The following article was published in the 2015 (Vol. 40 / No. 209) issue of The Titanic Commutator,
the official journal of the Titanic Historical Society, Inc.
Copyright © 2015, Titanic Historical Society / Parks Stephenson‚
Some edits have been made to the published copy for this online version

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:

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.
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.

But how much effect? Would it have been noticeable? Evidently, it was. On Sunday, second-class passenger Lawrence Beesley noticed something peculiar:
“[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)
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.

Knowing that Beesley had a seat at the Purser's table in the Second-class Dining Saloon, Bill Sauder diagrammed Beesley's observations and calculated the port list to be as much as 3 degrees. Later, Ken Marschall would independently perform his own assessment and would arrive at a figure of 2.3 degrees. For purposes of my work (and this discussion), I would combine the two estimates and assume a port list, as described by Beesley, of 2.5 degrees.

A port list of 2.5 degrees seems incompatible with the 'perfection' that most people assume of Titanic. It seems unacceptable that a grand ship like Titanic would be allowed a steady list to port as she crossed the Atlantic. In 1912, however, a slight list would not be all that unusual (a dramatic example from the period would be the German liner Imperator, nicknamed "Limperator" because of her apparent inability to remain on an even keel); in fact, even with computer-controlled ballasting systems, one can occasionally see a modern liner leaning a bit even today. This would not be as off-putting as one might think. As Ken and Don Lynch would experience on the tilted 'Titanic' set at Fox Studios Baja, one quickly becomes accustomed to a deck slanted at a shallow angle unless it is compared to a known visual reference, like the horizon. As a matter of fact, that's how Beesley came to first notice the port list:
“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.”
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 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.”
Indeed, Mr. Beesley, indeed. I felt that he was on to something here, something worth pursuing.

In late February 2007, I visited Jim on the 'Avatar' motion-capture stage in the old Hughes hangers at Playa Vista (after wandering accidentally onto the then-super-secret 'Iron Man' stage where I caught an early glimpse of the new armour design) to discuss the coal fire de-bunkering and the effect that the resulting list might have had on the sinking. This 'new' information prompted Jim to approve funding for the construction of both flooding and stress analysis virtual models required to accurately re-create and document the flooding ultimately leading to the break-up. An accredited naval architectural team, using shipbuilding industry-standard programs, would be commissioned to complete the models to a level of fidelity never before attempted. As the project team lead, I solicited the Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering (NAOE) department at the U.S. Naval Academy to build those models, with Ken Marschall and Bill Sauder providing historical reference material and technical advice. The model was built strictly to original H&W plans, with SS401 modifications. Weights were distributed throughout the ship in order to give the hull's subdivision the proper loading and permeability, a feature that has been lacking in previous analysis models. The construction and detail of the virtual models is described in the paper, "Flooding and Structural Forensic Analysis of the Sinking of the RMS Titanic," written by J.W. Stettler and B.S. Thomas for the International Marine Forensics Symposium, held in Washington, DC, in April 2012.

Extracts from witness testimony were evaluated and the most credible used as benchmarks arranged in a timeline, against which we would assess the performance of the model as it 're-enacted' the sinking. From the outset, though, we encountered a persistent problem. After introducing orifices into the model to simulate the hull breach, the model took on the expected starboard angle of loll indicated in Quartermaster Hichens's testimony. Contrary to historical evidence, though, the virtual hull didn't stop heeling at 5 degrees but rather continued to increase into a 'lolling' condition where it settled into equilibrium at about 20 degrees on her starboard side. Corrections were attempted, but with each run, the hull responded the same way…the initial starboard list developed into an extreme angle of loll, one that precluded the launching of lifeboats on either side. Jeff Stettler, who was running the scenarios, was forced to lock the model in a zero-heel condition in order to restrain the hull from constantly rolling onto its side. He had to maintain this artificial restraint until about an hour-and-a-half into the flooding timeline, at which time the virtual hull was allowed to loll to port, as reported by witness testimony. The performance of the model in the later stages of flooding through the break-up was featured and discussed in the 2012 National Geographic Channel documentary, "Titanic: the Final Word with James Cameron."

The fact that we had to manually constrain the model, though, did not sit well with me. What was it about the real Titanic that caused it to act differently from the simulation? The initial actions were understandable…water pouring into starboard-side spaces would logically account for a starboard list. The emptied coal bunkers W and Y would help exacerbate the list; in fact, we knew from Fireman Beauchamp's testimony that bunker Y flooded quicker than the boiler room proper (an observation that also happened to buttress our assumption that Bunker Y was emptied because of the coal fire). But why didn't the starboard angle of loll continue to worsen, as the virtual model was wont to do? And as many ships in similar real-world situations have done? What mechanism fought against the starboard list and forced the ship to roll to port, as indicated by the witnesses?

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