Titanic loss laid mainly to brittle steel used in hull

September 16, 1993|By New York Times News Service

A new analysis by maritime experts has concluded that the disastrous loss of the Titanic was caused not so much by an iceberg as by structural weaknesses in the ship's steel plates that caused them to fail catastrophically.

A better grade of steel, the analysis concludes, would have reduced the extensive fracturing and allowed the ship to remain afloat or to flood more slowly, perhaps saving many lives if rescue ships had arrived before the sinking.

About 1,500 people died when the Titanic went down in the North Atlantic in 1912 on her maiden voyage.

The new analysis is based on physical and photographic clues gathered by five expeditions to the shattered hulk of the luxury liner, which lies in water more than two miles deep. It also draws on a study of the fates of the Titanic's sister ships, the Olympic and the Britannic, both of which showed brittle damage after one collided with a British warship in 1911 and the other was hit by a torpedo in World War I.

The culprit was found to be a process known as brittle fracture, in which low-grade steel breaks violently when chilled rather than bending. In the case of the Titanic, the hull was cooled to about 31 degrees Fahrenheit by the icy Atlantic.

"The problem was the plates being weak rather than the iceberg being strong," said William H. Garzke, the lead author of the analysis.

"Not all ships of the time were built with brittle plate. But by the standards of the day, it was probably all right" for the ship's owner, the White Star Line, to have used steel that would be scorned today.

Mr. Garzke is a senior naval architect at Gibbs & Cox Inc., a New York firm of naval architects and marine engineers. He and four collaborators are presenting their analysis today at the centennial meeting of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers in New York City.

"The real tragedy of the Titanic," the team concludes in its paper, is that better construction techniques and "a better quality of steel plate might have averted her loss or resulted in an even slower rate of flooding that may have saved more passengers and crew."

In a twist, the analysis holds that the rumbles and roars heard by survivors on the night of the sinking were caused not so much by shifting gear and boiler explosions as by the fracturing of huge amounts of brittle steel.

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