Thirty-second judgement call led to sinking of Titanic
Published 04/12/2011 | 05:00
IT was a half-minute that might have saved the world's largest passenger liner and nearly 1,500 lives.
When the officer in charge of the Titanic was warned that an iceberg had been spotted in its path, he waited 30 seconds before changing course, a study has concluded.
Had William Murdoch taken action immediately, the liner and 1,496 lives might well have been been saved.
The finding comes from a study for the centenary of the disaster next year. Investigators reappraised the 1912 Wreck Commission inquiry in light of research and evidence that has emerged since then.
The conclusion overturns the original verdict, which found that Murdoch, the first officer, steered away immediately but could not avert catastrophe because the iceberg had been spotted too late.
Researchers believe the reason that Murdoch hesitated before giving the order "hard a starboard" was that he thought the Titanic might be able to pass by the hazard and that if he altered direction he might increase the risk to the ship by swinging its stern towards the obstacle.
According to the 1912 findings, the iceberg was sighted about 1,500ft ahead of the ship and the collision followed 37 seconds later.
The inquiry found that the ship's course was altered "almost instantaneously" after the lookout rang a bell three times -- the warning of an obstacle straight ahead -- and telephoned the bridge to say an iceberg had been spotted.
This has been the accepted version of events, depicted in the 1997 film Titanic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
However, the latest research establishes that the iceberg was spotted when it was 2,000ft away, almost a minute before the impact, and that the ship held its course for around half of that time.
The researchers based this on the testimony of two individuals: Frederick Fleet, the lookout, and Robert Hichens, the sailor at the wheel.
They also considered the witness statement of a third sailor, Alfred Olliver, who described leaving his post when he heard the bells and reaching the bridge just as the ship struck the iceberg. An analysis of his route shows that it would have taken him around 60 seconds.
Samuel Halpern, an American Titanic expert who has led the study, Report Into The Loss Of The SS Titanic: A Centennial Reappraisal, said: "If the first officer had reacted sooner -- maybe even 15 seconds sooner -- the ship would have missed the iceberg.
"I believe it was a delay so that he could see whether the ship was going to miss the iceberg without the need for turning. It was a judgement call and he misjudged.
"I don't think we can blame him. The first officer was correct in trying to ascertain whether the ship was going to miss the iceberg by itself, which would have been the best approach, as steering away could have meant it hit further back."
The researchers found that Murdoch had been involved in a similar incident in 1903 on another ship, the Arabic, which narrowly missed another vessel after he correctly decided to maintain course, rather than turning his vessel away.
The study is also supported by technical data -- not fully available at the time -- into the turning capacity of the ship, which established that it had been steering away from the iceberg for only 20 seconds before the collision.
Murdoch, 39, died in the sinking. In the 1997 film he commits suicide, having shot two passengers trying to storm a lifeboat. However, there is no evidence to support this.
After the collision, Murdoch led passengers from the ship and is credited with helping to launch 10 lifeboats.
He was last seen attempting to launch another raft in the ship's final moments.