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Many alternative stories to the sinking of the ocean liner Titanic have been put forward. The accepted reason for the sinking, which resulted in the death of 1,517 passengers and crew, is that the ship struck an iceberg at 11.40pm on 14 April 1912, buckling the hull and allowing water to enter the ship’s first five watertight compartments (one more than the Titanic was designed to survive), and sank two hours and 40 minutes later. Hypotheses which have been suggested as the cause of the disaster include unsafe speed, an insurance scam, an ice-pack rather than an iceberg, and even a curse on the ship by the Unlucky Mummy. Further theories arose after a journalist had a heart attack whilst on board the 2012 commemorative cruise that followed the same journey 100 years later.
In 2003, Captain L. M. Collins, a former member of the Ice Pilotage Service, published The Sinking of the Titanic: The Mystery Solved proposing, based upon his own experience of ice navigation and witness statements given at the two post-disaster enquiries, that what the Titanic hit was not an iceberg but low-lying pack ice. He based his conclusion upon three main pieces of evidence.
Ohio State University engineer Robert Essenhigh released a theory in November 2004 that claims a coal fire led indirectly to the iceberg collision. He claims a pile of stored coal had started to smoulder, to get control over that situation, more coal was put into the furnaces, leading to unsafe speeds in the iceberg-laden waters.
Essenhigh states that records prove that fire control teams were on standby at the ports of Cherbourg and Southampton because of a fire in the stockpile, and that such fires are known to reignite after they have been supposedly extinguished. He suggests that the Titanic actually set off from Southampton with one of its bunkers on fire, or that a spontaneous combustion of coal occurred after the ship left port. Such fires were a common phenomenon aboard coal-fired ships and one of many reasons why marine transportation switched to oil in the early 1900s. It is similarly theorised that such a bunker fire was responsible for the explosion of the USS Maine in 1898, by setting off her powder magazines.
One of the most controversial and complex theories was put forward by Robin Gardiner in his book, Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank? In it, Gardiner draws on several events and coincidences that occurred in the months, days, and hours leading up to the sinking of the Titanic, and concludes that the ship that sank was in fact Titanic's sister ship Olympic, disguised as Titanic, as an insurance scam.
Olympic was the older sister of Titanic, built alongside the more famous vessel but launched in October 1910. Her exterior profile was nearly identical to Titanic, save for minor details such as the number of portholes on the forward C decks of the ships, the spacing of the windows on the B decks, and the forward section of the A deck promenade on Titanic that had been enclosed a few weeks before she set sail on her ill-fated maiden voyage.
On 20 September 1911, the Olympic was involved in a collision with the Royal Navy Warship HMS Hawke in the Brambles Channel near Southampton. The two ships were close enough to each other that Olympic's motion drew the Hawke into her after starboard side, causing extensive damage to the liner - both above and below its waterline (HMS Hawke was fitted with a re-inforced 'ram' below the waterline, purposely designed to cause maximum damage to enemy ships). An Admiralty inquiry assigned blame to the Olympic, despite numerous eye-witness accounts to the contrary.
Gardiner's theory plays out in this historical context. As Olympic was found to blame in the collision (which, according to Gardiner, had damaged the central turbine's mountings and the keel), White Star's insurers Lloyds of London allegedly refused to pay out on the claim. White Star's flagship would also be out of action during any repairs, and the Titanic's completion date would have to be delayed. All this would amount to a serious financial loss for the company. Gardiner proposes that, to make sure at least one vessel would be earning money, Olympic was then converted to become the Titanic. The real Titanic when complete would then quietly enter service as the Olympic.
Gardiner states that few parts of either ship bore the name, other than the easily removed lifeboats, bell, compass binnacle, and name plates. The plan, Gardiner suggests, was to dispose of the badly damaged Olympic in a way that would allow White Star to collect the full insured value of a brand new ship. He supposes that the seacocks were to be opened at sea to slowly flood the ship. If numerous ships were stationed nearby to take off the passengers, the shortage of lifeboats would not matter as the ship would sink slowly and the boats could make several trips to the rescuers.
Gardiner uses as evidence the length of Titanic's sea trials. Olympic's trials in 1910 took two days, including several high speed runs, but Titanic's trials reportedly only lasted for one day, with (Gardiner alleges) no working over half-speed. Gardiner says this was because the patched-up hull could not take any long periods of high speed.
Gardiner maintains that on 14 April, Officer Murdoch (who was not officially on duty yet) was on the bridge because he was one of the few high-ranking officers who knew of the plan and was keeping a watch out for the rescue ships. One of Gardiner's most controversial statements is that the Titanic did not strike an iceberg, but an IMM rescue ship that was drifting on station with its lights out. Gardiner based this hypothesis on the idea that the supposed iceberg was seen at such a short distance by the lookouts on the Titanic because it was actually a darkened ship, and he also does not believe an iceberg could inflict such sustained and serious damage to a steel double-hulled (sic) vessel such as the Titanic.
Gardiner further hypothesises that the ship that was hit by the Titanic was the one seen by the Californian firing distress rockets, and that this explains the perceived inaction of the Californian (which traditionally is seen as failing to come to the rescue of the Titanic after sighting its distress rockets). Gardiner's hypothesis is that the Californian was not expecting rockets, but a rendezvous. The ice on the deck of the Titanic is explained by Gardiner as ice from the rigging of both the Titanic and the mystery ship she hit. As for the true Titanic, Gardiner alleges that she spent 25 years in service as the Olympic.
Simple reference to Board of Trade regulations of 1912 will confirm that rockets fired as they were from the Titanic, in intervals greater than one minute apart, did not signify distress. This being so, the Californian was completely correct in her inaction.
Researchers Bruce Beveridge and Steve Hall took issue with many of Gardiner's claims in their book, Olympic and Titanic: The Truth Behind the Conspiracy. Author Mark Chirnside has also raised serious questions about the switch theory.
It should be noted that the Titanic and Olympic were not fully insured. Lloyd's of London did not have sufficient underwriters in the insurance world of over a century ago to offer full coverage. In this case, an insurance scheme seems highly unlikely to yield adequate payout. Numerous expert historians and builder's documents affirm that a multitude of subtle differences in construction of the two ships makes a switch improbable to have gone undetected. While few components bore the ships names, most were cast or stamped with the builder's designated hull numbers, again making a switch unlikely.
The Titanic's mummy curse is an urban legend, possibly based on a Priestess of Ammon-Ra who lived in 1050 B.C. According to legend, after the 1890s discovery of her mummy in Egypt, the purchaser of the mummy ran into serious misfortune. The mummy was then reportedly donated to the British Museum where it continued to cause mysterious problems for visitors and staff. The mummy was eventually purchased by journalist William Thomas Stead, who dismissed the claims of a curse as quirks of circumstance. The legend claims that he arranged for the mummy to be concealed on the underside of his car for fear that it would not be taken aboard the Titanic because of its reputation. He reportedly revealed to other passengers the presence of the mummy the night before the accident.
Official records state that the British Museum never received the mummy, only the lid of its sarcophagus (which is on display at the museum and known as the "Unlucky Mummy"). Additionally, except during war and special exhibits abroad, the lid has not left the Egyptian room.
Another theory involves Titanic's watertight doors. This theory suggests that if these doors had been opened, the Titanic would have sunk on an even keel and therefore, perhaps, remained afloat long enough for rescue ships to arrive. However, this theory appears to be far from reality for two reasons: first, there were no watertight doors between any of the first four compartments,[clarification needed] thus it was impossible to lower the concentration of water in the bow significantly. Second, Bedford and Hacket have shown by calculations that any significant amount of water aft of boiler room No.4 would have resulted in capsizing of the Titanic, which would have occurred about 30 minutes earlier than the actual time of sinking. Additionally, the lighting would have been lost about 70 minutes after the collision due to the flooding of the boiler rooms. Bedford and Hacket also analysed the hypothetical case that there were no bulkheads at all. Then, the vessel would have capsized about 70 minutes before the actual time of sinking and lighting would have been lost about 40 minutes after the collision.
Later, in a 1998 documentary titled Titanic: Secrets Revealed, the Discovery Channel ran model simulations which also rebut this theory. The simulations indicated that opening Titanic's watertight doors would have caused the ship to capsize earlier than she actually sank by more than one half hour, confirming the findings of Bedford and Hacket.
Titanic researchers continue to debate the causes and mechanics of Titanic's breakup. In his 1955 book A Night to Remember, Walter Lord described Titanic as assuming an “absolutely perpendicular” position before its final plunge. This view remained largely unchallenged even after the wreck’s discovery in 1985 confirmed that the ship had broken in two pieces at or near the surface; paintings by noted marine artist Ken Marschall as well as James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic depicted the ship attaining a steep angle prior to the breakup. Most researchers acknowledged that Titanic's after expansion joint—designed to allow for flexing of the hull in a seaway—played little to no role in the ship’s breakup, though debate continued as to whether the ship had broken from the top downwards (like a stick) or from the bottom upwards (like a cardboard tube).
In 2005, a History Channel expedition to the wreck site scrutinised two large sections of Titanic's keel, which constituted the portion of the ship's bottom from immediately below the site of the break. With assistance from naval architect Roger Long, the team analysed the wreckage and developed a new break-up scenario which was publicised in the 2006 television documentary Titanic’s Final Moments: Missing Pieces. One hallmark of this new theory was the claim that Titanic's angle at the time of the breakup was far less than had been commonly assumed — according to Long, no greater than 11°.
Long also suspected that Titanic's breakup may have begun with the premature failure of the ship’s after expansion joint, and ultimately exacerbated the loss of life by causing Titanic to sink faster than anticipated. In 2006, the History Channel sponsored dives on Titanic's younger sister ship, Britannic, which verified that the design of Britannic's expansion joints was superior to that incorporated in the Titanic. To further explore Long’s theory, the History Channel commissioned a new computer simulation by JMS Engineering. The simulation, whose results were featured in the 2007 documentary Titanic’s Achilles Heel, partially refuted Long’s suspicions by demonstrating that Titanic's expansion joints were strong enough to deal with any and all stresses the ship could reasonably be expected to encounter in service and, during the sinking, actually outperformed their design specifications. But, most important is that the expansion joints were part of the superstructure, which was situated above the strength deck (B-deck) and therefore above the top of the structural hull girder. Thus, the expansion joints had no meaning for the support of the hull.
Brad Matsen's 2008 book Titanic's Last Secrets endorses the expansion joint theory.
One common oversight is the fact that the collapse of the first funnel at a relatively shallow angle occurred when the forward expansion joint, over which several funnel stays crossed, opened as the hull was beginning to stress. The opening of the joint stretched and snapped the stays. The forward momentum of the ship as it took a sudden lurch forward and downward sent the unsupported funnel toppling onto the starboard bridge wing.
One theory that would support the fracturing of the hull is that the Titanic partly grounded on the shelf of ice below the waterline as she collided with the iceberg, perhaps damaging the keel and underbelly. Later during the sinking, it was noticed that Boiler Room #4 flooded from below the floor grates rather than from over the top of the watertight bulkhead. This would be consistent with additional damage along the keel compromising the integrity of the hull.
Some extreme Titanic theorists claim that the Titanic was destroyed by a German U-boat, which fired a torpedo. They say this was done to collect on the insurance policy. The U-boat commander, who had agreed to take part in the plot, was reportedly related to one of the Titanic’s owners. But this theory is not backed by any solid evidence. Both the passengers and the crew would have noticed a torpedo striking the ship. Furthermore, World War I, in which both Britain and Germany took part, would only begin two years later, in 1914.