It may have been fire, not ice, that sank the Titanic. A new Smithsonian Channel documentary suggests that a smoldering coal fire was to blame for the 1912 disaster that killed 1,500 people some 400 miles south of Newfoundland.
The discovery is the “Titanic equivalent of [finding] Tutankhamun’s tomb,” says Irish journalist Senan Molony, director of Titanic: The New Evidence. Molony has spent more than 30 years researching the doomed liner.
A section of the Titanic’s hull was significantly weakened by the coal fire, smoldering in a three-story hold next to a boiler room for as long as three weeks, and gave way after hitting an iceberg, Molony contends. The damaged bulkhead was warped and distorted, and it had lost 75 percent of its strength, according to Molony’s findings.
“The fire blazed all through the delivery voyage from Belfast to Southampton and was only tackled after leaving Southampton on the maiden voyage,” he says. “They probably did not want to draw attention to it during the inspection, over three days, by the Board of Trade marine inspector, Maurice Clarke, who had the power to withhold her passenger clearance certificate. He gave her permission to sail but later told the British inquiry the fact there had been a fire concealed from him.”
Molony centers his research on newly released photographs from the private collection of the Titanic’s chief electrical engineer, John Kempster — stashed away in an attic for more than 100 years — that show the launch of the famous “unsinkable ship” and offer clues to the impending catastrophe. Molony first saw the photos in 2012 and noticed a 30-foot black mark on the starboard side, which prompted him to look into the fire, long known yet ignored as a possible cause of or factor in the sinking.
“It first emerged when rescued crew were landed at New York in April 1912, and the New-York Tribune and other newspapers reported that ‘every stoker interviewed declared that the Titanic was afire’ during her maiden voyage,” he says. “It was said to have played ‘no small part’ in the sinking.”
The British inquiry into the Titanic downplayed the fire — it also denied the ship broke in half, which it did — and said the sinking was the result of a 300-foot gash caused when the ship struck the iceberg. “Sonar imaging of the wreck on the sea floor shows there was no such long gash,” Molony says. “It had to be something else that caused her to sink in so short a time, two hours and 40 minutes.”
Evidence revealed in the photographs and featured in the film includes the use of substandard materials and shoddy workmanship due primarily to cost cutting and shortcuts taken by shipbuilders, who were under intense pressure to complete the largest ship in the world on time and within budget.
The photographs expose three major points that contribute to Molony’s theory. Perhaps the most shocking evidence, he says, are two critical photos that show the 30-foot black streak on the Titanic’s hull — evidence that the fire might have weakened the hull in the same area where the iceberg hit the ship. He also says that Titanic’s builder, Belfast-based Harland and Wolff, in its haste to complete the project, didn’t use the best-quality steel for the ship’s double-skin hull. Last, one of the photos shows the Titanic and her sister ship, Olympic, side by side at the yard, revealing how the enormous vessels were being built simultaneously, leading to a drain on materials and the availability of experienced workers.
“It’s a perfect storm of extraordinary factors coming together: fire, ice and criminal negligence,” Molony says in the documentary, which premiered on the Smithsonian Channel in January. “The fire was known about, but it was played down. She should never have been put to sea.”
Molony’s theory joins several others that have been floated over the years, including that Titanic was torpedoed by a German U-boat or was cursed and sank because she was carrying the sarcophagus of an Egyptian priestess. Another is that it was Olympic, not Titanic, that sank. One certainty is that the public’s fascination with the disaster will never ebb.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue.