R.M.S. Titanic was Not Sunk by Fire

Patrick Kissel, Reporter

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Titanic, a maritime disaster that has been the subject of movies, books and conspiracy theories. These theories are wild, and often intermingled, stretching from a theory that the Titanic was switched with her sister ship to that Titanic was actually sank due to a fire in a coal bunker, also known as the fire and ice theory.

This theory was originally crafted by Irish journalist Sean Moloney in a documentary that aired on the Smithsonian channel in January, 2017. The documentary claimed that a coal fire was raging on the Titanic up until the day before she sank, which caused enough of a weakening in the ship’s bulkheads to allow the bulkhead separating the foremost boiler rooms to collapse far earlier than the it would otherwise have spilled over, causing Titanic to sink before the Carpathia could arrive on the scene.

First to address the fire itself. Yes, Titanic did set sail with a fire in coal bunker seven. This fire was burning until the day before the ship hit the iceberg, and was put out by the stokers in boiler room six, but this fire was not a raging fire. Coal fires were not uncommon on ships of the day, and occur when coal is piled into a large coal bunker causing it to spontaneously combust due to the pressure put on the coal at the bottom. These fires are not raging fires, though, or thip would be a smoking hulk in mere hours, but instead are smouldering coals that tend to spread very slow.According to an article rebutting the documentary published by Titanic historians Bruce Beveridge, Mark Chirnside, Tad Fitch, Ioannis Georgiou, Steve Wall, J. Kent Layton and Bill Wormstadt, “ship surveyor Maurice Clarke said that he was not notified of the fire, that ‘it is not an uncommon thing to have these small fires in the bunkers.’”

One piece of evidence disproving the theory is that many of the ships senior officers did not know about the fires. According to the aforementioned article “both [second officer Charles Lightoller] and [third officer Herbert Pitman] claimed never to have heard of this fire, and wouldn’t have expected to, if the fire was minor.” This fire was not a raging fire, but instead was able to be put out in the usual way, otherwise the officers would have been informed of the danger

These fires were put out by emptying the bunker that had the smouldering coals and transferring any coals not smouldering, which is usually the majority of the bunker, to the other side of the ship. The smouldering coals are then burned in the boilers. Titanic historian Thomas Lynskey in a podcast released on the Titanic: Honor and Glory youtube channel said that firemen on ships of the day would see on average at least one of these fires during their careers. These things were commonplace and did not merit any alarm, and could not have affected the sinking due to warping the bulkhead, nor would the fire have likely been able to warp the bulkhead in the first place.

Though the fire quite obviously did not affect the sinking negatively as proven by aforementioned evidence, it has been proposed by the historians at Titanic: Honor and Glory, including historian Parks Stevenson, that the coal fire actually saved Titanic from capsizing within an hour after the collision with the berg. This theory goes that the coal which was transferred to the other side of the ship caused a two and a half to three degree list to port, a list reported by numerous passengers as early as the day before the collision. When Titanic hit the berg on the starboard side, she should have capsized in an hour which was what chief architect Thomas Andrews originally predicted she would immediately after the collision, but she didn’t and floated for two hours and forty minutes.

The theory goes that the water had to first overcome the three degree list to port before being able to list to starboard. By that point, the water reached Scotland road,which is a corridor that ran the length of the ship along e-deck and caused a list to port of nine degrees as the water reached the forward well deck, a list that is widely reported in the inquiry testimonies unlike the supposed raging coal fire. Had the water not had to overcome the original three degree list, though, it would have been too late by the time water reached e-deck, and Titanic would roll over in around an hour with nearly all or all aboard lost, as lifeboat seven, the first lifeboat to leave Titanic, left the ship a full hour after the collision. Had she of not had to overcome the three degree list, then Titanic would already be on her side by the time lifeboat seven was launched in real life. This theory was also demonstrated in the currently accepted 2012 theory, established by James Cameron and other historians in the centennial anniversary documentary Titanic: The Final Word.

In conclusion, the coal fire did not cause Titanic to sink quicker, but instead caused Titanic to sink unusually, going down by the head instead of capsizing, and taking an extra hour to sink over the estimates by Andrews.

This article was written in response to Titanic Conspiracy Theory: The Titanic Didn’t Sink, published March 18, by Audrey Whalen. 

To read the full article by Titanic historians refuting the claim made in the documentary by Moloney, click here.