Engineering Disasters: RMS Titanic (1912)

RMS Titanic was the biggest, most luxurious and the most expensive ship on the waters back in 1912. This is a ship which was widely advertised as unsinkable, a statement which came back to haunt the owners!

RMS titanic 1912 life buoy

Sinking of the Titanic

Some of the most prominent people of the day booked a passage aboard the “fortress” which was RMS Titanic for its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City, USA. Despite the fact it was said to be unsinkable, on just the fifth day into its maiden voyage the Titanic struck an iceberg. This caused immeasurable damage and the ship sunk to the bottom of the ocean at frightening speed. This now infamous disaster saw 1,500 lives lost making it one of the deadliest commercial maritime disasters in modern history. Even today historians and the general public are mesmerised by the speed at which the ship sunk and why this happened.

RMS TitanicStructure of the Titanic

The Titanic had 16 primary watertight compartments which were divided by 15 bulkheads that extended well above the waterline. Eleven vertically closing watertight doors could seal off the compartments in the event of an emergency. In simple terms, the structure of the Titanic with its 16 watertight compartments should not have sunk. The compartments which were holed by the iceberg should have been sealed at the first sign of trouble which would have maintained the structural integrity of the ship, as designed. So what happened?

Why did the Titanic sink?

History now shows us that the 16 watertight compartments were only watertight below the waterline. In what could be seen as a freak situation, when inrushing water from the side of the ship caused the Titanic to heel, the water was able to flood the adjacent compartments. As these compartments were not sealed above the waterline the weight of water filling the compartments weighed the ship down. As the ship began to list to one side even more compartments began to flood which exacerbated the damage.

The Titanic was originally designed to stay afloat with as many as 4 compartments flooded but the iceberg strike on the side of the hull resulting in 5 compartments being flooded. So looking back if that fifth compartment had not been flooded there is every chance that the structural integrity of the Titanic would have been maintained and disaster averted. Compounding the situation was the single sump pump which was unable to keep up with the amount of water rushing into the flooded compartments.

Confusion and mayhem

While it was unfortunate that the structural integrity of the Titanic was compromised as the fifth watertight compartment was flooded, there were other factors which added to the severity of the disaster. Like other vessels of her time RMS Titanic did not have a permanent crew. The vast majority of crew members were casual workers who only came aboard the ship a few hours before she sailed from Southampton.

The temporary crew had very little time to get to know procedures and the structure of the ship and were ill-prepared for any emergency – let alone the sinking of the ship on its maiden voyage. As the Titanic and other similar ships were seen as unsinkable the lifeboats were only intended to transfer passengers to nearby rescue vessels. Unfortunately, the Titanic only had enough lifeboats to carry about half of the people on board the ship.

Titanic sinking grafitti

Compounding the issue

The crew had not been adequately trained to carry out an evacuation and even the officers did not know how many people each lifeboat could hold. This confusion saw some life boats launched barely half full with the remaining passengers left to fend for themselves.  A large number of passengers and staff were trapped below decks as the ship filled with water and with nowhere to go their fate was sealed. While there were many reasons to criticise the structure and organisation surrounding the Titanic, history shows us that the policy of loading the “women and children first” was followed to the letter. As a consequence, most of the male passengers and crew were left aboard and subsequently drowned, going down with the “unsinkable” Titanic.

Mitigation

After the disaster there were three recommendations made by both the British and American Boards of Inquiry.

  1. Ships should carry enough lifeboats for all aboard, mandated lifeboat drills would be implemented and lifeboat inspections would be conducted. Many of these recommendations were incorporated into the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea passed in 1914.
  2. The United States government passed the Radio Act of 1912. This act stated that radio communications on passenger ships would be operated 24 hours a day, along with a secondary power supply, so as not to miss distress calls. The Radio Act of 1912 required ships to maintain contact with vessels in their vicinity as well as coastal onshore radio stations.
  3. The disaster also led to the formation and international funding of the International Ice Patrol, an agency of the United States Coast Guard, that to the present day monitors and reports on the location of North Atlantic Ocean icebergs which might pose a threat to transatlantic sea traffic. Since its inception there has not been a single reported loss of life or property due to collision with an iceberg in the patrol area.

About: William Tyrell

Mr. Tyrrell has over 40 years of project management, design and engineering experience in industries as diverse as ports, bulk handling facilities, offshore production and drilling, petrochemical and refineries, bauxite and nickel mining, mineral concentrators, pressure vessel fabrication, wood products, pulp and paper, microelectronics, and food processing.

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