The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

National News

April 11, 2012

Titanic’s sinking: Was it more than human folly

WASHINGTON — After an entire century that included two high-profile government investigations and countless books and movies, we’re still debating what really caused the Titanic to hit an iceberg and sink on that crystal-clear chilly night.

Maybe there’s more to blame than human folly and hubris. Maybe we can fault freak atmospheric conditions that caused a mirage or an even rarer astronomical event that sent icebergs into shipping lanes. Those are two of the newer theories being proposed by a Titanic author and a team of astronomers.

But the effort to find natural causes that could have contributed to the sinking may also be a quest for an excuse — anything to avoid gazing critically into a mirror, say disaster experts and Titanic historians.

New theories and research are important “but at its most basic what happened is they failed to heed warnings and they hit the iceberg because they were going too fast,” said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

With this week’s 100th anniversary of Titanic’s sinking, the interest in all things Titanic is steaming faster than the doomed cruise ship on its maiden voyage.

One of the novel new theories says Titanic could have been the victim of a mirage that is similar to what people see in the desert. It’s the brainchild of Tim Maltin, a historian who has written three books about Titanic. The latest, an e-book titled “A Very Deceiving Night” emphasizes how the atmosphere may have tricked the Titanic crew on a cloudless night.

“This was not avoidable human error,” Maltin said in a telephone interview from London. “It’s just about air density difference.”

It was a beautiful clear night and for a couple of days, there had been something strange going on in the air over the North Atlantic, reported by all sorts of ships, including the crew on Titanic, Maltin said.

The unusually cold sea air caused light to bend abnormally downward, Maltin said. The Titanic’s first officer, William McMaster Murdoch, saw what he described as a “haze on the horizon, and that iceberg came right out of the haze,” Maltin said, quoting from the surviving second officer’s testimony.

Other ships, including those rescuing survivors, reported similar strange visuals and had trouble navigating around the icebergs, he said.

British meteorologists later monitored the site for those freaky thermal inversions and said 60 percent of the time they checked, the inversions were present, Maltin said.

The same inversions could have made the Titanic’s rescue rockets appear lower in the sky, giving a rescue ship the impression that the Titanic was smaller and farther away, Maltin said.

Physicists Donald Olson and Russell Doescher at Texas State University have another theory in Sky &Telescope magazine that fits nicely with Maltin’s. Olson — who often comes up with astronomical quirks linked to historical events — said that a few months earlier, the moon, sun and Earth lined up in a way that added extra pull on Earth’s tides. The Earth was closer to the moon than it had been in 1,400 years.

They based their work on historical and astronomical records and research in 1978 by a federal expert in tides.

The unusual tides caused glaciers to calve icebergs off Greenland. Those southbound icebergs got stuck near Labrador and Newfoundland but then slowly moved south again, floating into the shipping currents just in time to greet the Titanic, the astronomers theorized. Maltin said the icebergs also added a snaking river of super-cold water that magnified the mirage effect.

Tides and mirages may have happened, but blaming them for Titanic’s sinking “misses the boat,” said Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University disaster expert and author of the book “Worst Cases.”

“The basic facts of Titanic are not in dispute: The boat was going too fast in dangerous waters,” Clarke said. If Titanic had stopped for the night because of ice like the British steamship Californian did, “tides and mirages wouldn’t have mattered.”

On April 14, the day it hit the iceberg, the Titanic received seven heavy ice warnings, including one from the Californian less than an hour before the fateful collision. The message said: “We are stopped and surrounded by ice.”  Titanic sent back a message that said “Shut up. We are busy.”

Clarke said people keep looking for additional causes “because if it’s nature or God, then we’re off the hook, morally and practically.”

Yale disaster expert Charles Perrow said he found the mirage theory plausible, especially because cold air played visual tricks that were a factor in a 1979 airplane crash in Antarctica that was originally blamed on pilot error.

Steven Biel, who wrote “Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster,” said he understands the search for other reasons.

“There’s something appealing about retrospectively gaining control over an event that’s centrally about uncertainty and contingency and lack of control,” he said.

 

1
Text Only
National News
  • Atlantic City Future.jpg Pain of Atlantic City casino closings far-reaching

    Yomary Blanco cleans rooms at Trump Plaza, one of three Atlantic City casinos that could shut down by September. Her husband works the buffet at the Showboat, which is scheduled to close on Aug. 31.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Obama Medal of Honor.jpg Obama bestows Medal of Honor on NH veteran

    President Barack Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor Monday on a former Army staff sergeant who fought off enemy fighters during one of the bloodiest battles of the Afghanistan war.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Obama LGBT employment rights.jpg Obama gives protection to gay, transgender workers

    President Barack Obama on Monday gave employment protection to gay and transgender workers in the federal government and its contracting agencies, after being convinced by advocates of what he called the “irrefutable rightness of your cause.”

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • James Garner Obit 2.jpg Film, TV legend James Garner, reluctant hero, dies

    Few actors could register disbelief, exasperation or annoyance with more comic subtlety.

    July 21, 2014 3 Photos

  • Gay Marriage Oklahoma_Cast.jpg US appeals court tosses Oklahoma's gay marriage ban

    A federal appeals court ruled Friday that Oklahoma must allow gay couples to wed, prompting a fast, angry response from leaders of a state that has vehemently fought policy changes brought on from outside its borders.

    July 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Ricin Letters Texas.jpg Texas woman who sent ricin gets 18 years in prison

    A Texas actress who tried to blame her husband after sending ricin-laced letters to officials including President Barack Obama was sentenced Wednesday to 18 years in prison.

    July 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Helicopter Dispute.jpg Senate derails Army bid to take Guard helicopters

    The Army has lost an initial Senate skirmish over a hotly disputed plan to take Apache attack helicopters away from National Guard units in a budget-cutting move that has infuriated governors and state military leaders.

    July 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Fashion-Nordstrom Dis_Cast.jpg Nordstrom ads feature models with disabilities

    It’s not easy to find models with disabilities in ads for the fashion and beauty industry — unless you look in the Nordstrom catalog.

    July 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • Peace Corps allowing its applicants more choice

    The Peace Corps launched a new online application Tuesday that allows applicants to choose the countries and programs where they want to serve and removes red tape that was dissuading people from completing the international service organization’s application process.

    July 15, 2014

  • House to take up highway bill as deadline looms

    With an August deadline looming, the House is poised to act on a bill that would temporarily patch over a multibillion-dollar pothole in federal highway and transit programs while ducking the issue of how to put the programs on sound financial footing.

    July 15, 2014