New Facts Suggest Surprising Factor Behind Titanic Sinking

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 2, 2020 5:28:13 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

People have always been fascinated by the tragic fate of the RMS Titanic. Since the moment the world learned the ship sank on April 15, 1912, on its maiden voyage, people have wondered how the supposedly "unsinkable" ship failed to survive a single journey.

Recent evidence suggests there might be a hidden story behind the sinking of the historic ship. Newly discovered photographs provide insight into the tragedy and hint that maybe it could have been prevented altogether.

The Unsinkable Ship

Prior to 1912, nothing like the RMS Titanic had ever existed. The first super-cruise liner, the Titanic was nicknamed "Queen of the Ocean" and was said to be one of the great wonders of the world. Everyone knew the ship was important.

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Photo Courtesy: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The Titanic was so big that a new shipyard had to be built in Belfast, Ireland, to give construction crews room to build it. The space was the birthplace of both the RMS Titanic and her sister ship, the RMS Olympic. Of course, it’s difficult to build large, cumbersome ships, and it’s also incredibly expensive.

Competing to Be the Best

In the early 1900s, shipping companies competed in several transatlantic shipping wars. White Star Line chairman and managing director J. Bruce Ismay knew the company’s new ship would help turn his company around, but he struggled to stay ahead of his brutal competitors.

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Photo Courtesy: Public Domain

Main rivals, including Cunard Line, advertised their ships as the most luxuriant ocean liners in the world. Ismay fought back, knowing the Titanic would be even faster and more lavish. He might have been correct, but there were drawbacks to having the most lavish ship in the world.

The Dreaded Budget Cuts

Chief designer Thomas Andrews began the construction and design of the RMS Titanic when Ismay delivered the news Andrews had been dreading: budget cuts. Cost factors forced Ismay to demand significant changes that entirely changed the ship’s building standards.

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Photo Courtesy: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The White Star Line was losing money quickly, and Ismay wanted the Titanic to be luxurious on the inside but cost as little as possible to build. Andrews fought back, insisting there were corners Ismay couldn’t cut, including steel quality and the number of lifeboats (ultimately a critical factor). If Ismay had listened, the Titanic’s voyage could have ended much differently.

More and More Strikes

During the completion of the RMS Titanic, the United Kingdom experienced a fierce coal strike. The National Coal Strike of 1912 involved thousands of workers fighting against unfair wages. As coal stocks plummeted, so did the workers’ wages.

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Photo Courtesy: The Library of Congress/Flickr

Due to the strike, the White Star Line felt pressured. The Titanic had to be completed, and Ismay’s pressures mounted. The strike affected his budget plans, and he had to cut more corners. The price of coal was quickly on the rise, and this ultimately affected the ship’s construction.

About the Ship’s Coal

Coal was vital to the function of the RMS Titanic, and with the National Coal Strike of 1912 driving up prices, Ismay’s already tight budget hovered on the brink of disaster. The 2017 documentary Titanic: The New Evidence suggests that a major contributing factor to the sinking of the Titanic was fuel shortage.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The documentary claims that the ship sailed on at high speed in an iceberg field because slowing down and speeding back up would have used too much fuel. Changing speeds required more coal than running at a continuous speed.

Foreshadowing the Disaster

People should have realized the RMS Titanic wasn’t unsinkable after her sister ship, the RMS Olympic, struck the Royal Navy’s HMS Hawk in September 1911. The Hawk left a gaping hole in the Olympic’s bow and cracks beyond the puncture. The ship’s steel was substandard, and the design was poorly constructed.

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Photo Courtesy: Kirk and Sons of Cowes/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Did Ismay care about this? No. When steelworkers advised him to use special steel for the construction of the Titanic, he responded haughtily that "ordinary" steel would suffice. Unfortunately, Ismay was proven wrong seven months later in April 1912.

Newly Discovered Photos Revealed Something Striking

Passengers didn’t know they were boarding a poorly constructed ship when they prepared to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. It’s shocking to learn the RMS Titanic had faulty materials, but it’s even more shocking to learn what happened inside the ship during her maiden voyage.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In 2017, a photo album was discovered that had never-before-seen photographs of the Titanic before its maiden voyage. Titanic expert Senan Molony called the photos "the Titanic equivalent of King Tutankhamun’s tomb." Molony revealed some facts that could alter the ship’s history: People should have known the ship was going to sink.

The Noticeable Mark

When RMS Titanic enthusiast Steve Raffield first purchased the photo album, he never expected the photos would contain a striking clue to solve the mystery of why the ship sank so quickly. However, when Senan Molony reviewed the photos, it became clear that something was odd in one of the photographs.

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Photo Courtesy: CBS This Morning/YouTube

Upon further inspection, Raffield realized there was a 30-foot scorch mark on the ship’s hull. Several photos revealed the same noticeable mark in the same spot, hovering over the position of one of the boilers. The burn was created from inside the ship.

A Fire on the Titanic

You probably had no idea there was a fire on the RMS Titanic. Many historians didn’t know either — but the company did. Because the Titanic was a massive ship, the coal bunkers were enormous — about three stories high — and held 1.5 tons of coal. However, this wasn’t the issue.

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Photo Courtesy: Tommy Lindholm/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

The problem occurred when the coal was stored. Something heated the reserve, and the coal caught fire. The coal on the ship began to burn outside the boilers, burning the ship from the inside. Of course, you would expect them to be able to put the fire out, but that wasn’t the case.

Sailing While on Fire

The Titanic was a doomed ship before it set sail on April 10, 1912. When the coal caught on fire in the coal bunkers, the crew attempted to deal with it internally and didn’t inform anyone outside of the company until the official inquiry in 1912. They did not solve the issue.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

John Dilley, an engine room worker, saw the fire, and his accounts of the attempt to control it are chilling. He reported, "There were hundreds of tons of coal stored there. We made no headway against it…we didn’t get the fire out…from the day we sailed, the Titanic was on fire…"

Fighting the Fire

Eleven men tried their best to combat the coal bunker fire, but nothing could be done. The fire continued to burn as the RMS Titanic departed from its port in Belfast and sailed to Southampton, where 2,200 eager passengers were ready to board the ship. None of the passengers knew there was a fire.

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Photo Courtesy: ullstein bild/Getty Images

Ismay knew that if people heard about the fire, they would refuse to sail, and his reputation — and his company — would be destroyed. With that in mind, he refused to allow any delays. The Titanic was expected to set sail on April 10, 1912, and nothing would change that — fire or no fire.

The Luxury Interior Designs

The RMS Titanic is known for being one of the most lavish and luxurious ocean liners in history. Ismay made sure his ship featured expensive luxurious interior designs and spacious rooms for the ship’s first-class passengers. It was a matter of "go big or go home."

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Photo Courtesy: Cliff/Flickr

A first-class ticket on the Titanic cost up to $2,560, which is the equivalent of $61,000 in 2019. Can you imagine spending $61,000 to travel on a ship today? First-class passengers were spoiled with three-bedroom suites with two wardrobe rooms, a bath and a drawing room.

Fine Dining

The 1997 film depicts the dining room on the Titanic as a lavish spectacle for the wealthy. This was an accurate depiction. In 2012, a rare dinner menu from the ocean liner sold at auction for $160,450. Additionally, a lunch menu sold for $102,000.

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Photo Courtesy: 20th Century Fox/Archive Photos/Getty Images

First-class passengers dined on foie gras-stuffed eggs (fancy deviled eggs), turtle soup and Sussex capon (a breed of chicken). The dinner menu featured 10 options, including oysters, salmon, chicken, lamb, duckling, squab and beef. It’s safe to say the wealthy were well-fed before the ship sank on its maiden voyage.

Thinking of Coal Differently

How is the fire in the coal bunkers relevant to the sinking of the RMS Titanic? The ocean liner sank because it struck an iceberg, but that was only one part of a larger problem.

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Photo Courtesy: Unsplash/Paweł Czerwiński

Senan Molony asked, "What kind of damage could an internal fire do?" The answer is the fire caused a lot of damage. Molony spoke to fire science expert Guillermo Rein to figure out the extent of the damage. Rein had a simple, chilling answer: The coal was on fire for several days before anyone found the flame, and it would have been impossible to stop.

It Was Too Late

Rein explained that the coal could have been on fire for days, if not weeks, before the ship left for Southampton. The heat was trapped in a bed of coal and spread, but it would have taken days for someone to notice because the fire didn’t smoke right away.

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Photo Courtesy: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Getty Images

By the time someone noticed the fire, it was too late. Rein revealed that once a coal fire starts to burn, it’s close to impossible to put it out. The fires burned anywhere from 1,000-2,000 degrees Fahrenheit — the equivalent of molten lava. That kind of heat melts metal, including Titanic’s steel hull.

Weakening the Metal

The RMS Titanic’s bunker was in one of the ship’s bulkheads — a watertight compartment. If the ship took on water, the water was supposed to only fill in the designated compartment. However, with the bunker burning at 1,000-2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, that created some complications.

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Photo Courtesy: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The heat from the fire caused the metal to become brittle and weak. It could not withstand an impact and became very prone to shattering. If the bulkheads leading to the boiler room were damaged (they were), nothing could have protected the furnaces. The Titanic didn’t have luck on her side right from the beginning.

Still Burning

When the RMS Titanic departed from Southampton, the fire was still burning in the coal bunker, but passengers had no idea there was a fire onboard the ship. Imagine sailing on a luxury ocean liner, completely oblivious to something so dangerous. The fire warped the metal around the ship’s boiler room bulkheads, and no amount of help stopped the fire.

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Photo Courtesy: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

The bulkhead looked like a buckled wave of metal, and a hole developed between the welding seams of the water-tight compartment. Crew members made a patch to repair it and crossed their fingers that the Titanic would make it to its destination.

Adding More Coal

Furnace workers knew they had to lessen the coal fire, so they devised what they thought was the best solution: shovel away the coal. They fed the furnace with the shoveled coal, which continuously increased the ship’s speed. If passengers felt the increased speed, it wasn’t their imagination.

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Photo Courtesy: Carl Simon/United Archives/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The Titanic raced across the Atlantic Ocean at top speed (23 knots) to get to New York City before the fire caused too much damage to repair. Unfortunately, the ship was speeding straight into an iceberg field, and it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened.

Iceberg, Dead Ahead!

The RMS Titanic received several warnings of icebergs prior to the disastrous iceberg striking the ship, but Captain Edward John Smith chose to ignore the warnings and maintain the ship’s high speed. The Titanic was unsinkable, after all.

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Photo Courtesy: sweetreilly0/Pixabay

When the Titanic closed in on the fated iceberg, crew members tried their best to navigate the ship around it. It was considered to be a better option than slowing down and burning through whatever coal reserves the ship had left. Was this the best decision? Obviously not.

The Unsinkable Ship...Sank

On April 14, 1912, four days into her maiden voyage, the RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. The ship sank incredibly quickly, in just two hours and 40 minutes in the wee hours of April 15. Out of the ship’s 2,200 passengers, only 706 people survived.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Everyone knows the Titanic sank because of the iceberg, but most don’t know the ship sank much faster due to the fire onboard. The iceberg struck the starboard side of the ship and scraped along the hull. Water quickly filled the water compartments of the ship and put pressure on the weakened steel.

The Patch Failed

Crew members on the RMS Titanic had repaired the hole in the water-tight compartment by patching it. When the iceberg struck the ship, water strained the weak steel. When water reached the engine room, the patch held as long as it could but ultimately failed.

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Photo Courtesy: Mondadori/Getty Images

Waves breached the last stronghold of the ship’s walls, and the ice-cold water of the Atlantic Ocean began to flood the engine room. It filled the compartment at an alarming rate, and no one knew what to do next. According to Senan Molony, the Titanic could have survived the iceberg collision under normal circumstances.

Needing More Time

Senan Molony observed that if the bulkhead held, the RMS Titanic could have stayed afloat for double the amount of time. That would have provided enough time for the RMS Carpathia to receive the SOS and arrive to save thousands of lives. Almost all the passengers could have survived the disaster and lived happily ever after.

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Photo Courtesy: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

The sinking of the Titanic shocked and devastated the world. The man responsible for many of the complications encountered on the Titanic, J. Bruce Ismay, survived the disaster.

About the Trial

When Ismay arrived in the United States, he faced another challenge: a lengthy investigation and court trial. He was scared of the outcome, so he sent a telegram ordering all the hired firemen who worked on the RMS Titanic to scatter inland. He made sure they weren’t questioned for the court trial.

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Photo Courtesy: Bettmann/Getty Images

Even worse, during the trial, Ismay said that all the firemen had perished in the Atlantic Ocean. It seemed like a smart idea at the time, but what happened next probably wasn’t part of the plan. The case wasn’t treated like other trials.

Dismissing the Case

The high court judge over the trial, John Charles Bigham (also known as Lord Mersey), eventually learned that a coal fire was burning below the decks of the RMS Titanic when the ship sailed. Lord Mersey disregarded the evidence, saying it was irrelevant to the trial and proceeded with the case.

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Photo Courtesy: Whitlock/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More evidence revealed that 160 firemen were hired to work on the Titanic’s voyage, but only eight stayed on. The majority of the men saw the fire and gave up without even trying. Nonetheless, Lord Mersey dismissed the fire as irrelevant in the disaster, which infuriated many people.

Discovering New Details

Lord Mersey concluded the sole reason the RMS Titanic sank was due to excessive speed and collision with the iceberg. The case was closed, and Mersey’s conclusion set the tone for how people interpreted the history of the ship for decades to come.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Then, the long-lost photos were discovered. Upon reviewing new evidence about the fire, budget cuts and events leading up to the sinking, Senan Molony was left with many questions about the ship he thought he knew. Could he solve the mysteries?

An Accidental Sinking

To many people, it’s unbelievable that the sinking of the Titanic was caused by anything other than the iceberg. How could the coal fire be overlooked for decades? This evidence is vital to understanding the tragedy.

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Photo Courtesy: Paramount Pictures/IMDb

White Star Line suffered repercussions from the sinking, even though Ismay’s court case was dismissed. The majority of the survivors were upper-class passengers, and they filed for compensation from White Star Line due to loss of life and property. For example, Charlotte Drake Cardeza filed for the loss of her wardrobe, worth an estimated $177,000 — approximately $4.2 million in 2019.

All of Ismay's Mistakes

Ismay knew the RMS Titanic was at risk, but he didn't want to lose his money. Instead, he chose to risk the lives of more than 2,200 men, women and children to save the White Star Line. He left the ship vulnerable to the fire and the iceberg to save his company and his personal wealth.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Not only did Ismay cut corners on the metal used to construct the ship and the fuel, but he also cut back on the number of lifeboats onboard. It was one of the most terrible decisions he made, leaving hundreds of passengers without a means of escape.

They Should Have Known Better

Historians now know that the RMS Titanic was doomed from the very beginning. Crew members should have known the ship could sink after seeing the results of the RMS Olympic’s collision. It should have served as a warning, and designers should have sent the ship back to the harbor for repairs.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The White Star Line was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Ismay couldn’t let that happen. The detailed laws that exist for cruise ships today are the one silver lining that came from the historic sinking.

Lessons Learned

Since the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, a lot of changes have occurred related to maritime safety. One regulation requires stricter ice patrols in the North Atlantic Ocean. Onboard radios were also introduced (the Titanic used Morse code). Other rules require crew members to continually monitor radios in case of an emergency.

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Photo Courtesy: State Library of Queensland

In 1914, two years after the Titanic sank, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea was formed, creating a unified maritime standard. In 1915, it was mandated that every ocean liner have enough lifeboats to safely rescue all passengers.

Did They Learn Their Lesson?

Overall, the sinking of the RMS Titanic was tragic. Many of her passengers were looking forward to starting a new life in the United States. Instead, they froze to death or drowned in the Atlantic Ocean’s frigid waters.

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Photo Courtesy: Cliff/Flickr

You can’t change the past, but now historians know more about the unsinkable ship and the fire that contributed to its demise. How different things could have been if the fire never happened. Fortunately, companies learned some harsh lessons from the sinking and made much-needed improvements to ships and maritime laws.