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Arts & Life

Titanic Documentary Suggests Engine Room Fire Led To Sinking


The story of the Titanic that most people know is pretty straightforward - unsinkable ship sets sail. Ship hits iceberg. Ship sinks. A new documentary suggests an extra wrinkle in that 104-year-old story. The claim is that a coal fire that started on the Titanic before its maiden voyage weakened its hull before it hit that iceberg.

Senan Molony is the journalist and author behind the documentary about this. It's called "Titanic: The New Evidence." He joins us now via Skype. Welcome to the program.

SENAN MOLONY: Thank you so much, Audie. And by the way, it's now a 105-year-old mystery, so (laughter)...

CORNISH: That's true.

MOLONY: Happy New Year.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Happy New Year. So help us understand how a fire could get going on a ship before it even set sail and no one notice.

MOLONY: Well, that's the way of spontaneous coal fires. They can come about, and they did come about in this case because evidence was given at the subsequent inquiries after the sinking that there had indeed been a coal bunker fire. And the coal fire was never really tackled and wasn't begun to be dug out, which was the way to treat it in those days, until the ship had actually sailed on her maiden voyage.

CORNISH: So this fire starts, and they are actually trying to fight it as the ship is sailing along. And the theory now is that this actually weakened the hull of the ship. So already it was at a disadvantage before any iceberg came into play.

MOLONY: Correct. What we're seeing now are sort of new photographs that are showing an apparent deformity on the ship's starboard side. A diagonal mark that has caused me in this documentary to investigate the coal bunker fire has launched a series of dominoes, if you like, whereby when the fire is subjected to scientific analysis and allied to the eyewitness testimony in 1912, we're now hearing from the scientists that this fire must have been of the order of a thousand degrees Celsius.

Taking that further and speaking to metallurgists, they're saying that exposure to that level of heat would have robbed that type of steel in the day of 75 percent of its strength. So then when you get an iceberg collision and a massive ingress of seawater - hundreds of thousands of tons of seawater coming in - you have a situation whereby the fire is co-author of the ultimate catastrophe.

CORNISH: You know, we should say that not everyone agrees that the fire was a major factor. Could the ship have gone down even if there hadn't been a fire?

MOLONY: Yeah, the ship would undoubtedly have gone down very probably if there hadn't been a fire. But the point was it would have stayed afloat far longer and certainly into daylight the next day when rescue ships already on their way would have been met by, you know, the floating Titanic and could have affected rescue of maybe hundreds of lives in addition to those that were saved by the lifeboats.

CORNISH: In the end, why do you think that this mystery still fascinates people?

MOLONY: Well, it fascinates people because it has entered the mythic sphere, one thing and another on what comparison's made about deck chairs changing on the Titanic and so forth. The very idea of a maiden voyage sinking is hugely interesting in itself. And it has made a transformation into, as I say, the mythic status now, such that people consider it almost an inviolable idea in itself.

CORNISH: Senan Molony is a journalist with The Irish Daily Mail. His documentary is "Titanic: The New Evidence." Thank you for speaking with us.

MOLONY: You're more than welcome, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM ATLAS SONG, "COMPROMISED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.