107 #79: Titanic’s boilers exploded as she sank

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FALSE. This was a misconception brought about by witnesses such as Able Seaman Frank Osman, who said that he heard, and saw, an explosion as the ship sank which he thought was caused by cold seawater cracking the hot boilers. Osman remembers that the smoke came up through the funnels along with pieces of coal, which made him think that the boilers had exploded. However, Robert Ballard, who discovered the wreck lying in two sections on the seabed, found the boilers more or less intact, making it impossible that they had exploded. The noise of an ‘explosion’ which Osman and others heard was actually the noise of Titanic breaking up and everything on her breaking loose and crashing through the ship, as she tipped up before her final plunge.

Boilers are unlikely to explode on contact with cold seawater, although many believed this was the case. A far more likely cause of boiler explosions is a build-up of steam, but this was prevented by the safety valves on the boilers and by the quick action of the firemen, who managed to draw the fires from all the lit boilers, although they were soon up to their knees in water. Titanic’s engines appear to have run for a few minutes following the collision, according to greaser Frederick Scott, but after she stopped the safety valves lifted, letting a great deal of steam off as the lifeboats were being loaded and producing the loud noise which made communication on the boat deck almost impossible.

Archibald Gracie put the same ‘explosion’ noise down to machinery and furniture falling through the ship and smashing through the transverse watertight bulkheads as they went. Lawrence Beesley, in his book The Loss of the Titanic, also attributed the noise to machinery falling through the ship, describing the noise as a sustained kind of crash:

‘…[T]here came a noise which many people, wrongly I think, have described as an explosion… It was partly a groan, partly a rattle, and partly a smash, and it was not a sudden roar as an explosion would be; it went on successively for some seconds, possibly fifteen to twenty… It was as if all the heavy things one could think of had been thrown downstairs from the top of a house, smashing each other and the stairs and everything in the way.’

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

One comment

  1. Actually, Dr Ballard only discovered the single-ended boilers (of which there were five in Boiler Room No 1) in the debris field. These showed no signs of having ‘imploded’ becuase they were not in use at the time of the collision.

    The ship’s lights remained on until almost the very end, This uggests that steam was still being produced (most likely from Boiler Room No 2 as it was furthest away from the collision). As the ship’s hull fractured, sea water would have poured in and come into contact with the hot boilers, resulting in an implosion (the noise of which would possibly have been drowned out by the overall cacophony of the break-up), resulting in the boilers themselves being crushed. This might explain why none of the boilers from Boiler Room No 2 have been found in the debris field (despite being in the area affected by the ‘break-up’).

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