A Coal Fire May Have Helped Sink the ‘Titanic’

A new documentary claims the Titanic’s hull was weakened before it struck an iceberg

The Titanic leaving Belfast on April 2, 1912. The black streak can be seen just above the water line. Via Senan Molony

The sinking of the Titanic has long been a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris. But after more than a century, a new documentary offers evidence that the iceberg wasn’t the only reason for the sinking of the “unsinkable ship.” Instead, the floating mountain of ice may have happened to strike the exact spot where the hull had been weakened by a coal fire blazing in the bowels of the passenger ship.

In "Titanic: The New Evidence," which airs on the Smithsonian Channel on January 21, Irish journalist Senan Molony argues that the hull of the infamous ship was compromised weeks before it set sail. Through researching photos and eyewitness testimony from the time, Molony contends that a fire spontaneously lit inside one of the Titanic’s enormous coal bunkers and critically weakened a crucial segment of the ship’s hull.

"The ship is a single-skin ship," Molony tells Smithsonian.com. By that he means that while modern ships contain two hulls, at the time, the Titanic, like most ships of its day, just had the one. Because the bunkers where the crew stored coal for the engines sat right next to the hull, the heat from the fire would have transferred directly to the skin, damaging the Titanic's structure.

For Molony, who has spent decades studying the Titanic, the "smoking gun" came in a recent discovery of a trove of photographs documenting the ship’s construction and preparations for its maiden voyage. The photos had been taken by the engineering chief of Harland and Wolff, the Belfast-based company that built the doomed vessel. About four years ago, Molony and a collaborator purchased the photographs from a descendant of the company’s director, who had found them stored in an attic. As they pored over the images, Molony was shocked to see a 30-foot-long black streak documented on the outside of the Titanic’s hull, close to where the iceberg struck its starboard side.

“We asked some naval architects what this could be, and nobody knew and everybody was intrigued,” Molony says. “The best suggestion at the time was that this was a reflection." But Monology disagrees because, at the time the photograph was taken, he says, there was no road or dock on the shore which could have been reflected on the hull.

According to engineers from the Imperial College London, the streak in the photograph may have been caused by a fire in one of the Titanic’s coal bunkers—a three-story-tall room that stored much of the coal that fueled the ship’s engines. Molony believes that the fire had started as early as three weeks before the Titanic set out for its maiden voyage, but was ignored for fear of bad press and the desire to keep the ship on schedule.

“Britannia rules the waves,” Molony says. “They’d been facing massive competition from the Germans and others for the valuable immigrant trade. You don’t want don’t want a loss of public confidence in the whole of the British maritime marine.”

Just after survivors made landfall, several people who worked on the ship’s engines cited a coal fire as the cause of the shipwreck. An official inquiry by British officials in 1912 mentioned it, too, but Molony says the narrative was downplayed by the judge who oversaw it.

“He was a shipping interest judge, and, in fact, he presided at a toast at the Shipwrights' Guild four years earlier saying ‘may nothing ever adversely affect the great carrying power of this wonderful country,’” Molony says. “So he closes down efforts to pursue the fire and he makes this finding that the iceberg acted alone.”

Sink Artice
An article from the New York Tribune published shortly after survivors made landfall. Via Senan Molony

Molony’s theory has its skeptics. Over the years, all sorts of people have offered up alternative theories to explain why the Titanic sank, ranging from being struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat to being brought down by an Egyptian mummy’s curse, Dan Bilefsky reports for The New York Times. While a coal fire is certainly more plausible than a murderous, undead pharaoh, others still contend that the iceberg was the decisive factor in the ship’s sinking.

“A fire may have accelerated this. But in my view, the Titanic would have sunk anyway,” Dave Hill, a former honorary secretary of the British Titanic Society, tells Bilefsky.

Still, Molony stands by his findings. After all, that same inquiry stated that the Titanic had sunk fully intact, while it was later found broken in half on the sea floor.

“Just because an official finding says it, doesn’t make it true,” Molony says.

Many details of what happened on that fateful night in April 1912 may be lost to history, but if nothing else, these findings present an interesting new angle to the infamous, and it would seem unsinkable, story.

Titanic: The New Evidence airs January 21 at 8 p.m. ET on the Smithsonian Channel.

Editor's Note, January 22, 2017: This story originally referred to the source of this new research as being from the Royal College of London. They are from Imperial College London. 

From the National Museum of American History:
When the ocean liner Carpathia arrived at the spot in the North Atlantic ocean where Titanic sank, all the rescuers saw by the light of the moon was some wreckage and lifeboats with passengers. Many of the passengers had come up on deck in their nightclothes from their bunks aboard Titanic, and they were totally unprepared to climb directly into the lifeboats. The survivors were struck by the cold outdoor temperature, and they were suffering from exposure, extreme stress and shock by the time Carpathia arrived on the scene. The rescue ship was able to pick up 705 survivors, and as they boarded, they tossed their life vests into piles on the deck and were handed heavy, warm clothes by Carpathia's sympathetic passengers. (Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center)
This photograph was taken by a passenger of the Carpathia, the ship that received the Titanic's distress signal and came to rescue the survivors. It shows survivors of the sinking of the Titanic in a notably sparse lifeboat. Image Source: National Archives Online Public Access
From the National Museum of American History:
Titanic struck a North Atlantic iceberg at 11:40 p.m. in the evening of April 14, 1912 at a speed of 20.5 knots (23.6 MPH). The berg scraped along the starboard or right side of the hull below the waterline, slicing open the hull between five of the adjacent watertight compartments. If only one or two of the compartments had been opened, Titanic might have stayed afloat, but when so many were sliced open, the watertight integrity of the entire forward section of the hull was fatally breached. Titanic slipped below the waves at 2:20 a.m. on April 15. The Cunard Liner RMS Carpathia arrived at the scene around two hours after Titanic sank, finding only a few lifeboats and no survivors in the 28 degrees Fahrenheit water. Bernice Palmer took this picture of the iceberg identified as the one which sank Titanic, by the survivors who climbed aboard Carpathia. The large iceberg is surrounded by smaller ice floes, indicating how far north in the Atlantic Ocean the tragedy struck. Photo by Bernice Palmer, courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
From the National Museum of American History:
Bernie Palmer sold rights to her Titanic iceberg and survivor pictures to Underwood & Underwood of New York for only $10.00, not knowing any better. This picture identifies the young facing couple as honeymooners Mr. & Mrs. George A. Harder of Brooklyn, New York. The woman with her back to Bernie's Brownie camera is Mrs. Charles M. Hayes; her husband was President of the Grand Trunk Railway. He died in the shipwreck, but Mrs. Hayes and her two daughters were rescued by Carpathia. Photo by Bernie Palmer, courtesy of the National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Over two hours after the disaster the RMS Carpathia arrived in the area and began rescuing survivors from their lifeboats. Photo courtesy of The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
According to the BBC, this is a photograph of the iceberg that sank the Titanic, taken by Stephan Rehorek. If you look closely you can see traces of paint from the side of the ship left behind on the iceberg. Stephan Rehorek was a passenger on a ship that sailed through the waters where the Titanic sank on April 20th aboard the Bremen. Once in the area of the disaster, the people on board could see wreckage and the bodies of more than a hundred victims floating in the water. Photo by Stephan Rehorek, Image Source: Wikimedia
Less than a third of those aboard Titanic survived the disaster. Some survivors died shortly afterwards; injuries and the effects of exposure caused the deaths of several of those brought aboard Carpathia. Photo courtesy of The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
From the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Although the Titanic's number of lifeboats exceeded that required by the British Board of Trade, its 20 boats could carry only 1,178 people, far short of the total number of passengers. This problem was exacerbated by lifeboats being launched well below capacity, because crewmen worried that the davits would not be able to support the weight of a fully loaded boat. Lifeboat number 7, which was the first to leave the Titanic, held only about 27 people, though it had space for 65. In the end, only 705 people would be rescued in lifeboats. Photograph courtesy of The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Titanic's lifeboats at the White Star Lines' Pier 54 in New York City after sinking. Image Source: Wikipedia
From the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Titanic's passengers numbered around 1,317 people: 324 in First Class, 284 in Second Class and 709 in Third Class. There were 107 children aboard, the largest number of whom were in Third Class. The ship was considerably under capacity on her maiden voyage, as she could accommodate 2,566 passengers. Image Source: Wikipedia
From the Encyclopaedia Brittanica:
According to testimony given afterward at approximately 11:40 p.m., April 14, 1912 about 400 nautical miles (740 km) south of Newfoundland, Canada, an iceberg was sighted, and the bridge was notified. First Officer William Murdoch ordered both the ship “hard-a-starboard” (to the right) and the engines reversed. The Titanic began to turn, but it was too close to avoid a collision. By reversing the engines, Murdoch actually caused the Titanic to turn slower than if it had been moving at its original speed. Most experts believe the ship would have survived if it had hit the iceberg head-on. Image Source: Wikipedia
Stateroom B-59, decorated in Old Dutch style. Image Source: Wikipedia
From the Encyclopaedia Brittanica:
There were stark differences in the survival rates of the different classes aboard Titanic. Although only 3 percent of First-class women were lost, 54 percent of women in Third class died. Similarly, five of six First-class and all Second-class children survived, but 52 of the 79 in Third class children perished. Image Source: Wikipedia

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.