The Titanic Was On Fire For Days Before The Iceberg Hit
By Erik Brown
16 - 20 minutes
“From the day we sailed the Titanic was on fire” — John Dilley, fireman aboard the Titanic
I’m sure you know the story of the Titanic — the massive luxury liner deemed as the unsinkable ship. At the time of its completion, the Titanic is the largest man-made moving object on earth. The company building the ship is so sure it’s unsinkable, they don’t include enough lifeboats for all the passengers. Of course the ship isn’t what it’s advertised to be, and sinks after hitting an iceberg. About 1500 people are lost with the ship, including many prominent citizens from multiple nations. Even Leonardo DiCaprio sinks beneath the waves as Celine Dion sings a song that makes you want to cry — for more than one reason.
It’s an event that will be known throughout history. It’s a real life event that resembles a movie. It’s unthinkable today that a tragedy of this magnitude could occur. But it did happen, and it was such an event that it’s become part of our pop culture. Talking about resembling a movie, one of the biggest movies ever made revolved around this tragedy. A search for the wreck of the ship preoccupied scientists for years. Remember, mind you, that this event took place over 100 years ago and the name of the ship is still part of our vocabulary.
However despite occurring over 100 years ago, this story is still evolving. In particular, everyone knows the base story about the ship hitting an iceberg. Incredibly, one major piece has been missing for years and has recently come to light. The Titanic was on fire for days as it was sailing and possibly much longer than that. Yes, you read that correctly. There was a coal fire going on below deck for days that the crew was unable to put out. The ship sailed anyway with a fire burning away in the hull.
Senan Molony is a journalist in Ireland who has been studying the Titanic for over 30 years. He recently came across an amazing discovery hidden in an attic in England. This hidden gem was pictures taken of the Titanic by the ship-building firm before it left the shipyard. One of these amazing pictures shows a 30 foot long dark marking on the hull, right where the iceberg was known to have struck the ship. This mark was judged by engineers at the Imperial College of London to be caused by the coal fire that took place in the three story-high coal bunker on the ship.
The fact that a coal fire was going on aboard is well documented. During the inquiry after the sinking, Charles Hendrickson was brought up to testify and talked about the fire. He mentioned that the fire was known of before the Titanic left Belfast and Hendrickson and three to four other men worked to put out the fire. The only way to put out a coal fire in a bunker like this, was to put the burning coal into ship’s furnace.
The obvious question you might come up with at this point is, “why can’t you just put out the fire?” That’s because of the incendiary nature of coal. In general, a coal fire is extremely difficult to deal with under the best circumstances. If you had all the resources in the world and a good deal of space to work, they can be impossible to put out. Aboard a ship in tight quarters, it gets even more difficult.
An example of the difficulties with a coal fire would be the coal fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania. This fire broke out in a mine in the Northeast United States and has proven impossible to put out. How impossible you ask? It’s been burning since May 27, 1962.
Despite numerous efforts to deal with the fire, nothing has been able to stop it. It’s estimated that some sections where the fire is burning are about 1000 degrees Fahrenheit and put up lethal gas clouds of carbon monoxide. Eventually, the federal government gave up trying to put out the fire and just bought all the land from the inhabitants, who moved. Centralia is now a tourist attraction, where visitors come to see the smoke and abandoned buildings.
Testimony of Frederick Barrett (lead stoker) during the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry, day 4
Attorney: What was the condition of the bulkhead running through the bunker? Barret: It was damaged from the bottom.
Attorney: Badly damaged? Barret: The bottom of the watertight compartment was dinged aft and the other part was dinged forward.
Commissioner: What do you attribute that to? Barret: The fire.
Attorney: Do you mean to say the firing of the coal would dinge the bulkhead? Barret: Yes.
In Senan Molony’s new documentary, “Titanic: The New Evidence,” he examines the damage of the coal fire. The area in the coal bunker where the fire broke out was against one of the main bulk heads of the ship. These are watertight walls designed to keep sea water from spreading in case of a hull breach. Molony interviews Dr. Guillermo Rein of the Imperial College of London. Dr. Rein concentrates in the science of coal fires. He estimates that the temperature of that fire could have hit about 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Dr. Rein also says that usually by the time a coal fire is noticed, it’s probably been burning for days or weeks.
The testimony of the coal stokers and firemen aboard the Titanic seem to indicate that the bulkhead by the coal area was significantly damaged by the fire. Some even reporting a movement of the metal or a buckling. Nothing was really done to address the damage. It also appears from the previous picture that a visible mark on the hull was present from the fire damage as well.
Another issue that has always caused confusion was the Titanic’s speed. It was running at full speed when crossing the Atlantic Ocean, even when there were warnings of icebergs in the area. There were rumors that the ship was trying to break some kind of speed record, but the Titanic was not built for speed. This mammoth ship was a luxury liner. Molony indicates that this could have been caused by the fire-fighting activities.
In order to fight the fire, the stokers had been shoveling the burning coal into furnaces to burn the fire away. If the stokers had been shoveling as much coal as possible that could be the reason for the speed of the ship. As excess coal was burnt, the engines would work harder, generating speed. The stokers had been shoveling coal into the furnaces nonstop for 3 days fighting the fire during the maiden voyage. Molony thinks this is the reason why the ship was going at full speed when it hit the iceberg.
At 11:40PM on the 14th of April 1912, the Titanic struck an iceberg, which tore into its hull. Right after the strike, according to Molony’s documentary, the bulkhead compartments appeared to be doing their job and holding the water back. The Titanic’s designer happened to be aboard the ship and evaluated the strike damage and seemed to think that ship wouldn’t sink — as long as the bulkheads held up. However, one of the main bulkheads had been damaged in the previously reported fire.
Molony reports from a transcript of the American Inquiry into the sinking where a lead fireman / stoker, Fred Barret, reports about a failure to the bulkhead. Barret had been below when the iceberg struck and took refuge in another watertight compartment in the ship. He actually stood behind the bulkhead that had been damaged by the fire. Approximately two hours afterwards, Barret reported seeing, “a wave of green foam come tearing between the boilers.” At this point, the bulkhead failed and Barret escaped the incoming torrent of water. In Molony’s investigation, the ship began sinking rapidly after this event.
The work of Molony in his documentary is compelling and seems to make logical sense. The hidden fire caused damage to a bulkhead in the ship. The increased speed of the ship was due to the excess burning of coal to fight the fire. Also the failure of the bulkhead was due to the incredible heat generated by the coal fire, which was right against the bulkhead. In Molony’s opinion if the bulkheads held, the passengers on the ship may have been rescued. There was a ship hailed and on the way. If the Titanic could have stayed afloat for a few hours longer, a historic tragedy may have been averted.
The bulkheads were the Titanic’s prime defense against the ocean. One of the reasons given for the lack of lifeboats was because the Titanic itself was thought to be a lifeboat. The bulkheads were designed to keep the water out in case of a breach, which would give time for a rescue to be conducted. If the bulkheads failed however, a disaster would be imminent.
Molony also searches into why the ship would leave with a fire on board. According to interviews conducted and research into the White Star Line (operator of the Titanic), the company was in financial trouble. There had already been a delay in the introduction to the Titanic. The sister ship of the Titanic had also been damaged, causing more economic losses. It appeared that the Titanic would have to sail or the company might have imploded otherwise.
There are those who differ with Molony’s conclusions, however. David Hill, a previous secretary of the British Titanic Society disagrees with Molony’s findings. Hill admits there was a fire, but in the grand scheme of things it really didn’t make any difference — the iceberg was the prime villain. Molony can’t prove all his theories completely, but there’s lots of evidence to back up his claims. The ultimate thing that can’t be denied is that there was a fire and it was burning at the time of the voyage. The image of the Titanic has forever been associated with ice, but it appears a new image of fire may have to be adapted.
Despite the new evidence appearing, nothing changes the fact that the story of the Titanic is a tragedy. The events that happened could have surely been avoided and all those unfortunates aboard needlessly died horrible deaths. In the end, the only thing the new evidence shows us is a new level of negligence shown by the White Star Line and their employees. A ship that was ill equipped with lifeboats was sailed, on fire, through an iceberg infested area at full speed. To make matters worse, the British inquiry buried the testimony about the fire and moved onto other aspects of the disaster. Even 100 years after this event, just restating those facts brings a level of anger to a modern reader — including me. It’s not hard to put yourself in the shoes of those victims, whose only crime was to believe that they were safe aboard an “unsinkable” ship.
Thank you for reading my ramblings. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, please share.