Tricks of Fate Sank Two Great Liners

A travel disaster is usually a “cascading failure” situation involving multiple hazards, equipment failures, and human error. But ultimately, pure happenstance can be at fault. Murphy’s Law says if anything can possibly go wrong, it will. This is shown by the fate of RMS Titanic and by that of RMS Lusitania, as depicted in my novel Lusitania Lost.

Proximal causes of the Titanic tragedy—extreme speed, impaired visibility, wireless neglect and inadequate lifeboats—were not enough. Neither were the Lusitania’s drawbacks—inadequate warning, lack of an escort, munitions aboard and two explosions.

Of course, the prime causes are simple—ice and torpedoes—but those alone might not have done the job.

   In the Lusitania’s case, history records a single torpedo strike. But that alone can’t account for all the damage. A hit for’ard would have caused a bow list, causing the ship to go down slowly by the nose, if at all; surely not in 18 minutes! A hit in the sidelong coal bunker would explain the starboard list, which made the more-than-adequate lifeboats almost impossible to launch. But a single torpedo couldn’t do both, even if it struck the dividing compartment, which had fore and aft bulkheads with automatic doors.

No; to be so swiftly fatal, the “eel” had to strike precisely in the cargo hold, where a massive ammo explosion could reach and breach the side bunkers. Its location forward was due to U-boat Kapitan Schwieger’s error of reckoning when plotting the torpedo strike, in slightly underestimating his target’s speed. He logically would have aimed for the middle of the ship to reduce his chance of missing entirely. But the Lusi had not traveled quite so far by the time the paths met.

So, Fate intervenes unpredictably, causing the worst outcome—in this case, a world-changing one.

Aboard Titanic, a similar coincidence proved fatal. The scraping and buckling damage of the iceberg caused water to gush in and flood four of the five critical forward compartments. The fifth Division, boiler room #5 according to the testimony of a survivor, was only slightly compromised, with the inflow of water weak enough to be controlled by the room’s pumps. The watertight bulkhead designed to keep the sea at bay appeared to be working, at first as the boilers were shut down. Then a sudden torrent of water came rushing through, and the witness was sent topside to abandon ship.

Curiously, this bulkhead was the same one warped and penetrated by the heat of a coal fire, which had been discovered at sea. It smoldered in the two adjacent bunkers for days, to finally be put out that very afternoon. Whether the fire caused the bulkhead to fail, or whether the sea found some other way around it, we may never know. The point is that by sheer happenstance—unpredictable and uncontrollable—the iceberg somehow found the critical weak point, doing just enough damage to cause a final, fatal result.As with Lusitania. But in her case, the “unanswerable” questions are answered by my fictional characters, above and below decks in my historical romance LUSITANIA LOST, due out next month and available for pre-order at the vendors on this site.

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