Fire Did Not Sink the Titanic

An opinionated persuasive essay done for a college writing class regarding the recent take on Titanic's coal bunker fire theory.
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The legendary RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage. (Public Domain)

The sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Titanic has captivated countless generations and individuals since the ship’s tragic demise 106 years ago. Several movies, books, TV shows, documentaries and musicals have collected the attention of the masses; which have lead to groundbreaking theories. One of the theories claims a coal fire within the Titanic’s hull, near the iceberg collision area, significantly damaged the ship’s structure expediting the sinking. The most recent incarnation of this possibility, discussed since the ship sank in 1912, was brought forward by Irish journalist Senan Moloney of the British newspaper The Daily Mail. Moloney argues the fire compromised the structural integrity of one of the Titanic’s bulkheads, which was a critical steel wall meant to hold water back in case of flooding. Although the fire itself was a true event, not all history or Titanic enthusiasts agree with the argument Moloney has set forth regarding its role in the sinking. These individuals have good reason to disagree with Moloney, believing the coal fire was not a major factor in the sinking of the Titanic. Strong evidence, in the form of eyewitness testimonies, structural testing and careful observation by dedicated historians proves that Moloney’s theory is incorrect. Though before embarking on any counter arguments, one must first have a basic understanding of the greater subject at hand; the Titanic herself.

In her day, the Titanic was not only the largest ship afloat, but also the largest man made object in the world at 882 feet in length. The Titanic. along with her identical sister Olympic, were both built in Belfast, Northern Ireland for the British shipping company White Star Line. The Titanic could carry over 3,000 passengers, boasted impressive luxurious accommodations and included state of the art safety features, which gave some individuals the notion she was “unsinkable”. Titanic departed on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England on April 10, 1912 for New York City across the vast Atlantic Ocean, following two stops; one in Cherbourg, France and Queenstown, Ireland. April 14 was the fateful night the Titanic struck an iceberg. The damage proved too catastrophic despite all the safety features she had. Titanic stayed afloat for over two hours before the great ship broke in half and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, taking with her over 1,500 souls. The large death toll was due in part to the lack of lifeboats for all aboard. News regarding the loss of Titanic spread quickly. Titanic became one of the most famous disasters in history generating many scholarly and scientific discussions as well as numerous films and books. Discovery of the wreck in 1985 helped to generate further attention and new theories into the sinking including the controversial findings of Senan Moloney’s coal bunker fire theory. He believes the fire may have caused critical destruction to the ship’s internal structures and safety features. Fire scientist Dr. Guillermo Rein of Imperial College London and metallurgist Martin Strangwood of the University of Birmingham both agree with Moloney’s fire theory having examined the photographs and witness testimonies provided by Moloney.

According to findings made by Moloney and Dr. Rein, the coal fire reaching temperatures upwards from 932 to 1,832 degrees Fahrenheit, would have warped the steel and made it brittle. According to metallurgy expert Dr. Martin Strangwood, the temperature would have weakened the bulkhead’s strength, making it less able to hold water back. Moloney draws further evidence of his claim from the U.S. Senate Inquiry into the sinking. More specifically, the testimony of Chief Fireman Fred Barrett of Boiler Room 6, who witnessed the fire and observed damage to the bulkhead wall. Barrett described a wall of water bursting in from Boiler Room 6 into Boiler Room 5 two hours after the iceberg hit, which Moloney believes was the weakened bulkhead giving way. Further testimony from Fred Barrett at the British Wrecke Commissioner’s Inquiry into the sinking may provide counter evidence to Moloney’s claim. When the iceberg hit the ship, Barrett confirmed that water surpassed the bulkhead and began entering the coal bunker in Boiler Room 5. As described by Barrett, “I consulted Mr. Shepherd and Mr. Hesketh (ship’s engineers) about the hole being in this bunker, and that was the farthest aft the ship was torn” (British Inquiry Day 3 Question 1,891).  When asked what section of the ship the tear stopped at, Barrett identified it as Boiler Room 5. While describing the sudden rush of water two hours after the iceberg collision, Barrett revealed the rear wall of the coal bunker had been holding back the water the entire time and not the bulkhead, which was just in front of it. Barrett’s description of the damage seems to indicate the bulkhead had already become useless as water was flooding in on either side of it thanks to the iceberg damage alone. If this were true, then the bulkhead was not effectively holding water back from the moment of the collision to the catastrophic flooding of Boiler Room 5 as is stated in Moloney’s theory.

Further contradictions were made to Dr. Rein and Moloney’s findings come from Titanic historians Mark Chirnside, Bruce Beveridge, Ioannis Georgiou, Steve Hall, J. Kent Layton and Bill Wormstedt. All of whom are authors of the digital book Titanic: Fire and Ice (Or What You Will), published as a direct contradiction to Moloney’s documentary and findings. The book points out the bulkhead and coal bunker in question were located directly underneath the First Class Swimming Bath. The book’s text argues, “If temperatures in the coal bunker directly below it had reached as high as 500-1,000°C (or 932-1,832°F), then the water in the pool would likely have been nearly boiling hot as water boils at only 100°C (212°F). Certainly, the deck at the forward edge of the pool would have been searing hot, paint would have been bubbling off, and the hull plates outside the pool would likely also have been deforming from the incredible heat” (Beveridge et. al.). The text further states that a survivor testimony from first class passenger Archibald Gracie and surviving photographs of the Titanic’s pool show the pool area was undamaged and the water’s temperature was mildly heated to a comfortable warm rather than a scalding hot. As the pool was in normal and operable condition, the fire couldn’t have been as hot as Dr. Rein and Moloney suggest it was. To further illustrate this point, the authors argue that if the fire was as hot as Dr. Rein suggests, it would have taken men with protective gear to approach the bulkhead and fight the fire as the temperature would be too hot for the exposed human body to handle, something which was never described by survivors.

Moloney further backs his theory using evidence regarding the steel Titanic was constructed from. Dr. Martin Strangwood, one of the experts backing Moloney’s theory states the Titanic and her sister ship Olympic were both constructed with low grade and high impurity steel. Lower grade steel is far more susceptible to extreme temperatures and would also be easier to damage in a major collision. His findings are partially based off an earlier incident involving the Olympic. In 1911, the Olympic collided with the British cruiser HMS Hawke in the Solent just outside of Portsmouth, England. The Olympic’s stern was badly damaged by the bow of the Hawke. When examining a photograph of the damage caused by the Hawke, according to Strangwood, is the result of inferior steel comprising the Olympic’s structure. Further, Strangwood argues an inferior steel would not fair well against exceptionally high temperatures and a stronger higher grade steel would be needed for such an event. Though Olympic is a different vessel, her design is similar to Titanic and the two vessels were built from the same material, meaning an argument regarding the strength of the Olympic is applicable to the strength of Titanic. However, a finding from the wreck of Titanic herself contradicts the theory of Titanic’s steel being weakened. In the late 1990s, the French oceanographic firm Ifremer, raised sections of the Titanic’s steel hull. A sample of surviving steel was cut for materials scientist Tim Foecke. Foecke put the steel sampe through fracture testing at his own laboratory under forces that measured over 2,000 pounds. Foecke found the steel Titanic was stronger than anticipated. Foecke concluded, “The steel shows toughness almost as good as modern steels and was actually quite adequate for the application of the Titanic” (Titanic: Answers from the Abyss). In short, this is a direct contradiction to Dr. Strangwood’s findings. Since Titanic’s steel was found to be high grade and comparable to modern steel, and given Dr. Strangwood’s statement of higher grade steel being more adequate to handle extreme temperatures in question, this would suggest Titanic’s steel may have been able to withstand exceptionally high temperatures.

The largest piece of evidence and the inspiration for the investigation undertaken by Moloney are two previously unreleased photographs taken of Titanic in Belfast prior to her maiden voyage by the ship’s chief electrical engineer John Kempster. The album of photographs was purchased at auction by Steve Raffield, a Titanic enthusiast and friend of Moloney. Two of the photographs show a mysterious black streak on the Titanic’s hull in the area of the ship where the iceberg struck. Moloney argues in an article he wrote himself for the Deccan Chronicle, “It is not a reflection or shadow, or some phenomenon local to Belfast. It is an inherent flaw on the maiden voyager [sic] and let people use the evidence of their God-given eyes!” (New theory: The secret fire that sank Titanic). But the authors of Titanic: Fire and Ice argue otherwise stating the smudge seen in both photographs is not in the exact same area as the offending coal bunker and bulkhead. As stated clearly in the text, “...the fire was actually located in the vicinity of [watertight bulkhead] E places the fire a whole boiler room, one or two watertight bulkheads, and over fifty feet away from the after extremity of the smudge seen in the Kempster photographs…” (Beveridge, et. al.). Simply put, the authors are stating the stern-end of the mysterious smudge is on the opposite end of Boiler Room 5 from where the fire took place. Therefore, the smudge can not be attributed to fire damage, which discredits one of the single largest pieces of evidence Moloney has used for his theory.

According to Moloney, the fire had gotten hot enough and out of control enough to spread through the bulkhead to an adjoining coal bunker in Boiler Room 5 where it continued to cause damage. Moloney passionately appealed, “The story was first told by an officer. He’s saying the fire was in the coal bunkers, plural! Coal bunkers, not one! And this is getting accurate information, he says this was in stoke holds nine and ten. Here we have evidence of spread from not one bunker but two” (Titanic’s Fatal Fire). Once again the testimony of fireman Fred Barrett comes into contradiction with Moloney’s findings as do Moloney’s own findings. As mentioned earlier, Barrett stated the coal bunker itself in Boiler Room 5 was holding the water back, not the bulkhead. The bunker eventually gave way and catastrophically flooded Boiler Room 5. Moloney’s findings show the flooding happened nearly two hours after the iceberg collision. If the fire had destroyed the structural integrity of the main bulkhead, it would have also damaged the integrity of the coal bunker holding the water back. The coal bunker wall in question is not one of the sixteen bulkheads designed to hold water back. No part of this wall was designed to be watertight. Yet this wall was able to hold back the Atlantic Ocean for almost an hour. If the fire was as bad as Moloney suggests it was and was able to warp stronger sections of steel designed to be watertight beyond usefulness, then why did the coal bunker wall hold as long as it did?

The impact of the bunker fire has been investigated and examined and dismissed long before Moloney published his rendition of the theory. One such investigation into the matter was performed by Commander Brian Penoyer of the United States Coast Guard. Commander Penoyer re-evaluated the available evidence on the sinking of Titanic in 2006 for the television show Seconds From Disaster. When evaluating the possibility of fire damage to the ship’s structure from the coal bunker fire, Commander Penoyer consulted naval architect Bill Garzke. When Commander Penoyer asked Garzke what he thought regarding the fire theory, he replied, “It’s a good theory, but it doesn’t measure up to what we now know happened the ship” (Seconds From Disaster). Garzke further stated he believed the fire had little to do with the sinking as the sixth compartment was already flooding with water and being pumped dry shortly after the iceberg strike, meaning any fire damage to the bulkhead would have made little difference in the ship’s sinking as the iceberg damage had already gone passed the offending bulkhead.

Moloney’s arguments in the end held little water so to speak. In the end, the efforts boil down to an attempt to reinvent a previously discredited theory amongst historians and Titanic experts alike using two obscure and previously unexamined photographs. While the fire was a real incident known to most historians well versed on the Titanic, the impact of the fire was not what Moloney tries to make it out to be. Further, Moloney’s investigations lacked physical evidence from the Titanic herself. As of date, he has not inspected the wreck nor any materials from the ship itself for possible coal fire damage. Though to his credit, the Titanic is exceedingly difficult to lead a scientific expedition to, being over two miles below the ocean surface.

Although Moloney was incorrect in regards to his theory of to the coal bunker fire, CNN, The New York Times and other major news and publication sources have published his theory as fact. This raises a concern; the real issue is extends beyond a single person arguing an incorrect theory and has become a case where history is being re-written with incorrect facts, damaging the integrity of history and education. If anything should be taken from this example, it is the next time an individual watches a documentary on a historical subject or is told of a new development in said subject, listener beware, what you come across may not be the reality. Be objectionable, be skeptical, make your own educated investigations and stand on the side of true history. History’s integrity depends on not just the teacher, but the listener as well.

Works Cited

Beveridge, Bruce, et al. “Titanic: Fire and Ice (Or What You Will).” Part Two: The Facts, 2017,

  1. 18., wormstedt.com/Titanic/TITANIC-FIRE-AND-ICE-Article.pdf.

Board of Trade. Testimony of Frederick Barrett - Day 3 - British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry.

     Titanic Inquiry Project, Electronically Published 1998, Originally published 7 May 1912,

     www.titanicinquiry.org/BOTInq/BOTInq03Barrett01.php.

Bohan, Christine. “Experts Are Disputing a Documentary Which Says a Fire Was Partly to

     Blame for the Titanic Sinking.” TheJournal.ie, 11 Feb. 2017, 7:00 PM,

     www.thejournal.ie/documentary-titanic-sinking- 3233010-Feb2017/.

Bowie, Ben. Seconds From Disaster: Titanic. YouTube, Darlow Smithson Productions

     Ltd., 2006, www.youtube.com/watch?v=l01EyIfjd0s

Dale, Richard Inside the Titanic. YouTube, Discovery Networks, 2012,

     www.youtube.com/watch?v=m8iOBCL_C3U.

Elisco, David, director. Titanic: Answers From the Abyss. YouTube, Discovery Networks, 1999,

     www.youtube.com/watch?v=ExYGQkgaNV4.

Moloney, Senan. “New Theory: The Secret Fire That Sank

     Titanic.”Https://Www.deccanchronicle.com/, Deccan Chronicle, 7 Jan. 2017,

     www.deccanchronicle.com/lifestyle/viral-and-trending/080117/new-theory-the-secret-fire-that-sank-titanic.html.

Taplin, Sam B, director. Titanic's Fatal Fire. YouTube, BBC, 2017,

     www.youtube.com/watch?v=USdreZ0WIwE.

Tikkanen, Amy. “Titanic.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 23 May 2018,

     www.britannica.com/topic/Titanic.

 


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