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Did a Fire Sink the Titanic? These 7 Other Factors Could Have Also Played a Role

5 minute read

More than a century after the RMS Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, a journalist has a new theory about how the famous accident happened.

After having studied photos in a newly discovered album for the recent TV documentary Titanic: The New Evidence, journalist Senan Molony claims that it wasn’t simply a crash into an iceberg that caused the largest cruise liner of its time to sink on April 14, 1912. Rather, he posits, a smoldering fire broke out in the ship’s coal bunker boiler rooms before it left the English port at Southampton, and weakened the ship’s structure, so that the iceberg crash was more devastating than it would have otherwise been. Molony points as evidence to one particular photo, which shows a black mark on the side of the ship where the fire took place. The images were taken at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by John Westbeech Kempster at the beginning of April 1912, just a week before the cruise ship set sail for New York City, and the album was put up for auction at the centenary of the accident in 2012.

But, while the discussion of the photos as supporting evidence that a fire made the ship vulnerable to the iceberg’s impact is new, this is not the first time that Titanic experts have argued that more attention should be paid to the role that a coal bunker fire may have played in the accident.

At the 2004 annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA), Robert Essenhigh, an engineer at Ohio State University, presented what even he described as a “very speculative” paper about how a possible bunker fire may have explained why the Titanic was sailing at full speed across the North Atlantic Ocean, even though it was designed for comfort not speed. “If there was a reason for the speed, it had to be something important — like a fire in the coal bunker that needed to be kept under control and then put out as soon as the ship reached port,” a GSA news release noted. “The standard technique for controlling and eliminating such fires on steamships was to increase the rate at which the coal was being removed from the bunker and put into the steam engine boiler in order to increase the rate of draw-down of the coal pile, Essenhigh explains…Of course, all that shoveling makes for a lot of steam, resulting in the need to increase the steaming rate and quicker cruising.”

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And, while a coal bunker fire may have played a role in the sinking of the ship, experts tend to agree that a combination of different factors led to the Titanic‘s voyage becoming the disaster it was, including the idea mentioned above that the ship was moving faster than it should have been traveling in ice-blocked waters. So in addition to the issue of the ship’s speed, here are other factors said to have doomed the liner:

A critical iceberg warning missed: It has been said that senior radio operator Jack Phillips did not pass along the last, clearest warning about the iceberg to the ship’s captain, Edward Smith. Supposedly, the reason for the oversight was that the message did not have the prefix “MSG” (Masters’ Service Gram), which required a captain to personally acknowledge that he had received the message. Thus, Phillips deemed it non-urgent, according to a 2012 PhysicsWorld retrospective.

A possible wrong turn: Louise Patten, the granddaughter of the ship’s most senior surviving officer, Charles Lightoller, claims that Lightoller told his wife that a crew member turned the ship “the wrong way” and into the course of the iceberg after First Officer William Murdoch first spotted the iceberg and gave a ‘hard a-starboard’ order. The cruise liner was operating under two communications systems that were in direct conflict with one another, she told The Guardian in 2010, so that “a command to turn ‘hard a-starboard’ meant turn the wheel right under one system and left under the other.” By the time the move had been corrected, it was too late.

The climate in 1912: Newspapers like the New York Times remarked that the North Atlantic was particularly icy that year. More recently, in 2012, researchers from Texas State University-San Marcos and Sky & Telescope magazine argued that a rare lunar event could have put the iceberg in the ship’s path. The Earth was unusually close to the Sun and Moon, which could have caused record tides that may have refloated icebergs that had been stuck off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland.

Weak shipbuilding materials: Materials scientists Tim Foecke and Jennifer Hooper McCarty have claimed the pieces holding together the steel plates toward the bow and the stern of the ship were made of low-quality iron rivets that could have broken more easily upon collision.

A possible shortage of binoculars: Some say binoculars could have spotted the iceberg, but the ship’s collection was inaccessible because the officer who had the key to the supply was bumped from the crew at the last minute.

A lifeboat shortage: Even if the ship were going to sink anyway, some believe that the extreme loss of life involved could have been avoided if there had been more lifeboats available. There were 20, which could only hold 1,718 passengers though the ship could transport nearly twice that many, according to the Royal Institution of Naval Architects. About 700 passengers survived the disaster.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com