Debunking Titanic conspiracies

Titanic's_sinking_stern

Today marks the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, which saw more than 1,500 people perish in the North Atlantic after the ship struck an iceberg. Since the sinking over a century ago, conspiracy theories have continued to persist about the reasons why and how the vessel foundered, despite being repeatedly proven to be false. Here are just a couple theories that have been debunked.

COAL BUNKER FIRE

In recent years, there have been claims that a fire in a coal bunker on Titanic in the days before the ships departure and during the voyage could have helped exacerbate the effects of the collision with the iceberg by weakening the structural integrity of the ship’s hull. Experts have debunked the claims, pointing out that:

  • The fire on the ship was put out on April 13 (the day before Titanic struck the iceberg).
  • The decision to keep Titanic on schedule whilst the fire was ongoing was not unusual given that coal bunker fires were not unheard of on such ships and the fire was not regarded as extremely dangerous – if it was, eyewitnesses would have been aware of the situation and there would be clear evidence of it.
  • The fire did not spread and after the fire was put out, the bunker had cooled enough for workers to enter it.
  • The ship was doomed as soon as it hit the iceberg, and not because of a bulkhead collapse resulting from the fire. Any alleged collapse would have made little to no difference as water spilled over one bulkhead to the next, forcing the ship down.

WATERTIGHT DOORS

Some have speculated that had crew on the Titanic left watertight doors open in the aftermath of the impact with the iceberg, the ship would have sunk straight down without developing a list and may have stayed afloat long enough for other vessels to arrive. However, this ignores two main issues. Firstly, had water been allowed to flood the entire ship unabated, power for the ship’s lights would have been lost as soon as the boiler rooms became awash. Some experts who have modelled such a scenario suggest that lights could have gone off an hour into the sinking, much sooner than in reality.

In addition, once water flooded areas towards the stern (the back) of the ship, Titanic would almost certainly have capsized, which would have made continued evacuation impossible and may have led to greater loss of life. Experts who modelled this predicted that leaving the watertight doors open would have lost Titanic between 30 minutes to a whole hour.

TITANIC SWAPPED WITH OLYMPIC

Perhaps the most famous conspiracy theory about the sinking of the Titanic is the claim that the ship was swapped with her sistership, the Olympic, who had had to be repaired after striking another vessel in 1911 (the year before Titanic’s maiden voyage). The claim, as put forward by Robert Gardiner, is that because insurers would not pay out for Olympic’s collision as it was found to be at fault, the White Star Line (the vessel’s operator) would rectify the serious financial loss to the company by patching up the Olympic and making it become ‘Titanic’, whilst the real Titanic would enter service as the ‘Olympic’. The White Star Line would then sink the real Olympic and then be able to claim money for a new vessel.

Gardiner claims that the ship was to be sunk slowly using water valves and within reach of rescue vessels to allow for all passengers to be evacuated. However, he claims Titanic struck a darkened ship drifting in the area, claiming that an iceberg could not have caused the damage to sink the ship.

This claim has been proved false for many different reasons, but here are some of the most damning of the conspiracy:

  • The loss of a ship would have been, and was, much more damaging to the company’s image. A ship dubbed ‘practically unsinkable’ foundering on its maiden voyage would (and did) make consumers lose confidence in the White Star Line. Combine this with the fact that White Star Line still made a profit in the year of the Olympic’s collision and it becomes unclear what was to be gained from an insurance scam. Titanic author Senan Moloney makes the comparison: “Apply the idea to another Malaysian Airlines aircraft that has maybe one dodgy engine, being entirely uninsured. How could there be any overall benefit in substituting it for a fully-insured plane and then losing it in an accident?”
  • The two ships, although sister-ships, did have significant and noticeable differences which wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. A switch would have been a huge undertaking, as well as being extremely costly, and would have had to include changing name plates, lifeboats and other things branding the ship’s name. Moreover, it would have been hard for passengers of the new ‘Titanic’ not to notice a year’s worth of wear and tear on the ship.
  • The wreck of Titanic not only looks like the Titanic but its parts also bear the number assigned to her as she was being built alongside Olympic – 401. The hull also has Titanic’s name on it – which was not painted on, but carved into the hull itself.
  • Thousands of dock workers, the ship’s captain and crew would have all had to be sworn to secrecy – which is highly improbable.

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