The date was Nov. 29, 1983. It was 6:32 p.m., and a French army helicopter was lost off the coast of Beirut with three passengers on board. Two bodies were later found. It was an “accident,” announced the French Defense Ministry, in a dispatch L’Orient-Le Jour published the next day. Lebanon was at war and the event passed almost unnoticed.
June 18, 2023,4:45 p.m.. Almost two hours after beginning its dive to the Titanic’s ruins, the submersible, named Titan, disappeared from radar signals. The world was mesmerized as international media reported on the race against time to save the five passengers onboard. It would be too late, the submarine would implode, carrying its crew into the abyss of the Atlantic Ocean.
Set 40 years apart, these two events are seemingly separate. A close look, however, reveals there is more than meets the eye.
Paul-Henri Nargeolet was taking his 38th dive with the Titan in 36 years, in the spot where the most famous ocean liners sank on April 15, 1912. These frequent trips earned Nargeolet the nickname “Mr Titanic.” The French deep sea explorer would die near that spot, where he spent part of his life, telling the stories of the 2,200 people who were on board the Titanic and recovering objects from the bottom of the ocean.
“He couldn’t have wished for a better end,” said Jean-Paul Justiniano.
Justiniano is associated with the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (Ifremer), where he worked for several years along with the man who was also said to be “unsinkable.” Unfortunately, the “unsinkable” myth surrounding the Titanic was constantly corrected by Nargeolet, who often said “The builder had said it is ‘practically’ unsinkable.”
Nevertheless, “that’s probably the best way to describe him [Nargeolet],” said Justiniano. For him, the pilot of the Nautile, a French submarine he operated for more than twenty-five years, Paul-Henri Nargeolet was a “mentor.”
He was the mentor who told him on Aug. 1, 1987, 3,800 meters below the ocean’s surface, “look with your own eyes,” when the three members on board the yellow submarine came face to face with the Titanic’s wreckage.
“As a co-pilot, I could only see outside through the screens. So, Paul-Henri gave me his seat for a few minutes so that I could look out of the porthole,” he recounted.
On the dark ocean floor, at the top of a hill on the abyssal plain, one can suddenly see “the hull and anchors of the liner, studded with rust stalactites... Every time I see this scene again, I’m overcome by emotions.”
But it wasn’t aboard the Nautile, or even after the discovery of the Titanic’s ruins on Sept.1, 1985, that the two men shook hands for the first time. It was a year earlier, when they were aboard Le Suroît, a French scientific research vessel, anchored in the eastern Mediterranean, “two nautical miles [3.7 km] away from Beirut.”
Justiniano was a 22-year-old electronics and IT technician on the SP3000 Cyana, commander Cousteau’s submarine.
Paul-Henri was 38 and was a clearance diver for the French Navy, tasked with protecting French nationals on this mission. The two of them were looking for the French army helicopter that crashed at sea in November 1983 off the coast of war-torn Lebanon.
“At the time, [the] Cyana was the only manned intervention vessel in the French underwater fleet, used for scientific research,” said Justiniano.
Hired six months earlier by Genavir, then associated with the national center for ocean exploration (CNEXO, later Ifremer), the young Toulon University graduate found himself in a “confidential mission” as classified was classified by the French government, which had committed itself to the Lebanese army in September 1982 as part of the Multinational Force in Beirut.
Following the Oct. 23, 1983 attacks in Beirut, claimed by the Hezbollah-linked Islamic Jihad Organization, against US and French contingents, which killed 241 soldiers and 58 paratroopers respectively, along with six Lebanese civilians, the Force was disbanded in March 1984.
In mid-November 1984, after several stopovers in a military aircraft from which they were forbidden to leave, Genavir’s technical team members reached Le Suroît, positioned close to where the helicopter sank.
“The diving zone was between 1,200 and 1,300 meters deep,” Justiniano said.
The orders were clear: the French Ministry of the Armed Forces wanted to know what happened to the craft a year earlier. Before the Cyana was launched, military boats were dispatched by the navy, ready to intervene if anything went wrong. After all, the Lebanese Civil War raged just a few kilometers away.
That was when the person, who would later become “Mr Titanic,” arrived to the scene. Paul-Henri Nargeolet was well accustomed to confidential missions. He was a member of the French navy brigade that was tasked with clearing naval mines from some 190 kilometers of seabed in the Suez Canal between 1974-1975 in preparation for its reopening after the Six-Day War (1967).
Keeping an eye on the surrounding area of a scientific research vessel may seem easy enough for this clearance diver, who was more interested in the Cyana.
“I was impressed to see the military arrive,” said Justiniano, who has no photos of his meeting with Paul-Henri Nargeolet on this occasion, given that it was a confidential mission.
However, the secret was soon to become public: On Nov. 17, 1984, L’Orient-Le Jour wrote in a short article that “two French destroyers embarked on the search for the wreckage of a French Gazelle helicopter that had crashed” into the sea when the contingent involved in the Multinational Force was in Beirut.
“It was easy to make contact with Paul-Henri. We had the opportunity to discuss the submarine’s technology,” said Justiniano. “We recovered the helicopter after three or four dives.” After attaching it to a rope linked to a buoy on the surface, thanks to the Cyana, the boat was able to bring the helicopter to the surface, aided by Nargeolet’s team of divers. The skeleton of the third crew member was found inside the helicopter. Mission accomplished.
But what happened to the helicopter? Here too, the orders were clear: no questions, no answers. “The rumors were that the helicopter had a rotor issue,” said Justiniano.
From his short stay off the coast of Lebanon, the pilot of the Nautile retains two things. First, the start of a friendship with Paul-Henri Nargeolet, who joined Genavir-Ifremer in 1986, before “heading for the exploration of the Titanic in the 1990s,” he said.
Second is an image, which has been anchored in his memory for nearly 40 years: “Beirut, divided in two. From Le Suroît, at night, the right side of the city was lit. There was even a sort of fairground with a spinning Ferris wheel. On the left, on the other hand, everything was dark. We could only see the lights of the cannons pelting the city,” he said.
While he has never set foot on Lebanese soil ever since, “because there was not an opportunity,” Justiniano, now 61 years old, remembers as if it were yesterday, having asked himself in the face of this particular sight: “But how are the Lebanese going to get out of this?”
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.