In the days before the Titan vessel went into the ocean off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, the 19-year-old university student accompanying his father on the expedition expressed hesitation about going on the voyage, according to his aunt.
Azmeh Dawood — the older sister of Pakistani businessman Shahzada Dawood — told NBC News on Thursday that her nephew, Suleman, informed a relative that he “wasn’t very up for it” and felt “terrified” about the mission to explore the wreckage of the Titanic.
But the 19-year-old ended up going aboard OceanGate’s 22-foot submersible because the trip fell over Father’s Day weekend and he was eager to please his dad, who was passionate about the lore of the Titanic, according to Azmeh.
“I am thinking of Suleman, who is 19, in there, just perhaps gasping for breath … It’s been crippling, to be honest,” Azmeh said in a phone interview from the home in Amsterdam she shares with her husband, Jonathan.
She was devastated on Thursday when OceanGate, the company behind the Titan expedition, confirmed that all five passengers aboard were presumed dead. The U.S. Coast Guard said that debris in the search area was consistent with a “catastrophic implosion.”
“I feel disbelief,” Azmeh said, speaking through sobs. “It’s an unreal situation.”
The last four days were agonizing for Azmeh. She was glued to television news coverage of the hunt for the Titan, desperate for updates about her brother and nephew — and fearing the worst.
“I feel like I’ve been caught in a really bad film, with a countdown, but you didn’t know what you’re counting down to,” she said. “I personally have found it kind of difficult to breathe thinking of them.”
“I never thought I would have an issue with drawing breath,” she added. “It’s been unlike any experience I’ve ever had.”
Azmeh and Shahzada are scions of one of the most prominent corporate dynasties in Pakistan. The family’s namesake business empire, Dawood Hercules Corp., has investments in agriculture, the health sector and other industries.
Shahzada was the vice chairman of the Karachi-based Engro Corporation and an adviser to Prince’s Trust International, a charitable organization founded by King Charles III.
‘He was my baby brother’
In recent years, Azmeh had fallen out of touch with Shahzada.
She was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis in 2014 and “reduced to being in a wheelchair.” She and her husband decided to move from England to Amsterdam so she would have easier access to medicinal cannabis.
But some of her family members, including Shahzada, disapproved of her use of cannabis and they started speaking less frequently. She said that she continued to feel close to Suleman, a young man she described as thoroughly good-hearted.
But with the news Thursday that both men were believed to be dead, Azmeh was reminded of the intense love she felt for her late sibling.
“He was my baby brother,” she said. She was weeping, seemingly overwhelmed with emotion. “I held him up when he was born.”
Azmeh recalled that Shahzada was “absolutely obsessed” with the Titanic from a young age. When they were kids in Pakistan, the Dawood siblings would constantly watch the 1958 film “A Night to Remember,” a British drama about the sinking of the cruise liner.
She recounted that when Shahzada first met her husband, he asked if they could sit down and watch a four-hour documentary about the Titanic. Shahzada also loved going to see museum exhibitions featuring artifacts recovered from the wreckage.
She was not surprised when she learned that her brother had purchased tickets for the OceanGate mission. It was not something she would ever do, she explained: “If you gave me a million dollars,” she said, “I would not have gotten into the Titan.”
Azmeh spent part of Thursday afternoon looking at old family photos, trying to make sense of the tragedy that befell her brother and nephew — and grappling with the emotional ripple effect around the world.
“I feel very bad that the whole world has had to go through so much trauma, so much suspense,” she said.