 

The club moved into the mansion built for an heir of the Singer sewing machine fortune in the 1960s. Its walls, shelves and archives are stocked with objects reflecting the evolution of exploration, from a leather whip used by Roy Chapman Andrews  — thought to be an inspiration for the one belonging to the fictional Indiana Jones — to the seat that club member Jeff Bezos sat in for one of his first Blue Origin space flights. 

Bezos, who’s donated to the club’s fledgling endowment, has also taken part in its tradition of exotic cuisine. He’s tried cockroaches, crocodile and iguana at their annual dinner, telling Bloomberg in 2014 that “There’s a lot of disgusting food here.”

Many of the club’s 4,000 members are academics and researchers strung across the globe who find it’s a way to connect with richer members or outside patrons for support. Billionaire hedge-fund founder Ray Dalio’s OceanX built a ship and submersible that club member and oceanographer Edith Widder used to hunt for giant squid.

Those who have held club flags include Victor Vescovo, who’s doing a multiyear series of deep dives, and Anthony Fiorillo, an academic studying studying dinosaur footprints in the Alaska Arctic.

When the Titan went missing, Garriott was among the first to hear. One of the passengers was Hamish Harding, chairman of Action Aviation, a Dubai-based aircraft brokerage who he considered a personal friend. Garriott had seen Harding off on the fatal trip from the club’s Global Exploration Summit in the Azores. 

Garriott said he’d advised Harding not to go on the mission out of safety concerns with the experimental OceanGate vessel, and had declined to make such a trip himself, though he’d been on submersibles made by others. 

Undeterred, Harding went ahead, excited to participate in a study of the bacteria eating the iron of the Titanic. He was joined by Paul-Henri Nargeolet, also a club member, as well as Shahzada and Suleman Dawood, and OceanGate’s chief executive officer, Stockton Rush.

A definitive conclusion to the Titan search was publicly announced on June 22: The vessel had imploded shortly after beginning the dive, killing all five on board. Debris and presumed human remains were recovered and returned to land in Newfoundland, almost a week later, along with what appeared to be the Titan’s 22-foot hull. 

Read More: Titanic Sub Crew Dead After Vessel’s Catastrophic Implosion  

For many club members, the past few days have been spent remembering Harding. Cheetah Conservation Fund founder Laurie Marker recalled Harding’s part delivering eight cheetahs from Namibia to India; Prime Minister Narendra Modi had planned to release the endangered animals into the wild to coincide with his birthday.

Knowing of his expertise in aviation, Marker texted Harding. He happened to be up in space at the time, but when he returned, he got to work to arranging for the use of a friend’s cargo plane. He then brought a club flag from the New York clubhouse to Namibia to join Marker and the “very important passengers,” as he called them, on the trip to India.

“That is the kind of guy Hamish was, he was a problem solver who was happy to help with the tools, technology and even financial resources,” Garriott said. 

Garriott wants the club to drive forward in the spirit of Harding. Though he’s taken to calling the last part of his tenure as club president his “lame-duck year,” he’s now brimming with ideas, including starting a search-and-rescue committee, to complement those that tend to matters such as conservation, club events, the annual dinner and so on. 

“For terrestrial rescue, the club has alliances with commercial rescue entities that do this professionally,” he said. “But for the deep below a thousand meters and for space, there are no such commercial entities. There really hasn’t been the demand for this as a club function because there was previously no test case. The need for that absolutely is changing.” 

Read More: The Explorers Club Aims to Shed Its Rich, White, Colonialist Image

–With assistance from Azul Cibils Blaquier.

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