New photographs suggest an alternate theory.

Ask anyone on the street why the Titanic sank and you’ll get the same answer: “It hit an iceberg.”

As explanations for catastrophes go, this one is concise and straightforward. It’s man versus nature, plain and simple. Thanks in no small part to the film, it’s this account of how things went down that fateful night in the North Atlantic that’s stuck in the popular imagination.

But according to new evidence brought to light by journalist and Titanic historian Senan Molony, it also might be wrong — or, at least, it may not be the whole story.

In his new documentary, “Titanic: The New Evidence,” Molony argues that while the collision with the iceberg undoubtedly played a role in sending the Titanic and more than 1,500 of her passengers to the bottom of the ocean, it was a smoldering coal fire, burning for days before the ship even set sail, that turned what would’ve otherwise been a survivable collision into a fatal one.

Photographs discovered in an attic in Wiltshire in southern England form the basis of the theory. Taken by the Titanic’s engineering chief only days before the ship left its yard in Belfast, the photos reveal a dark, 30-foot-long mark on the hull’s front, starboard side, very near where it would later collide with the iceberg.

One of the recovered Wiltshire photographs. | Steve Raffield

Molony brought the photographs to the engineers at the Imperial College of London where, upon analysis, they determined that the mark was mostly likely caused by a fire in one of the ship’s coal bunkers, a fire that began in Belfast and was still raging when the ship set sail from Southampton.

The theory of a coal fire aboard the Titanic, prior to its sinking, isn’t new. Spontaneous coal-fires have a well-documented history, but the photographs confirm for the first time what eyewitnesses had already suggested: that the blaze was raging in the belly of the ship even before she cast off. According to testimony from an anonymous officer who spoke to the New York Tribune only five days after the tragedy, not only was the fire burning “long before” the ship left Southampton, but the crew were instructed “not to talk about the disaster.”

Anonymous officer testimony. | New-York Tribune, April 20th, 1912

Why would anyone let a flaming ship out to sea? The White Star Line who financed the Titanic made sure it was widely publicized as the largest vessel afloat. Reader’s Digest proclaimed it “THE UNSINKABLE TITANIC.” So confident were the ship’s engineers in its network of watertight bulkheads that the decision was famously made to give her only 20 lifeboats, rather than her capacity of 48. The company readily warped this into a selling point via advertisements that boasted, without irony, “40% fewer lifeboats. 40% MORE DECKSPACE.”

Given the hype, to postpone the ship’s departure due to safety concerns would’ve been a financial and public relations disaster. But c’mon, who really NEEDS lifeboats anyway?

Titanic

See? Perfectly safe.

According to the documentary, the fire could’ve exacerbated the damage done by the iceberg in a few ways.

First, because coal fires burn incredibly hot and tenaciously, rather than try to extinguish it with traditional methods, firefighters on board were combating the blaze by burning up as much of the coal in the bunker as possible. The hope was that the conflagration would eventually die out for lack of fuel. This would’ve been a sensible idea except for one precarious side-effect. It forced the ship to move unconscionably fast through the icy waters off Newfoundland. Higher speed = harder collision. The ship’s speed at the time of the collision was 22.5 knots (about 25 mph). Her top speed was 23 knots.

The fire also may have diminished the structural integrity of the hull, particularly the watertight seal between the coal bunker and bulkhead. This not only made it easier for the iceberg to tear through the reinforced steel, but also made it impossible for the ship to stay afloat once it had. The testimony of lead stoker Frederick Barrett from the official inquiry into the calamity confirms:

Question: What was the condition of the bulkhead running through the bunker?

Barrett: It was damaged from the bottom.

Question: Badly damaged?

Barrett: The bottom of the watertight compartment was dinged aft and the other part was dinged forward.

Question: What do you attribute that to?

Barrett: The fire.

Question: Do you mean to say the firing of the coal would dinge the bulkhead?

Barrett: Yes.

Because it’s damn near impossible to put a positive spin on “1,500 people drowned or froze to death, and we absolutely could’ve prevented it,” Molony concludes the White Star Line downplayed the effects of the fire during the investigation in order to save face.

“It’s a perfect storm of extraordinary factors coming together: fire, ice and criminal negligence,” he says, but not everyone is so convinced.

David Hill, formerly of the British Titanic Society, has come out against the theory. “When the Titanic hit the iceberg … it created a 300-foot-long line of damage on the starboard section,” he explained to The New York Times. “There certainly was a fire. Was it a life-changer? It’s my personal opinion that it didn’t make a difference.”

Regardless of what ultimately torpedoed the largest ship ever to sail, the magnitude of the tragedy and its overseers’ heedless stupidity is undeniable. Whichever way you slice it, it seems like the unsinkable ship was actually doomed from the start.