by Parks Stephenson
Many, if not all, of the survivors from Titanic owe their lives to an unlikely guardian angel…a fire in one of Titanic's coal bunkers. This claim, I admit, seems counter-intuitive and will therefore require some explanation.
Shortly after returning home from the 2005 Discovery/Earthship Titanic expedition, I was pulled by a couple of factors into a focused study of Titanic's boiler rooms. The first factor was Jim Cameron's underwater imagery of the open access door in the boiler uptake on Scotland Road that led down into the bowels of both Boiler Rooms 6 and 5. Although discovery of this opening would come too late in the expedition to be exploited, it inspired me to think about what we might look for in the boiler rooms during the next interior exploration of the wreck (despite Jim's public declaration that the 2005 expedition would be his last to the wreck, I hoped to give him cause to reconsider).
The second, more immediate, factor was preparation for a manned exploration of Britannic's boiler rooms in the summer of 2006. I needed to build a detailed CGI model of the forward two boiler rooms that the divers could use to plan their exploration routes. For the divers who would be risking their lives deep inside Britannic's boiler rooms, the information that I was to present in their safety brief had to be as solid and accurate as possible…a responsibility that I took seriously. I not only had to find and gather as much material as was available, but also had to critically re-assess everything that I thought I already knew.
During this process, I revisited the accounts of the coal bunker fire that burned during most of Titanic's maiden voyage. For those who might not know, some of the coal in one of the bunkers spontaneously combusted before the ship reached Southampton from her trials at Belfast. The fire proved persistent and was extinguished only by emptying the bunker of all its coal, a lengthy process that concluded on Saturday, the day before the collision. The bulkhead was evidently damaged by the intensity of the fire and historians have long speculated (even assumed as fact) that the damage was enough to cause it to fail prematurely during the ship's foundering. Testimony by Leading Stoker Barrett seemed to locate it at the forward starboard corner of Boiler Room #5 (denoted on H&W plans as Bunker 'W') and the damaged bulkhead as Bulkhead 'E'; There were some who questioned this assumption because there was no mention of a similar fire in the adjacent bunker on the forward side of the bulkhead (Bunker 'Y'), which surely would have been started by thermal contact conductance (heat from the fire in 'W' warming the bulkhead it shared with 'Y,' in turn igniting coal there).
I wondered about this myself but was not willing to subscribe to theories that blatantly accused Barrett, who was a leader in his section and a seemingly credible witness, of being mistaken in reporting where he was at the time of the collision. Reading his testimony carefully, I started to get the idea that if anyone was mistaken, it was not Barrett. Because H&W plans annotated the starboard-side bunker forward of the bulkhead (in BR#6) as Bunker 'Y,' and the one aft (in BR#5) as Bunker 'W,' I assumed that they were considered to be two separate bunkers. Barrett, on the other hand, continuously talked about the bunker. At the BOT Enquiry, Lord Mersey and John Simon evidently were similarly confused and finally had to ask directly:
Earlier, Barrett had specifically stated that he went "through" the bunker, but had not been "into" the bunker. Taken together, it becomes evident that when Barrett talks about "the bunker," he was actually talking about what the plans call out as Bunkers W and Y. In his view, the watertight bulkhead (Bulkhead E) ran through the centre of the bunker, as opposed to the modern assumption that Bunkers W and Y are two separate bunkers. What that meant to me was that 1) Barrett was describing the clearing out of both bunkers W and Y, which answered the question about heat conductance through the bulkhead starting additional coal fires; and 2), the amount of coal that Barrett described as being de-bunkered was twice what I had previously assumed. Instead of approximately 300 tons of coal needing to be displaced, I would need to account for twice that (accounting for burn rate, of course). Because it was impractical to immediately burn all that coal, the majority would have to be re-located elsewhere, most likely in the port side of the bunker. Adding to the port volume while continually drawing from the starboard would magnify the effect the actual displaced coal would have on the stability of the ship.2066. (The Solicitor-General.) I think there are the elements of a little confusion over this. The bulkhead runs across the ship from the starboard side to the port side, does it not? - Yes.
2067. Is there a coal bunker on either side of the bulkhead on the starboard side? - There is a watertight compartment running right through the centre of the bunker.
2068. There is the watertight bulkhead? - Yes.
2069. (The Commissioner.) But the bunker is partly on one side of the watertight bulkhead and partly on the other? - Yes.
2070. And the watertight bulkhead goes through the middle of the bunker? - Yes.
2071. And then across the ship? - Yes.
2072. (The Solicitor-General.) If you imagine this box is the bunker and that is the starboard skin of the ship, the watertight bulkhead runs through it like that does it not, down the middle? - Yes.
2073. And you were on the after-side of this No. 5? - I was in No. 6 when we shipped it; I was on the after-side of the bulkhead later.
And Beesley wasn't the only one. First-class passenger Norman Chambers would also later describe a port list on that Sunday afternoon and second-class passenger Ruth Becker could see only the sea out of her port-side porthole on F Deck.“[while dining with fellow passengers at lunch] I…called the attention of our table to the way the Titanic listed to port (I had noticed this before), and we all watched the sky-line through the portholes as we sat the purser's table in the saloon: it was plain she did so, for the sky-line and sea on the port side were visible most of the time and on the starboard side the sky only. The purser remarked that probably coal had been used mostly from the starboard side.” (Emphasis by the author)
As evidenced by his memoirs, Beesley was especially observant…just about everyone else seems to have adapted to their slightly-tilted world without comment. But there was something else that Beesley said that would stick in my brain:“It was interesting to stand on the boat-deck, as I frequently did, in the angle between lifeboats 13 and 15 on the starboard side…and watch the general motion of the ship through the waves resolve itself into two motions—one to be observed by contrasting the docking bridge…with the horizon…[and the other] by watching the port rail and contrasting it with the horizon…it was while watching the side roll that I first became aware of the list to port.”
Indeed, Mr. Beesley, indeed. I felt that he was on to something here, something worth pursuing.“It is no doubt a common occurrence for all vessels to list to some degree; but in view of the fact that the Titanic was cut open on the starboard side and before she sank listed so much to port that there was quite a chasm between her and the swinging lifeboats…the previous listing may be of interest.”