They said it was “unsinkable.” So how could the Titanic have sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic just four days into its maiden voyage?
Everyone agrees that a luxury liner set sail on April 10, 1912, and sank five days later, taking the lives of around 1,500 of the 2,223 aboard. But that’s pretty much where the consensus ends. Some insist the ship that sank wasn’t the Titanic, but rather, the nearly identical R.M.S. Olympic. As the story goes, the Olympic had been damaged in an accident the year before, but in order to score a bigger insurance payoff, the ships’ common owners passed off the Olympic as the Titanic and then deliberately sank it. While there are lots of holes in this Titanic theory, serial numbers found on parts of the ship that didn’t sink support it.
A recent documentary offers credible evidence that the Titanic (let’s just call it that, for argument’s sake) had been damaged by a coal fire, which had been raging for three weeks before the ship even set sail. The damage would have weakened the hull of the ship, thus hastening the ship’s sinking when it collided with an iceberg. (If it collided with an iceberg, which is another Titanic mystery we discuss below.)
For decades, people believed that Captain Smith was speeding through the iceberg-heavy waters of the North Atlantic because he wanted the Titanic to cross the Atlantic faster than her sister ship, the Olympic. But in 2004, the Geological Society of America published an academic paper by engineer Robert H. Essenhigh with a different theory: It claimed the real reason the Titanic’s captain was speeding was to burn coal as quickly as possible in order to control the coal fire mentioned above. Did a full moon have something to do with the Titanic’s crash?
On September 1, 1985, oceanographer Robert Ballard discovered the wreckage 2.5 miles below the ocean surface, along with the surprising news that the ship had broken in two before sinking. Previously, everyone had thought that the ship sank intact after colliding with an iceberg while speeding recklessly through icy waters near the coast of Newfoundland. Ballard’s discovery led to a new theory: that the ship’s splitting into two pieces, which “may have been the difference between life and death,” was the result of design flaws and the skimping on quality materials by the owners and/or builders.
Most believe that the Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg on April 14 (regardless of other contributing factors). But not everyone. Some think that the Titanic was torpedoed by a German U-boat. This theory doesn’t seem all that far-fetched considering that three years later in 1915, a German U-boat did sink a passenger ship, the Lusitania. However, it’s possible that torpedo theorists are confusing the Titanic with the Lusitania. It’s also possible that they’re confusing the Titanic with the Olympic, which had sustained damage after colliding with a military vessel in 1911. Still, the presence of several other ships in the vicinity of the Titanic’s sinking leaves the question open.
Assuming the Titanic didn’t collide with, and wasn’t torpedoed by, another ship, it’s safe to believe that it hit an iceberg, right? Not necessarily. Professional mariner Captain L.M. Collins maintains that if the Titanic had hit an iceberg, it would have gone down in mere minutes. Instead, Collins and his followers believe that the Titanic must have hit a hidden floe of “pack ice” (multi-year-old sheets of ice floating near the ocean surface) that had made its way into the Atlantic from the Arctic Ocean. Collins points out discrepancies in eyewitness accounts, which may actually be due to various natural optical illusions. If only the crew had binoculars, right?
Surely, if the crew had binoculars, they would have seen the danger in time to change course. But the Titanic’s entire supply of binoculars was locked away in a storage compartment. And a crew member who had been transferred off the ship just before it set sail had the key. The crew member later claimed he “forgot” to hand over the key. But did he forget? Or did he deliberately hold onto it? And if so, was it to further the insurance fraud mentioned above? Or was it something else entirely?
Even without binoculars, the Titanic might have had time to change course before its collision if someone had warned the crew. But here’s the thing: Someone did warn the crew. An hour before the collision, a nearby ship, the S.S. Californian, had radioed to say that it had been stopped by “dense field ice.” However, the Titanic’s radio operator, Jack Phillips, never conveyed the warning to Captain Smith. Some say the message was deliberately conveyed as “non-urgent,” but we will never know for sure since Phillips went down with the ship.
This cruise liner was less than 20 kilometres away from where the Titanic sank. It sent a warning to the Titanic about the dangerously icy conditions, which may have been relayed as a non-urgent matter. Later, the Californian crew reportedly ignored the Titanic’s distress signals, although they claimed they were not aware of those signals because their radio operator had gone off duty. Did the Californian really not notice what was happening within plain view?
The Californian may not have been the only ship that ignored the Titanic’s distress signals. A Norwegian ship, the Samson, may have been nearby as well. In fact, some believe that the Samson was closer to the Titanic than the Californian but ignored her distress signals in order to avoid prosecution for illegal seal-hunting. This is a popular theory among defenders of the Californian’s captain, but whether it’s true remains a mystery.
Some who believe the Titanic took the place of the damaged Olympic blame financier J.P. Morgan, who was one of the owners of the company that owned both ships. Morgan was one of the wealthiest people on the planet at the time, and he wielded considerable power. In addition, he was a last-minute no-show on the Titanic’s sole voyage. Why did Morgan – and his entire family – not end up on the ship? Did he know what was going to happen? Did he plan it?
Some believe the sinking had nothing to do with insurance money, but rather that J.P. Morgan engineered the sinking to kill off his rivals, Jacob Astor, Isidor Straus and Benjamin Guggenheim, all of whom perished aboard. But how did Morgan plan to pull it off? Neither the insurance theory nor the murder theory takes that into account. What else would Morgan have needed to do in order to ensure his plan’s success?
“No matter what caused the Titanic to sink, such a massive loss of life could probably have been avoided if the ship had carried sufficient lifeboats for its passengers and crew,” notes History.com. So then why did the uber-luxury liner have only 20 lifeboats, the legal minimum? Why did the ship’s owners decide to ignore recommendations to carry 50 percent more lifeboats? If the sinking were “merely” an insurance scam, how can the devastating lack of lifeboats be explained? This seems to dovetail more with a murder plot. But it also could be nothing more than cost-cutting on the part of the ship’s owners.
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