The summer 1996 RMS Titanic, Inc., expedition was not a carnival of grave robbers, as some critics claim (see the September-October Naval History, pages 20-23). In reality, the project provided us all with a better understanding of how the ship sank. To be fair, George Tulloch, who is now the salvor of the ship, should be given credit for attempting to preserve a piece of our past and prevent others with access to the wreck from selling the artifacts for profit. By law, the artifacts Tulloch recovers cannot be sold. No artifacts have been taken from the bow and stem, because they are considered grave sites.
Near the end of August, the expedition crew attempted to raise a four-by- seven-meter piece of the hull. That the effort was unsuccessful is unfortunate, because it would have given people an even better understanding of the mighty forces that ripped the Titanic apart.
After writing an article on the sinking of the Titanic (September-October Naval History, pages 15-19), I was invited to participate in the expedition, which analyzed the wreck from scientific and engineering viewpoints. The French submersible Nautile made several 12,000- foot dives to determine iceberg damage, to find and identify some of the missing parts of the hull, and to study the bow and stem portions of the wreck in more detail. With the actual working drawings of shell plating, expansion joints, bulkheads, and the bridge deck (strength deck) for reference, we were able to reach some further conclusions concerning the ship’s demise.
Some steel plates of the wreckage— but not all—indicate brittle fracture. Some of the hull plates show a fair amount of ductility, which means that the steel failures can be attributed to a number of factors. Most important was the flooding, which created such a large bending moment in the hull that the subsequent stress around the second expansion joint was well beyond the breaking point of the steel. Other factors were the grain size of the steel, its oxygen, sulfur, and phosphorous content, and the riveted construction of the ship. Rivet holes were cold punched, and those surfaces were not reamed to remove micro cracks during construction. But at the time, no ship—even a welded one— could have withstood the forces that sank the Titanic.
We observed no damage to the hull from the iceberg and no evidence of a gash in those surfaces exposed on the sea bed from Cargo Hold No. 3 to Boiler Room No. 5. Sonar imaging helped to determine holes in the side of the ship below the mud line. Based on the working plans and the survivor testimonies of stokers George Beauchamp and Frederick Barrett, however, we now believe that the iceberg had a massive ledge that struck the ship intermittently about 13.5 to 15.5 feet above the keel. The collision sprung plates and broke caulking in one of the main plating seams, which allowed water to flow at various rates, depending on size of the opening and the draft. In addition, small fissures could have radiated from rivet holes in the area of contact.
The ship’s mean draft of 32.25 feet and a stern trim of 3 feet at the time of her iceberg encounter created a significant pressure differential, and as the ship sank deeper in the water that differential grew, causing an even greater flow of water. According to the evidence, the initial damage from the iceberg was no larger than 12.2 feet square, thus verifying calculations made by naval architect Edward Wilding after the disaster. Although this damage seems rather small, it spread over six watertight compartments. Furthermore, flooding could not be controlled with any of the material and equipment available on board the Titanic. Therefore, it was clear to Thomas Andrews, the chief naval architect from Harland and Wolff on board at the time, that the ship would sink within two hours.
This expedition also disproved several myths about the sinking process. First, evidence in the debris field indicates that the ship started to break up on the surface. Second, the theory that the iceberg cut a 300-foot gash into the Titanic hull can now be relegated to folklore; the ice did not penetrate the steel.
Third, the loud noises heard as the ship upended should not be attributed to boilers, pianos, dishes, and other items crashing through bulkheads. They were sounds from the tearing and mutilation of thousands of square feet of steel, as well as a steam explosion in Boiler Room No. 1, caused by hot furnaces and steam piping under 210 pounds per square inch of pressure coming in contact with 28-degree sea water.
In the final analysis, the Titanic was not designed to resist the massive forces of flooding in the hull. Given the evidence, even if lifeboats could have accommodated all on board, many lives still would have been lost.
Opinions differ concerning exploration of deep ocean wrecks such as the Titanic. Because emotions run so high with regard to this issue, perhaps international maritime law needs to be reevaluated as man becomes better able, with improved and more sophisticated deep-diving submersibles, to explore the oceans and their secrets.