A Closer Look: The Titanic Coal Bunker Fire: Curse or Blessing?

Since the early to mid-1800s, steamships followed regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic crossings, and White Star’s new Olympic Class ships were intended to continue that tradition like no other ships before. In order for a steamship to sail, it must have coal. In Titanic’s case, she was carrying 5,892 tons of coal when she departed Southampton on April 10, 1912. 


The entire supply of coal would have normally come from the Lewis Merthyr Consolidated Collieries, but due to a coal strike throughout Great Britain, the supplier was unable to provide the entire amount that Titanic needed for her maiden voyage. Therefore, White Star had to acquire coal from outside sources, canceled some of their other ships’ departures, and transferred the coal from those ships to Titanic. The passengers that held First-Class tickets on the ships that were canceled were given Second-Class tickets on board Titanic and were allowed to tour Titanic’s First-Class sections before the ship sailed.

Due to the fact that the coal provided for Titanic came from different suppliers, the quality of the coal differed throughout. High quality coal burns longer, hotter, and is less susceptible to spontaneous combustion verses lower quality coal. The process of coaling a ship is not at all complex. A barge with the coal stock is moored next the ship, then hatches in the ship’s hull are opened that give access to a chute which in turn leads to a specific coal bunker. During the coaling process, it was not an uncommon occurrence for spontaneous combustion to occur as the individual pieces of coal bump along on their way down the chutes and into the bunkers. This is especially a factor with lower quality coal.

Spontaneous combustion was actually such a common occurrence that International Mercantile Marine, White Star Line’s parent company, put forth a rule that stated:

Examination of Coal Bunkers - The respective senior engineers of each watch, before going off duty, must go through the coal bunkers, and note their condition on the log-slate, and should there be any signs of spontaneous combustion taking place, they are at once to report same to the Chief Engineer, who is immediately to notify the Commander. All coal should, as often as possible, be worked out of the bunkers.
- Rule No. 248 of the “Ship Rules and Uniform Regulations”

The Coal Bunker Fire

Titanic departing Southampton
A small fire was discovered smoldering in one of Titanic’s coal bunkers at the time she departed Southampton on April 10, 1912. It was caused by spontaneous combustion. It was rumored that the fire started while the ship was in Belfast, but that wasn’t the case. Titanic brought over 1,880 tons of coal from Belfast when she arrived in Southampton. She was loaded with 4,427 additional tons while in Southampton and consumed 415 tons during her week in port while being prepared for her maiden voyage. It is highly unlikely that they would have added extra coal to a bunker if a fire was known. It is more than likely that the fire started while the ship was in Southampton after loading the additional coal. It was not a big enough problem to keep the ship from starting her maiden voyage. There is no evidence whatsoever of an up roaring blaze that was out of control and none of the firemen below testified of any large amount of smoke.

The most effective way to fight a bunker fire is to dig out as much coal as possible to get to where the fire is. According to Firemen Frederick Barrett and Fireman Charles Hendrickson, work to dig out the coal to get to the fire did not start until the first watch began after the ship left Southampton. It was not until sometime on Saturday, April 13th, that the fire was finally exposed and extinguished with water.

Titanic's Boiler Room Arrangement
(Diagram By Joshua Allen Milford)

On Titanic, the boiler rooms are divided up between watertight bulkheads that move from port to starboard across the ship. The coal bunkers are located against the bulkheads so that the bulkheads in turn make up the backside of the bunkers. Once the fire was put out and the rest of the coal was removed, the steel of the watertight bulkhead appeared to be slightly distorted form the heat.

Frederick Barret (left) and Charles Hendrickson (right)
“The bottom of the watertight compartment was dinged aft, and the other part was dinged forward.” 
- Fireman Frederick Barrett

“You could see where it had been red hot; all the paint and everything was off. It was dented a bit… yes, warped… I just brushed it off and got some black oil and rubbed over it.”
- Fireman Charles Hendrickson

Although Hendrickson talks about the bulkhead being “red hot,” he did not actually say that he ever saw it in that condition. Regardless, the fire was hot enough to cause the bulkhead steel to expand and distort. Any coal on the opposite side of the bulkhead could have easily been ignited by heat. Fortunately, that did not happen, but as a cautionary measure all the coal was removed from the bunker on both sides of the bulkhead.

Coal Bunker Fire Location
(Diagram By Joshua Allen Milford)

The Collision and Flooding

Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40pm, Barrett was in Boiler Room 6, the most forward boiler room on the ship, and saw water in come in through the starboard side of the hull. He escaped the through the watertight door leading into Boiler Room 5. At around 1:10am as he and the rest of the men were evacuating that boiler room, he saw a rush of water come in moments before he escaped.
When Barrett was questioned at the British inquiry about the cause of this rush of water, he told them that it may have come from the bunker space that had been emptied out. When Barrett was asked if it could have been a bulkhead that gave way, he replied, “I have no idea on that, but that is the bunker that was holding the water back.”

There are some people who believed that it was the watertight bulkhead, weakened by the fire in the coal bunker, that gave way which caused that rush of water that Barrett saw. They also believed that it was the first falling domino in a catastrophic chain reaction. However, there is no science evidence to support such a catastrophic event.

Modern Analysis

Recently, an analysis on bulkhead plate similar to one that used on Titanic was heated to a point that it became red hot. The plate was bounded to other pieces modeling the shell and floor plates by riveting it to angle iron pieces which in turn were riveted to the other pieces. Therefore, creating a scenario similar to Titanic’s watertight bulkhead construction. The results showed the bulkhead plate had distorted by about 6 inches, and the rivets holding the plate were stressed to only 10%-20% of their failure load. Even if the bulkhead was first heated red hot and then cooled down by sea water, it would not affect the low temperature properties of the bulkhead. The conclusion of the analysis is that the bunker fire would not have weakened the watertight bulkhead enough to cause it to collapse.

The most likely cause of that rush of water seen by Barrett was the collapse of a coal bunker door holding back water that had filled the empty coal bunker space from somewhere above. If it were the watertight bulkhead between the two boiler rooms that had failed, Barrett would not have had time to escape.

The Redistribution of the Coal May Have Helped

Lusitania, Britannic,
& Andrea Doria
(Paintings By
Ken Marschall)
When a ship receives damage to its side whether it be port or starboard, the result of flooding on that side will cause the ship to list in that direction. If the damage is severe enough it could cause the ship to roll over to that side. That is simple physics, and it has been seen many times throughout history. Ships that have sank such as the Lusitania, Britannic, and Andrea Doria, just to name a few, all received severe damage to their side and rolled over. However, there is one exception, Titanic.

The iceberg caused fatal damage to Titanic’s starboard side. So why didn’t she roll over? She also took nearly twice as long to sink as originally calculated by the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews. 

After the collision and the damage was inspected, Andrews made it clear that it was “a mathematical certainty” that Titanic was going to sink. He made a quick calculation and estimated that the ship would take an hour and maybe a little more to sink. Titanic took two hours and forty minutes to sink and quite possibly could have remained afloat longer if the breakup hadn’t occurred. All the while she stayed upright the entire time.

Titanic Sinking
(Painting By Ken Marschall)

Lawrence Beesley
So, what kept Titanic from rolling over? It was the coal. When the coal fire was discovered, in order to extinguish it the coal that was on top had to be dug out and placed somewhere else. In this case the coal was moved from the starboard side to the port side. An endeavor that took nearly four days to do. During the voyage it was noted by Second Class passenger Laurence Beesley, that Titanic had a slight list to her port side. Beesley recalled that he could see the horizon line through the windows on the starboard side, but only water through the windows on the port side. He came to the obvious conclusion that the ship was slightly leaning to port. He questioned the purser who explained that the list was “probably due to most of the coal being used from the starboard side of the ship”. The purser was half right. The coal hadn’t been used; it had been moved. Beesley thought it was important enough to recall this occurrence in his account of the sinking noting that “the previous listing to port may be of interest”. It turns out that it would be of high interest considering what happened on the night of April 14, 1912.

When the collision with the iceberg occurred, Titanic had a slight list to port. Titanic struck the berg on the starboard side. Water began to enter the ship on that side and the weight of the water began to slowly pull Titanic the other way toward starboard. So eventually the weight of the water on the starboard side becomes equal to the weight of all that extra coal on the port side and Titanic returns to an even keel. Then the inevitable starts to happen and Titanic begins to lean to starboard toward the damage. This fight of balance took a considerable amount of time and was the reasoning behind why Titanic stayed upright for nearly three hours. When Titanic finally began to slowly lean to starboard the breakup occurred and Titanic went under shortly after.

Deck Plan Showing the Firemen's Passage.
(Deck Plan By Bruce Beveridge, Edited By Joshua Allen Milford)

So, if Titanic was listing to port when the iceberg damage occurred, why didn’t the water just rush over to the port side? Well, that’s because Titanic wasn’t hollow on the inside. There are rooms, walls, doors, ceilings, bulkheads, corridors, and other obstructions that the water has to flow through. But there is one design feature that could have played a significant role in why the water was kept on the starboard side for a period of time. That was the Firemen's Passage. It was basically a long corridor that ran down the center of the ship at the lowest deck, from the front of the bow where the crew quarters were to the boiler rooms. This corridor acted like a tall barrier that the water would have to spill over to get to the other side of the ship. If it wasn’t for this design feature and some of the other layouts of Titanic’s interior, she could have possibly rolled over to port. However, that didn’t happen, and Titanic stayed upright for one of the most dramatic and epic events in the 20th century to take place.

Titanic: The New Evidence

In January 2017, British television aired a program titled “Titanic: The New Evidence”.
During the program, it was claimed that new photographic evidence had recently come to light proving that Titanic suffered severe hull damage from a coal bunker fire, and that the damage could be seen from outside the ship on the day she left for her trials on April 2, 1912. 
The show featured journalist and Titanic author Senan Molony who already had a reputation of making  astonishing claims on certain historical subjects especially regarding Titanic. He made many unsupported claims about the coal fire severely damaging the ship, and that the fire was more of a culprit in the sinking than the iceberg itself. He also made claims that the White Star Line tried to cover up the supposed damage and sent Titanic out anyway. These claims were made plus many more and the show caused a media frenzy across the world.

Although there were amazing new photos of Titanic to surface, none of them show any evidence of damage to the hull as Molony claims. After the program was released, it didn’t take long for Titanic historians around the world to discredit the claims that were made.

The newly discovered photograph that Molony claimed to show evidence
of exterior damage to Titanic's hull caused by the coal bunker fire.
The "smudge" on Titanic's starboard side was proven to be an optical
illusion caused by the angle and contours of the ship's hull. The same illusion
also occurred with Olympic in certain photographs.

Curse or Blessing? 

First of all, there will always be someone or a group of people that will claim that Titanic sank in some other way than the iceberg collision, making claims that somehow the ship would have stayed afloat even after hitting the berg if a such and such thing hadn’t also happened. However, in reality, the iceberg damage was fatal enough to bring the ship down regardless of any other factors. The iceberg was the culprit. Nothing else.

As for the coal fire, if Titanic hadn’t sunk and had made it to New York, the minor damage that the fire caused to the bulkhead could have been repaired before the return voyage. It really was not that big of a deal. If the extra coal hadn’t been moved to the port side of the ship, the counterbalance effect during the sinking wouldn’t have happened, and Titanic would have indeed rolled over, sinking much faster and taking more lives. So, in my opinion, the coal bunker fire was more of a blessing than a curse, because it contributed to the saving of lives during the sinking.