THE SINKING OF THE TITANIC – THE UNTOLD STORY AND THE NEW EVIDENCE
On 15th April,1912, the front-page morning headlines of The New York Times (nicknamed ‘The Gray Lady’ and bearing the impressive motto ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’), announced to the world at large – ‘NEW LINER TITANIC HITS AN ICEBERG; SINKING BY THE BOW AT MIDNIGHT; LAST WIRELESS AT 12:27 A.M. BLURRED.’ The news of the catastrophe of epic proportions was received with worldwide shock, consternation and outrage. The well known American writer Wyndel Craig Wade in his best seller ‘The Titanic: End of a Dream’ aptly observed, ‘The news was appalling. The paragon of the world’s technology, the floating palace, the “practically unsinkable ship” had indisputably sunk. Nearly two thousand of her passengers and crew had gone to an unspeakable death. It was the worst maritime disaster in history. It was a wholesale slaughter of innocents too unthinkable for its age. If after years, nothing – no event in any of the wars of the twentieth century – would equal the Titanic disaster in the breadth of its shock or the depths of its pathos.
The RMS Titanic was a mammoth 52,310 ton ‘Olympic’ class vessel built by the superlative shipbuilding company Harland and Wolff Limited in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the White Star Line transatlantic service between Southampton and New York as an invincible symbol of British industry. The name Titanic was derived from Greek mythology meaning gigantic. She was not only the largest ship ever built, she was the largest man-made object on earth. Rising out of the water ‘like the side of a cliff’, her enormity was absolutely breathtaking. She was 882 feet 9 inches long with a maximum breadth of 92 feet 6 inches. The popular American science journal Power advised readers to run one-sixth of a mile ‘to appreciate in a small way the vastness’ of the ship. From the base of her keel to the top of her bridge, encompassing nine steel decks, she rose to a staggering height of 104 feet equivalent in height to an eleven-storied building. Atop her spangling superstructure, four gargantuan funnels rose 62 feet above the casings. The Titanic was equipped with three main engines–two reciprocating four–cylinder, triple-expansion steam engines, having a combined output of 30,000 hp, and one centrally placed low-pressure 16,000 hp turbine–each driving a propeller. They were heated by burning coal, 6,611 tons of which could be carried in her bunkers, with an additional 1,092 tons held in reserve. The furnaces required over 600 tons of coal a day to be shovelled into them by 176 firemen working around the clock. A total of 3 million rivets embraced her gleaming hull. In the bowels of the ship, was an awesome electrical plant capable of producing a cruising speed of over twenty-three knots. The ship also had four 400 kW steam-driven electric generators, used to provide electrical power to the ship, plus two 30 kW auxiliary generators for emergency use. A high-power radiotelegraph transmitter was installed for sending ‘marconigrams’. The ship had pioneering watertight compartments and remotely activated watertight bulkheads. But statistics were simply dwarfed by the sheer aesthetic magnificence and the apotheosis of oceangoing comfort and luxury of the ship. She was soon nicknamed ‘the Unsinkable Ship’, ‘the Wonder Ship’, ‘the Last Word in Luxury’ and ‘the Millionaire’s Special’.
The Titanic set off on her maiden voyage from Southampton on 10th April,1912 under the command of Captain Edward John Smith, with 2,224 passengers and crew aboard. The ship carried some of the wealthiest people in the world, including the American mining magnate Benjamin ‘Ben’ Guggenheim, the co-owner of Macy’s departmental store Isidor Straus, the prominent Scottish landowner Sir Cosmo Edmond Duff- Gordon, the White Star Line’s Managing Director Joseph Bruce Ismay and the ship’s principal architect Thomas Andrews. At 11:40 p.m. on 14th April,1912,about 375 miles south of Newfoundland, the lookout Frederick Fleet spotted an iceberg dead ahead emerging out of a slight haze, rang the warning bell and telephoned the bridge. The First Officer William McMaster Murdoch ordered the ship to be steered around the obstacle and the engines to be halted, but it was too late. Her starboard side struck the iceberg, creating a series of gaping holes below the waterline. Five of the ship’s watertight compartments were breached. The ship began sinking bow-first, with water rupturing compartment after compartment in quick succession. The Titanic only had enough lifeboats to carry about half of those on board. Lamentably, the ‘women and children first’ protocol was scrupulously followed when loading the lifeboats, leaving most of the hapless male passengers and crew aboard. At 2:20 a.m., the ship floundered. Her forward deck dipped underwater and water gushed in through open hatches and grates. As her stern rose out of the water, the ship began to break in two between the third and fourth funnels, due to the overwhelming pressure on the keel. With the bow underwater, the stern remained afloat and buoyant for a while, rising to a near vertical angle with hundreds of ‘souls’ desperately clinging to it. The remaining passengers and crew were submersed into a lethally freezing ice field, now infamously known as the ‘Iceberg Alley’. Distress signals were transmitted by wireless, rockets, and lamp. Around 4 a.m., the Cunard Line RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene braving dangerous ice fields. About 705 people were rescued by the Carpathia and were conveyed at full steam to New York. But 1,503 ill-fated victims perished in the worst maritime disaster in human history! The wreck of the Titanic, which was first discovered on 1st September,1985, by a Franco–American expedition led by the honorific American oceanographer Dr. Robert Duane Ballard, lies prostrate on the seabed, split in two, at a depth of 12,415 feet!
In a path breaking BBC Channel 4 documentary titled ‘Titanic: The New Evidence’, telecast on New Year’s Day,2017, the internationally acclaimed Irish journalist Senan Molony mulled the theory that the ship’s fate was sealed by a fire and not an iceberg. Molony had fortuitously stumbled upon a treasure trove of long lost photographs from the private collection of the Titanic’s Chief Electrical Engineer John Kempster. Two critical photographs showed a 30–feet long black streak evidencing that a fire in a coal bunker below deck, which started even before the Titanic departed Belfast for Southampton, eventually led to the disaster. Molony revealed, ‘The fire was known about, but it was played down…She should never have been put to sea’ and came to the startling conclusion, ‘It’s a perfect storm of extraordinary factors coming together: fire, ice, and criminal negligence.’ John Dilley, a fireman who survived the disaster, wrote, ‘From the day we sailed the Titanic was on fire.’ The effect of the fire on the bulkhead steel was catastrophic. But why did it take so long to come to light? It’s because the ship’s owners managed to keep the truth under the wraps. Ismay, immediately upon disembarking in New York, shot off frantic telegrams wanting the surviving firemen out of New York as expeditiously as possible and brought back to England. He thus followed the White Star Line’s ignominious culture of cover up!
The US Senate’s inquiry into the disaster was initiated on 19th April,1912 under the Chairmanship of Senator William Alden Smith of Michigan. In his report dated 28th May,1912, Smith concluded that the disaster was an act of God since those involved had followed the standard maritime practice. On 22nd April,1912, Sydney Charles Buxton, 1st Earl Buxton, the President of the Board of Trade, induced Robert Threshie Reid, 1st Earl Loreburn, the Lord Chancellor in Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith’s government, to set up a commission of inquiry. Loreburn appointed John Charles Bigham, 1st Viscount Mersey, the prodigious Liverpool born barrister, jurist and former Member of Parliament for Liverpool Exchange, to preside over the commission to inquire into the sinking of the Titanic as the Wreck Commissioner. Mersey was the patron of the Shipbuilder’s Guild and was naturally biased towards the Board of Trade and the major shipping concerns and cared precious little about finding out the truth. Elaborate testimony was given relating to the fire which had begun in the Titanic’s coal bunkers prior to the ship’s departure, and continued to burn for several days into its maiden voyage out of Southampton. But Mersey didn’t summon the 57 surviving firemen to the inquiry and completely scuttled the fire angle. The final report was published on 30th July, 1912 and arrived at the following conclusion:
‘The Court, having carefully inquired into the circumstances of the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds…that the loss of the said ship was due to collision with an iceberg, brought about by the excessive speed at which the ship was being navigated.’
A contemporary critic debunked the Mersey Report as ‘a vague, contradictory and a revolting example of official whitewash.’ It’s indeed a travesty of fate that such an abysmal ‘whitewash’ was presided over by an eminent jurist and parliamentarian who was a ‘Liverpudlian’. The splendid city of Liverpool, falling within the the metropolitan county of Merseyside and sitting on the eastern side of the river Mersey’s estuary, was the home of the White Star Line and the Port of Registry of the Titanic that gave the ship the inscription ‘Titanic, Liverpool’ on its magnificent stern. Her bell (which rung out when the ship collided with the iceberg), her portholes, her bridge and her fine china, including the distinctive cobalt blue first class dinner plates, were from Liverpool. The ship had a long service corridor called ‘Scotland Rd’ named after the main Liverpool thoroughfare. Many of the Titanic’s crew and in particular the ‘engine room heroes’ and musicians (who bravely played the hymn ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ penned by the prolific English poetess Sarah Fuller Adams as the ship was sinking!) hailed from Liverpool. The ‘engine room heroes’ were under the control of Joseph Bell, the Chief Engineer, who hailed from Liverpool and chivalrously sank with the ship. The evidence of their stellar role is that the ‘Unsinkable Ship’ stayed afloat longer than it would have done had they not sacrificed their lives for the safety of others. After the Titanic struck the iceberg, the 24 engineers,6 electrical engineers, two boilermakers, a plumber and his clerk aboard the ship were all summoned to the engine room by Bell by means of a ‘watch off’ emergency alarm call set off by a bell located in the Engineers’ accommodation. Many did not drown but were crushed to death as the machinery and boilers broke free when the ship trimmed even deeper by the head. Others, who kept the pumps and dynamos operational, were scalded as steam pipes broke free from the boilers. They died to a man performing their duty in the true spirit of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s inspiring signal ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’ sent from his flagship HMS Victory as the historic Battle of Trafalgar was about to commence on 21st October,1805. The ‘engine room heroes’ are immortalised by the imposing granite memorial dedicated to them which is located on Liverpool’s waterfront known as the ‘Mersey Docks’ and managed by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company. Significantly, the gold braided insignia of rank worn by British mercantile marine engineer officers on the sleeves of their uniform jackets has a purple background. This was decreed by King George V in recognition of the classic heroism displayed by the Titanic’s engineers. In 1940, John Borland ‘Jack’ Thayer, a 17-year-old first class passenger aboard the doomed ship who providentially survived the apocalypse, recounted his vivid experience of the sinking in a self-published pamphlet captioned ‘The Sinking of the S.S. Titanic’ and wrote, ‘The disaster.. was the event, which not only made the world rub its eyes and awake, but woke it with a start, keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since, with less and less peace, satisfaction and happiness.. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15,1912.’
Supreme Court of India