Color painting of the R.M.S. Titanic at sea.
Steel at Fault
Aftermath and Inquiry

New York Times article

New York Times, September 16, 1993

New Idea on Titanic Sinking Faults Teel as Main Culprit

By William J. Broad

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 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 loves if secure 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 waters 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.

Weak Plates Cited

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 hill was cooled to about 31 degreed Fahrenheit by the icy Atlantic.

“The problem was the plates being weak rather than the iceberg being strong.” William H. Garzke, the author of the analysis said in an interview, “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 and Cox, Inc., a New York firm of naval architects and marine engineers. He and four collaborators from other companies and institutions 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 a 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 the shifting gear and boiler explosions as by the fracturing of huge amounts of brittle steel.

Cracking Like Glass

When cooled and stressed, some types of relatively primitive steel fracture much like glass rather than bending or stretching as ductile materials do. Moreover, this type of breakage takes place with a very small expenditure of energy, which can be administered by an external blow or internal stress. The phenomenon is well known in shipbuilding and is avoided as a grave danger.

In the process of brittle fracture, a crack that starts in one part of a welding steel hull can pass can pass completely around it, causing a large ship to break in two.

In the decades of shipbuilding since the loss of the Titanic, Mr. Garzke noted, “we’ve learned a lot” about metals and how to make them safer for the extreme conditions of the sea.

The sinking of the Titanic is considered one of the worst disasters of the 20th century. The liner, the latest in luxury and engineering, supposedly unsinkable, was built by Harland and Wolff of Belfast, Northern Ireland. She was sailing from Southampton, England to New York when she hit an iceberg while traveling at 22 knots. Two hours and 40 minutes later, at 2:20 AM on April 15, she sank. Only 705 of her passengers survived.

Speculation still abounds as to why the Titanic met disaster. In recent years, five expeditions equipped with minisubmarines and advanced undersea robots have succeeded in viewing Titanic debris on the sea floor. The site was discovered in 1985 by Dr. Robert D. Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who revisited the ship in 1986. While Dr. Ballard took only photographs, expeditions in 1987, 1991 and 1993 took samples and artifacts. The ship lies in two large chunks some 2,000 feet apart.

No Evidence Yet of Gash

Contrary to the popular belief that a gash was ripped in the Titanic when she struck the iceberg, Dr. Ballard and his colleagues found no gash in their limited time of searching; deepening the mystery of what sank the ship. He speculated that the collision loosened or buckled seams in the hull, thereby flooding the liner. Many other theories have been put forward in a flood of books and articles.

The ship clearly fractured where it split in two, but the new analysis believes there were many other fractures, having been probably started by hitting the iceberg, that played a more important role in the sinking.

In addition to Mr. Garzke, the new analysis is by Dana R. Yoerger of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod; Stewart Harris of Marquest, Inc., a marine manufacturer in Bourne, Mass; Robert O. Dulin of the Basic Technology Corporation, naval consultants in Newington, VA; and David K. Brown, a former naval architect with the British Navy.

Crucial evidence of the Titanic’s propensity to brittle fracture, Mr. Garzke said, came from steel samples recovered in the 1987 an1991 expeditions and analyzed by the Bedford of Oceanography in Canada and the French Institute for Maritime Research and Exploration.
A separate line of evidence comes from damage to the Titanic’s sister ships. Mr. Garzke said photographs of the Olympic clearly show that she suffered from brittle fracture after colliding with the H.M.S Hawke, a British warship, in 1911. And the Brittanic had brittle damage after being struck by a German torpedo in World War I.