107 #14: Titanic was on fire when she left Southampton

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Titanic Southampton fire

TRUE. The fire may have started as early as Tuesday 2nd April, when the Titanic was still in Belfast, in the coal bunker between No. 5 and No. 6 boiler rooms. The crew began to extinguish the fire by raking the burning coal out of the bunker during their first watch after leaving Southampton on Wednesday 10th April, 1912, but the fire was not completely extinguished until Saturday 13th April, as testified by Fireman Charles Hendrickson:

5232: ‘Do you remember a fire in a coal bunker on board this boat?’
‘Yes.’
5233: ‘Is it a common occurrence for fires to take place on boats?’
‘No.’
5234: ‘It is not common?’
‘No.’
5235: ‘How long have you been on a White Star boat?’
‘About five years.’
5236: ‘When did you last see a fire in a coal bunker?’
‘I never saw one before.’
5237: ‘It has been suggested that fires in coal bunkers are quite a common occurrence, but you have been five years in the White Star line and have not seen a fire in a coal bunker?’
‘No.’
5238: ‘Did you help to get the coal out?’
‘Yes.’
5239: ‘Did you hear when the fire commenced?’
‘Yes, I heard it commenced at Belfast.’
5240: ‘When did you start getting the coal out?’
‘The first watch we did from Southampton we started to get it out.’
5241: ‘How many days would that be after you left Belfast?’
‘I do not know when she left Belfast to the day.’ 5242: ‘It would be two or three days, I suppose?’
‘I should say so.’
5243: ‘Did it take much time to get the fire down?’
‘It took us right up to the Saturday to get it out.’ 5244: ‘How long did it take to put the fire itself out?’ ‘The fire was not out much before all the coal was out.’
5245: ‘The fire was not extinguished until you got the whole of the coal out?’
‘No. I finished the bunker out myself, me and three or four men that were there. We worked everything out.’
5246: ‘The bulkhead forms part of the bunker—the side?
‘Yes, you could see where the bulkhead had been red hot.’
5247: ‘You looked at the side after the coal had been taken out?’
‘Yes.’
5248: ‘What condition was it in?’
‘You could see where it had been red hot; all the paint and everything was off. It was dented a bit.’ 5249. ‘It was damaged, at any rate?’
‘Yes, warped.’
5250: ‘Was much notice taken of it. Was any attempt made to do anything with it?’
‘I just brushed it off and got some black oil and rubbed over it.’
5251: ‘To give it its ordinary appearance?’
‘Yes.’

Maurice Clark, Assistant Emigration Officer at the Board of Trade, inspected Titanic on Wednesday morning, 10th April, and failed to spot this fire. He said that it had not been reported to him and claimed that such fires were not unusual:

24119: ‘Was there any report made to you about a fire having taken place in the bunker in Section 5?’
‘No.’
24120: ‘In the ordinary case ought such a report to have been made to you if there was a serious fire before the ship sailed?’
‘Yes, if it was a serious fire it ought to have been reported to me.’
24121: ‘If it was sufficiently serious for it to be reported—if it was regarded as so serious by the Officer that it ought to be reported to the makers, would it, in your view, be sufficiently serious for a report to be made to you?’
‘Hardly, it is not an uncommon thing to have these small fires in the bunkers.’

Lightoller tried to portray the Inspector, Captain Clark, as a martinet, over-diligent in his duties, but it seems that this may have been one opportunity to stop Titanic leaving on her fatal maiden voyage, which was missed by the incompetent Board of Trade. As Captain Clark himself admitted at the British Inquiry, although this discussion was specifically dealing with poor lifeboat drills:

24166: ‘Then you do not think your system before this disaster was satisfactory?’
‘No, not very satisfactory.’ 24167: ‘Well, was it satisfactory?’
‘Well, I think we might with advantage—’
24168: ‘Will you answer the question: was it satisfactory?’
‘No.’ 24169: ‘It was your plan, nevertheless?’
‘My plan? No, it is the custom.’
24170: ‘Never mind about the custom; it is what you did?’
‘Yes.’
24171: ‘And you now do not think it is satisfactory?’
‘No.’
24172. ‘Did you think it satisfactory before the Titanic accident?’
‘Well, no.’
24173: ‘Then why did you do it?’
‘Because it is the custom.’
24174: ‘But do you follow custom, although it is bad?’
‘Well, you will remember I am a Civil Servant. Custom guides us a good bit.’
(The Commissioner): ‘Perhaps that is the answer.’

Although the fire made the bulkhead glow hot and left it slightly warped, naval architect Edward Wilding, one of Titanic’s designers, was very definite that despite its location, the fire wouldn’t have seriously damaged the bulkhead or contributed to the sinking. Although he had not seen the fire himself, he said that it would have to be much more serious than anything that had been described to destroy the bulkhead’s watertight properties:

20409: ‘Now, just to clear up one matter about the bulkhead between No. 5 and 6 boiler section. You know there has been some confusion about a hole there, an injury to the bulkhead. Just tell me, you have heard this fire in the bulkhead described?’
‘I have.’
20410: ‘In your judgment would that injure the bulkhead as a watertight arrangement?’
‘Not materially. The evidence as to the actual character of the fire has not been very definite, but it would have to be a much more alarming fire than anything that has been described to destroy the watertightness of the bulkhead. It might weep very slightly a few bucketsfull an hour, that could easily be handled by the pumps.’
20411: ‘It did not materially affect it?’
‘Not materially.’

If you’d like to read the full book of101 Things You Thought You Knew About The Titanic…But Didn’t!, or any of my other books on Titanic, please visit my Author Page on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/tim-maltin/e/B005LNHYEQ/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_1

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