Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2017.

Fire & Iceberg

Did fire help sink the Titanic?


We’ve all heard the story. A spring night on the North Atlantic. The largest ship ever built cutting through frigid waters on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City. A lookout shouting, “Iceberg, dead ahead!” And finally, over 1,500 people lost as the Titanic, short on lifeboats, sank to the bottom of the ocean.

What we may not have heard is the claim that a fire played a significant role in its sinking, which occurred in the early hours of April 15, 1912, after the liner struck an iceberg 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Irish journalist Senan Molony, who has spent 30 years researching the sinking of the Titanic, believes a fire not only weakened the ship’s hull, allowing water to gush in faster after striking the iceberg, but also forced the ship to plow through icy seas at an unsafe speed.

Molony’s theory is the subject of a new documentary film, “Titanic: The New Evidence,” which recently aired on British and American television. “It’s a perfect storm of extraordinary factors coming together: fire, ice, and criminal negligence,” Molony argues in the film.

According to Molony, a fire occurred deep in the ship and burned even as the Titanic left Belfast, Ireland, where it was built, on April 2, 1912. The fire began in a three-story-tall coal storage bunker, located near the ship’s boiler room, and continued burning as the liner stopped in England, France, and Ireland again before steaming for New York.

Molony began investigating the fire a few years ago after a colleague acquired a collection of never-before-seen photos of the Titanic, taken by the ship’s chief electrical engineer. The images, which had sat in an attic for a century, reveal a roughly 30-foot-long diagonal black mark on the lower right side of the hull’s exterior. “We’re looking at the exact area where the iceberg struck,” Molony says in the film, pointing to the mark, “and we appear to have a weakness or damage to the hull in that specific place.” The mark, he says, begins in the same area the fire started in the ship’s interior.

Additionally, Molony says newspaper articles published after the sinking, as well as other historical documents, suggest the fire spread to multiple coal bunkers, forcing stokers to shovel the burning coals into the ship’s furnaces as it charged toward an ice field. Molony contends this is one reason why the ship didn’t slow down even after being warned about icebergs in its path. The other reason, he says, is because a coal miners’ strike left the ship stocked with just enough coal to make it to America and it couldn’t afford to slow, especially as flames were consuming its fuel.

To those familiar with the Titanic story, the blaze in its belly isn’t news; the fire has been documented in a number of sources. Books on coal fires, for example, quote John Dilley, a stoker on the ship who survived the sinking, telling the U.S. Senate in 1912 that “from the day we sailed, the Titanic was on fire, and my sole duty, together with 11 other men, had been to fight that fire. We had made no headway against it.”

Until now, the fire’s significance has been underplayed, says Molony, who asserts that even the ship's owners covered up the fire and that presiding Lord Mersey avoided the topic at the Titanic inquiry in London.

Not everyone is sold on Molony’s theory. David Hill, a former honorary secretary of the British Titanic Society, told The Boston Globe he doesn’t believe the ship’s fate would have been any different had there been no fire. “A fire may have accelerated [the sinking],” he said. “But in my view, the Titanic would have sunk anyway.”

Other experts give more weight to Molony’s claims. Richard de Kerbrech, a marine engineer from the Isle of Wight who has written books on the Titanic, told the Globe he believes the fire could have damaged the steel within the ship’s hull enough to make it more vulnerable to a puncture. “This discovery is a revelation and could change our knowledge of the history of what happened,” he said.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images