“A new theory that a fire in a coal bunker on the liner RMS Titanic contributed to its sinking has been put forward, as the fate of the liner remains a subject of much debate.
Ray Boston, who has devoted 20 years to researching the subject, said the reason Titanic was travelling so quickly through dangerous waters was because of an “uncontrollable” coal fire on board which began during speed trials in Belfast 10 days before it left Southampton.
The fire was still burning when the liner set off, creating a floating time bomb which had the potential to cause “serious explosions” below decks before it reached New York.
Mr Boston cites the testimony of Bruce Ismay, the managing director of the White Star Line, which owned Titanic, to an inquiry into the catastrophe in which he told investigators he was forced by John Pierpont Morgan, the ultimate owner of the ship, to instruct the crew to cross the Atlantic at full speed.
“Morgan thought it was necessary, in order to justify his gamble, that they should reach New York and unload all the passengers before the inevitable explosions occurred,” he said.
Fireman J Dilley, a stoker aboard Titanic who survived to give evidence to the inquiry, added weight to the suggestion of an uncontrollable fire in coal bunker six of the ship.
“We didn’t get that fire out and among the stokers there was talk that we’d have to empty the big coal bunkers after we’d put the passengers off in New York and then call on the fireboats there to help us put out the fire,” he said.
“But we didn’t need such help. It was right under bunker number six that the iceberg tore the biggest hole in the Titanic.”
At 11.40pm on April 14, 1912 Titanic struck an iceberg while travelling at high speed through the icy waters of the Atlantic, and by 2.20am she had sunk beneath the waves with the loss of nearly 1,500 passengers and crew. Just 711 people were saved.
An inquiry into the disaster, presented to Parliament in the summer of 1912, described the ship as travelling at “high speed” through the dangerous ice-filled waters, giving the crew little opportunity to avoid a fatal collision with an iceberg.
The inquiry found that Titanic’s speed, of about 22 knots, was “excessive” considering where it was, off the coast of Newfoundland, and that additional look-outs should have been posted on all sides of the liner rather than just in the crow’s nest.
When the look-out spotted the approaching iceberg, he sounded the warning and the vessel was immediately turned hard to starboard and the engines put into full reverse, but it was already too late to avoid disaster.
Mr Boston said it was clear that Morgan was aware of the fire before the ship set sail but that the news was hushed up so as not to alarm passengers.
It was, perhaps, for this reason that Morgan quietly cancelled his ticket on the maiden voyage the day before the ship set sail, said Mr Boston.
“The crew, who had been sworn to silence, knew very well he was not [on board] because they had watched him, late on the night before his ship was due to sail… carrying his own luggage down to his Rolls-Royce on the quayside,” he said.
“Why? Because he knew there was an uncontrollable fire down in coal bunker number six.”
But not all experts on the disaster agree with Mr Boston’s assessment. Geoff Pattison, a member of the American and British Titanic Societies and lecturer at Northumbria University, is sceptical.
“The Diana inquiry took 10 years and millions of pounds to decide that it was an accident, and this is how I view the Titanic,” he said.
“I think this is a case of conspiracy after the fact, like the Kennedy assassination. It was just a simple twist of fate.”