NYC Explorers Club used global reach to rescue doomed titan

By Amanda Gordon and Guillermo Molero

(Bloomberg) — When the Explorers Club learned the Titan submersible had disappeared — with two of its members on board — the venerable New York institution took action.

Housed in a former mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the club has supported scientific expeditions since its inception nearly 120 years ago. Its ranks included legendary adventurers from Teddy Roosevelt to Charles Lindbergh to Buzz Aldrin, so it wasn’t uncommon for members to travel to the Titanic wreck site in a submarine.

After being informed that the support crew had lost contact with Titan, the club began using its influential and often wealthy members to ensure that everything possible was done to organize a rescue, for which there was no script gave.

“We started a print campaign,” said club president Richard Garriott, an online gaming pioneer and son of a NASA astronaut.

It started with an email to the Coast Guard and grew into a longer string of requests to use the US Navy’s remote-controlled Magellan submersible with a robotic arm at the search site. The club also urged members to make a similar appeal to their congressmen, while others reached out to officials in Canada and England, opening up worldwide membership.

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

The effort whetted the appetite for a story that quickly captivated audiences worldwide. During the hectic days of the international search and rescue mission, the world learned about every single passenger. James Cameron, member of the Explorers Club, who directed the film titanicand deep-sea scientist David Mearns gave interviews to provide context on deep-sea exploration.

The over-focus on the five mostly wealthy people who volunteered for the mission drew criticism from some – including former President Barack Obama – who questioned whether more coverage of events such as the sinking of a ship laden with refugees off Greece should have happened, which happened At the same time, hundreds of deaths occurred.

However, the Explorers Club had access to the media and policymakers and used that influence to try to rescue its friends and those who were following the spirit of the organization.

Bezos eats iguana

It was not the first time the club activated its network to help members in difficulty. Many expeditions have encountered difficulties throughout the club’s long history, although it is mostly the artifacts of successful expeditions that adorn the club’s headquarters on East 70th Street.

The club moved into the mansion built in the 1960s for an heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. Its walls, shelves, and archives are lined with objects reflecting the development of the voyage of discovery, from a leather whip used by Roy Chapman Andrews—which presumably served as inspiration for the fictional Indiana Jones’ whip—to the seat on which the club member sat Jeff Bezos is taking part in one of his first Blue Origin space flights.

Bezos, who has donated to the club’s fledgling foundation, has also participated in its tradition of exotic cuisine. He’s sampled roaches, crocodiles, and iguanas at their annual dinner, telling Bloomberg in 2014, “There’s a lot of gross food here.”

Many of the club’s 4,000 members are academics and researchers from around the world who find it a way to connect with wealthier members or outside sponsors for support. OceanX, billionaire hedge fund founder Ray Dalio, built a ship and a submersible that club member and oceanographer Edith Widder used to hunt giant squid.

Club flag bearers include Victor Vescovo, who conducts a multi-year series of deep dives, and Anthony Fiorillo, a scientist studying dinosaur footprints in Arctic Alaska.

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 broker, whom he considered a personal friend. Garriott had accompanied Harding on the fatal trip from the club’s Global Exploration Summit to the Azores.

Garriott said he discouraged Harding from participating in the mission with the experimental OceanGate vessel due to safety concerns and has declined to make such a voyage himself, despite having been on submersibles from other manufacturers.

Undeterred, Harding pressed on, excited to take part in a study on the bacteria that eat Titanic’s iron. He was joined by fellow club member Paul-Henri Nargeolet, as well as Shahzada and Suleman Dawood, and OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush.

A final conclusion to the Titan search was publicly announced on June 22: the ship had imploded shortly after the dive began, killing all five on board. Debris and what is believed to be human remains were recovered and returned to Newfoundland nearly a week later, along with Titan’s apparently 22-foot hull.

For many club members, the past few days have been dedicated to commemorating Harding. Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, recalled Harding’s role in delivering eight cheetahs from Namibia to India; Prime Minister Narendra Modi had planned to release the endangered animals into the wild in time for his birthday.

Knowing of his aviation expertise, Marker texted Harding. At that point he happened to be in space, but when he got back he got to work arranging use of a friend’s cargo plane. He then took a club flag from the New York clubhouse to Namibia to accompany Marker and what he called “very important passengers” on the voyage to India.

“That’s the Hamish type, he was a problem solver who was happy to help with the tools, the technology and even the financial resources,” Garriott said.

Garriott wants the club to move forward in the spirit of Harding. Though he often refers to the latter part of his tenure as club president as his “lame duck year,” he’s now bubbling with ideas, including forming a search and rescue committee to complement those working on issues like conservation and club deal events, the annual dinner and so on.

“For terrestrial rescue, the club has alliances with commercial rescue organizations that do this professionally,” he said. “But for sub-thousand-meter depth and space, there are no such commercial units. As a club event, there was actually no demand for this, as there was no test case before. The need for this is absolutely changing.”

–With the support of Azul Cibils Blaquier.

© 2023 Bloomberg LP

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