By Ken Rossignol
Titanic Speakers Bureau
Being at sea with a series of talks about the history, the people, the heroes of the Titanic was not only an exceptional honor and challenge but a thrill to be asked to bring the story alive in a way consistent with history and at the same time, to be meaningful to a modern audience. The huge Independence of The Seas is in many ways, a modern Titanic, with the chief difference being that this ship made it past its maiden voyage, without being on fire or sinking.
The similarities for the passengers is truly in the imagination. Imagining the grand staircase down which Mrs. J.J. Brown, the newly minted millionaire, flowed with her Missourian dignity intact, brings to mind the equally grand appointments of the Independence of the Seas. The three-story dining room with a grand piano to entertain during the evening meal harkens back to the plush dining room that seated hundreds on the Titanic.
The Independence of the Seas voyage had a majority of Brits traveling on their Easter season trip to warmth and sunshine in Spain and the Canaries. The voyage of the Titanic to New York two hundred years earlier certainly lacked any warm weather but it held the promise of reaching a land of opportunity and hope for so many who had sold their last belongings to get a fresh start in America and Canada.
As we traveled to ports in Portugal, Spain and the Canaries as well as Madeira, our sea days were the times in which my enrichment sessions on the Titanic were held. It is quite a challenge to go up against bingo and belly flop contests, which are often the chief entertainment on other ships, but this British crowd were a bit more intense as was the weather. Thus with as many as three hundred and fifty earnest listeners in attendance, I did the best I could to explain how the Titanic had been on fire from the time the ship left Southampton.
There had been a coal strike during the winter of 1911 and 1912 and coal was hoarded for this important maiden voyage. The final preparations of the ship had been delayed in order to provide repairs to the Olympic which had been damaged in a collision with the British cruiser Hawk. Therefore, an important protocol had not been followed, that of keeping the stored coal dampened. When the ship left port, deep down in the bowels of coal bunker number six, the coal self-ignited, as coal can do. Those who have BBQ grill charcoal at home should be cautious to keep their charcoal in a metal can with a lid on it or the same could happen to you. Many a shed fire has likely been blamed on electrical wiring when the truth might be that of spontaneous combustion of a bag of charcoal.
In any event, we know this startling information due to the testimony of the surviving crewmen of the Titanic who told the American and British hearings about what caused the ship had to sink about the fire.
Mr. J. Dilley of the Titanic said at the United States Senate Commerce Committee hearing in New York City, as was reported in the New York World the following day, that a crew of 12 had fought the fire in four hour shifts, around the clock. “We had made no headway,” he said. “We thought when we arrived in New York and got the passengers off, that we would have to bring a fireboat alongside to get the fire out.”
What is the significance of the fire? The fire burned the coal bunker six sidewalls in the same exact place where the ship came into collision with the iceberg and we had a vivid lesson in what heat does to metal when the hijacked airliners flew into the World Trade Center in 2001. More of the fire is covered in Bruce Caplan’s book, The Sinking of the Titanic and in my book, Titanic 1912.