By now the story of the sinking of the Titanic is well-known and well-worn: Man creates an “unsinkable ship” and, in his hubris, brings along too few lifeboats. An iceberg cures his of his arrogance by tearing a hole in the side of the ship, sending it and thousands of passengers to the icy depths of the North Atlantic.
But according to a new documentary, the iceberg may not have been the sole reason for the sinking of the Titanic. Instead, in an extraordinarily stroke of bad luck, the iceberg may have struck in the exact spot where the hull had been weakened by a coal fire that blazed in the depths of the ship prior to disembarking.
Irish journalist Senan Molony argues in his January 2017 documentary “Titanic: The New Evidence” the hull of the ship was compromised weeks before its ill-fated voyage. He examined photos and eye-witness testimonies to determine that a fire spontaneously lit inside one of Titanic's coal bunkers and severely weakened a segment of the ship's hull.
“The ship is a single-skin ship,” Molony told Smithsonian.com. He means that while modern ships contain two hulls, Titanic, like other early twentieth-century vessels, had only one. Such a structure typically made for a weaker vessel, but in the Titanic's case it proved fatal. The bunkers where the crew stored engine coal was located next to the hull. The heat from the fire transferred directly to the ship's metal structure.
The ah-ha moment for Molony came when he discovered a trove of previously unknown photographs. Four years ago he purchased them from a descendant of the engineering chief of Harland and Wolff, the Irish company that built the Titanic. He was startled to see a thirty-foot-long black streak documented on the outside of the ships hull, near where the iceberg struck its blow.
When Molony asked naval architects what the streak in the photograph could be, nobody knew but everyone was intrigued. “The best suggestion at the time was that this was a reflection.” But when the photograph was taken, there was no road or dock on the shore that could have been reflected in the hull.
Other engineers believed the streak to have been caused by a fire in one of Titanic's three-story-tall coal bunkers. Molony assembled the facts in his own timeline in order to create a new narrative. He argues that the fire began as early as three weeks before the Titanic launched its voyage but was ignored due to pressure to keep the ship on schedule and fears of bad press. Britain ruled the seas but was facing increased pressure from Germany and others for the valuable immigrant trade.
An article from the New York Tribute published shortly after Titanic survivors made landfall in the United States corroborates this theory:
Stokers Agree Blaze Was in Progress from Time of Leaving Southampton Till 2 P.M. Saturday
Every stoker who was interviewed declared that the Titanic was afire from the time she left Southampton until Saturday afternoon at 2 o'clock. This story was first told by an officer of the ship, who requested that his name be withheld, saying that all the men had been warned not to talk about the disaster.
“The fire was in the coal bunkers, forward,” said this man, “in stokeholes 9 and 10, on the forward end, in what is known as the second and third sections. The fire must have been raging long before she pulled out of her pier in Southampton, for the bunker was a raging hell when, one hour out past the Needles, the fire was discovered.”
“Immediately we began to work on the fire, and it took us until Saturday afternoon to extinguish it. We were compelled to dig out all the coal from these sections. In my opinion this fire played no small part in the disaster, for when the bow was stove in, the waters readily tore open the watertight bulkheads, behind which had been the coal. If the coal had been still in the second and third sections when the vessel struck the iceberg it would have probably helped the bulkhead to resist the strain.”
This account was one of the first explanations of the Titanic's sinking; it was mentioned by British officials in their official inquiry in 1912. But the narrative was downplayed by the judge who oversaw it, Molony said.
“He was a shipping interest judge, and, in fact, he presided at a toast at the Shipwright's Guild four years earlier, saying 'may nothing ever adversely affect the great carrying power of this wonderful country. So he closes down efforts to pursue the fire, and he makes this finding that the iceberg acted alone.”
Molony's theory is plausible, but not everyone buys it. Denying the iceberg explanation, after all, puts him in odd company. A number of Titanic “truthers” have emerged over the decades, offering less-than-convincing explanations, such as a torpedo from a German U-boat sinking the ship. Others, as Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times notes, blame the sinking on an Egyptian mummy's curse.
The conventional wisdom still holds that the iceberg is the main culprit. “A fire may have accelerated this. But in my view, the Titanic would have sunk anyway,” Dave Hill, a former honorary secretary of the British Titanic Society, told Bilefsky.
Molony believes that his version holds up due to the shakiness of the original inquiry's findings. The same inquiry stated that the Titanic had sunk intact, while it was found later to be broken in half on the sea floor.
“Just because an official finding says it doesn't make it true,” Molony says.
To read more about “Titanic: The New Evidence,” click here.
This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Titanic. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the Titanic.