The suppressed terror, the sense of loneliness and helplessness that must grip the five occupants of the lost Titanic submersible, is something I understand all too well.
I survived a similar frightening ordeal over 20 years ago. The experience of being completely alone, beyond all hope of rescue, is hard to describe to someone who has not experienced it. The emotions have stayed with me ever since and are painful to relive.
When I first heard that the Titan submersible had disappeared, I felt a sense of disbelief that it could happen again.
A knot formed in my stomach. It brought back all those memories, with tremendous sadness and a feeling of grief. I’ll get back to it right away.
As science editor for ABC News television, in 2000 I was asked to dive into a deep-sea submersible at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to report on the wreckage of the Titanic.
Since childhood, I have had a morbid fear of water and of drowning. But now I had the chance to become the first journalist to visit the Titanic. I couldn’t pass out.
Fragile tin can: An interior view shows the Titan submersible which disappeared as it descended towards the wreckage on Sunday
Voyage to the bottom of the ocean: Dr. Michael Guillen was the first television journalist to visit the wreck of the Titanic
My production team and I flew to Halifax, Nova Scotia to join the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh, a 6,240 ton Russian research vessel. Just over a day later we arrived at the spot, 400 miles southeast of Newfoundland, where the Titanic collided with an iceberg, broke in two and sank .
After intensive training and with my heart pounding like a bass drum, I boarded the Mir1 submersible with my dive buddy, British sitcom writer Brian Cooke, and our pilot, a Russian named Viktor.
Inside the cramped cabin, Brian and I lay face down on small cushioned benches and peered through portholes about 9 inches in diameter. Viktor sat between us, facing a much larger porthole, above which was a control panel.
Corkscrewing at about 1 mph took us about two and a half hours to bottom. The Titan, on the other hand, lost contact with the surface within two hours, which tells me something disastrous happened before they reached the wreckage.
I can’t speculate, but it must have been a much bigger problem than getting caught in a fishing net, for example. They are incredibly durable machines, built to withstand the harshest underwater conditions.
When we reached the seabed, Viktor turned on the submarine’s flashlight and my eyes saw pale sand like a lunar surface. Not much sea life can survive at this extreme depth, but we saw slender rat-tailed fish and delicate starfish, as white as titanium. A few minutes later, a vast wall appeared right before my eyes, studded with rivets. “Titanic,” Viktor intoned.
The Titan submarine was submerged at 8 a.m. Sunday morning about 400 miles southeast of St John’s, Newfoundland, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. He lost contact at 9.45 a.m. but was not reported to the coastguard until 5.40 p.m.
It was one of the scariest times of my life. All the electric feelings of awe and disbelief quickly gave way to an overwhelming feeling of grief. Brian and I observed a moment of silence. I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried thinking of the dozens of people who drowned there.
Over the next hour, Viktor gave us a grand tour of the wreckage. I saw, half buried in the sand, women’s shoes, leather suitcases and cases of champagne—and, in the stern, one of the ship’s giant propellers.
It seemed to me that we were going too fast. Later, I learned that our submarine was caught in a fast current.
When the Mir1 hit the 21 ton propeller, I felt the shock of the collision. Shards of reddish, rusty debris fell, obscuring my view through the portal. “Oh my God, look at the size of those things,” Brian said. We exchanged anxious looks.
“So, are we stuck or what?” I whispered. Viktor in glasses stared intently at the control panel. I can close my eyes and see it again now.
There is an unimaginable moment when your mind hits a brick wall and you realize there is no way out. We were in a situation that seemed totally hopeless.
I had to deal with this for half an hour. The Titan people have been there since Sunday morning.
Ten minutes passed, then 20 and 30. All the while, I could hear the engine moving forward and backward. Obviously Viktor was trying to get us out of a stuck position, lodged under the giant propeller, and just as clearly it wasn’t working.
When the Mir1 hit the 21 ton propeller, I felt the shock of the collision. Shards of reddish, rusty debris crashed down, obscuring my view through the portal
He also communicated urgently with the crew on the surface by hydrophone. The tense dialogue was in Russian and the voices sounded wavy and resonant, as if from another world. Viktor’s attitude was grim.
A voice in my head rose, “This is how it’s going to end for you.” Even now I can hear those exact words. I knew Mir2 was in the water but even if he could reach us in time, how could he get us out without putting himself in danger?
Then I started to calculate how much oxygen we probably had left: another eight to ten hours at most, and then we would slowly suffocate.
It was then that I thought of my wife Laurel, and an overwhelming sadness washed over me at the thought that I would never see her again.
Then something happened that is hard to describe. The feeling of the interior space of the submarine changed abruptly. It was as if an invisible presence had entered it and a feeling of strange and unannounced peace came over me.
Soon after, everything calmed down. The engine stopped roaring and we felt like we were floating. Brian and I exchanged hopeful looks. Turning to us, Viktor gave a big smile and announced, ‘No problem!’
Somehow he had managed to free us from the propeller. Later I learned that he was an experienced MiG jet pilot, used to handling crises.
A few months later, Laurel and I were reading the Bible when we came across Psalm 139: “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell at the bottom of the sea, there also will your hand lead me , and your right hand will hold me.
As long as I live, this psalm will never again be just a word in the Bible.
- Dr. Michael Guillen is a best-selling scientist, journalist and author. michaelguillen.com