Photo credit: AP Photo

In a new documentary on the RMS Titanic, a journalist who has researched the topic for 30 years claims a fire that burned continuously throughout its voyage fatally weakened the ship’s hull before it hit an iceberg, blaming its sinking on fire and criminal negligence. But contrary to reports, that theory is hardly new.

The documentary, Titanic: The New Evidence, comes from Irish journalist and author Senan Molony, who told The Times that a fire had been smoldering in bunker No. 6 of the Titanic since the ship left Northern Ireland’s capital city, Belfast. Near that bunker is where the iceberg tore the biggest hole in the ship on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York in 1912, according to the Independent.

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Molony told The Times that recently auctioned photos of the Titanic show dark marks on the side of the ship not facing the dock—hinting at the existing fire—and that it “should never have been put to sea.” Here’s how Molony explained the events surrounding the fire, according to The Times:

“The official Titanic inquiry branded it [the sinking] as an act of God. This isn’t a simple story of colliding with an iceberg and sinking. It’s a perfect storm of extraordinary factors coming together: fire, ice and criminal negligence.” ...

“We have experts telling us that when you get that level of temperature against steel it makes it brittle, and reduces its strength by up to 75 per cent. The fire was known about and briefly addressed at the inquiry, but it was played down. ...”

It was known that there was a fire on the ship. What’s “new” here is blaming the fire for the sinking of the ship once it hit the iceberg. Both an author of several books about the ship and a former secretary from the British Titanic Society told The Times there certainly was a fire aboard the ship, burning from Wednesday until Saturday.

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The author, Richard De Kerbrech, told The Times he gave little attention to the fire before reading Molony’s research on its extent, and the former secretary said he didn’t believe the fire had much to do with the sinking of the ship.

But Molony isn’t the first to present research like this, despite the Sun and the Daily Mail’s phrasing of “it has now emerged that the gigantic ocean liner could have been brought down by a fire” and “now a journalist claims a boiler room fire had weakened her hull,” respectively. The photos and the weakening hull are the new part.

In 2004, the Geological Society Of America and Ohio State University engineer Robert Essenhigh said attempts to control the coal fire in the bunker could have been the reason why the Titanic sailed so quickly through an area littered with icebergs. From Science Daily:

First of all, says Essenhigh, it’s important to rule out the reason for speed put forth in the movies: to set a speed record or impress other sailors. The crew of the Titanic couldn’t have been trying to break any records crossing the North Atlantic Ocean, says Essenhigh, because according to the published records the Titanic was built for comfort, not speed.

“There was a further problem that because of a miners strike, there wasn’t originally enough coal on the ship for sailing at full speed and the original plan was to sail at half-speed and take it easy,” Essenhigh said. “It wasn’t designed as the fastest ship.” Plus, according to the published records the crew was getting radio reports of icebergs from other ships, so a slow down would have made sense. There are reports that one ship in the area was so cautious that they stopped dead in the water to await daylight before proceeding, he said.

While Essenhigh said his ideas were “very speculative,” the report from Science Daily said the standard method to control and eliminate these types of fires on steamships was to shovel coal from the bunker and into the steam-engine boiler more quickly. That, in turn, sped the ship up.

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In 2008, the Independent reported that Ray Boston, with 20 years of research on the subject at the time, said he believed the coal fire began during speed trials 10 days before the ship left Southampton. According to Boston’s findings, the fire had potential to cause “serious explosions” before the ship reached New York.

From the Independent:

Mr Boston cites the testimony of Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line, which owned Titanic, to an inquiry into the catastrophe in which he told investigators he was forced by John Pierpont Morgan, the ultimate owner of the ship, to instruct the crew to cross the Atlantic at full speed.

“Morgan thought it was necessary, in order to justify his gamble, that they should reach New York and unload all the passengers before the inevitable explosions occurred,” he said.

Parliament received an inquiry into the events of the voyage in the summer of 1912, just several months after the ship sank. According to the Independent, it said the ship’s excessive speed didn’t give the crew much time to avoid the iceberg:

The inquiry found that Titanic’s speed, of about 22 knots, was “excessive” considering where it was, off the coast of Newfoundland, and that additional look-outs should have been posted on all sides of the liner rather than just in the crow’s nest. ...

Mr Boston said it was clear that Morgan was aware of the fire before the ship set sail but that the news was hushed up so as not to alarm passengers.

It was, perhaps, for this reason that Morgan quietly cancelled his ticket on the maiden voyage the day before the ship set sail, said Mr Boston.

Of course, while it’s known that there was a fire onboard, not everyone agrees that the fire—even if it did weaken the hull—was the fatal blow to the ship. After all, the Titanic hit a huge chunk of ice in the middle of the ocean.

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No matter what happened aboard the ship, the Sun quotes the former secretary of the British Titanic Society, David Hill, as saying the new photo evidence “shows that even after all these years, this old ship keeps throwing up new things that have us scrambling around. It’s absolutely fascinating.”

That’s the word.