Coal Bunker Fire

The fire in Titanic's coal bunker continues to smolder long after the ill fated ship sank beneath the waves. Over the years authors have speculated that the fire might have weakened the ship, hastening her demise. In this day we cannot conceive of a ship setting sail with a fire aboard, but the reality is that minor, smoldering fires were a fact of life in the age of coal. This paper looks at the testimony of some of the participants in an effort to return the discussion to the facts.

Two papers by The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers are widely used by Titanic researchers. They state that the fire in the coal bunker was so severe that "there was there was talk among the stokers that ... New York City fireboats might have to be called to help extinguish it":

Spontaneous combustion of coal had caused a stubborn fire in the starboard bunker in the aft corner of Boiler Room No. 6. Fireman J. Dilley testified before the American inquiry held by Senator Smith of Michigan[3] that he had been among 12 men assigned to fight this coal bunker fire. The coal on top of the bunker was wet, but the bottom of the pile was dry. The coal pile began to smolder. The fire was detected from its sulfurous odor during the ship's departure from Southampton on her maiden voyage. It is uncertain how long this fire had burned, but from testimony of surviving stokers at the inquiries, it appears that it burned for at least 72 hours. The 12-man crew made every effort to put it out. Those fighting the fire were alarmed at their inability to extinguish it. The engineering officers instructed these men not to converse with the passengers so as not to alarm them.
Mr. Dilley indicated in his testimony before the Mersey Inquiry, concerning this fire, that while it was still burning, there was talk among the stokers that once the passengers were put ashore, New York City fireboats might have to be called to help extinguish it. As a precautionary measure to prevent a coal pile fire in the forward starboard bunker of Boiler Room No. 5 through heat transfer, the coal there was also fed into the furnaces. It is believed that the fire was extinguished during the evening watch (4-8 P.M.) on Saturday, April 13, by a combination of wetting down the coal pile with a fire hose and ultimately removing the burning coal into the furnaces.
During the period the fire burned, steel in the lower corner of the transverse watertight bulkhead between Boiler Room Nos. 5 and 6 ultimately became cherry red[4]. ...

[3] Pages 96-102 of "Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic" by Marshall Evertt, [copyright] L. H. Walter, 1912.
[4] From the testimony of Leading Fireman Charles Hendrickson at the Mersey Inquiry.

Garzke, et al, Titanic, The Anatomy of a Disaster -- A Report from the Marine Forensic Panel (SD-7), The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, Annual Meeting Technical Sessions, 1997, page 1-4. document in PDF format

The fire in the reserve coal bunker. When the Titanic left Belfast for Southampton, a fire occurred in the reserve coal bunker, which was located just forward of Boiler Room No. 6. This fire raged until it was finally extinguished the day before the ship sank, but was serious enough that it was planned to have the New York City Fire Department extinguish it once the ship arrived in New Youk Harbor. ...

Garzke, et al, The Titanic and Lusitania: A Final Forensic Analysis, Marine Technology, The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, October 1996, page 249-250.

Using the search facilities of The Titanic Inquiry Project (TIP) I have been unable to locate any reference to fireboats, New York firefighting contingencies, "sulfurous" odors, "cherry red" bulkhead plating, or many of the details mentioned above. Fireman Dilley did not testify at either inquiry. Further, neither of the two bunker fire location given in the Garzke papers is consistent with the testimony.


The last paragraph of the first Garzke paper indicates that the fire was so hot that the bulkhead glowed "cherry red", to citing the testimony of Leading Fireman Charles Hendrickson as the source. Hendrickson joined Titanic at Southampton, having previously served aboard White Star's Oceanic. Here is Hendrickson's actual testimony:

5232 [Mr. Lewis] Do you remember a fire in a coal bunker on board this boat? - [Hendrickson] Yes.

Is it a common occurrence for fires to take place on boats? - No.

It is not common? - No.

How long have you been on a White Star boat? - About five years.

When did you last see a fire in a coal bunker? - I never saw one before.

It has been suggested that fires in coal bunkers are quite a common occurrence, but you have been five years in the White Star line and have not seen a fire in a coal bunker? - No.

Did you help to get the coal out? - Yes.

Did you hear when the fire commenced? - Yes, I heard it commenced at Belfast.

When did you start getting the coal out? - The first watch we did from Southampton we started to get it out.

How many days would that be after you left Belfast? - I do not know when she left Belfast to the day.

It would be two or three days, I suppose? - I should say so.

Did it take much time to get the fire down? - It took us right up to the Saturday to get it out.

How long did it take to put the fire itself out? - The fire was not out much before all the coal was out.

The fire was not extinguished until you got the whole of the coal out? - No. I finished the bunker out myself, me and three or four men that were there. We worked everything out.

5246 The bulkhead forms part of the bunker - the side? - Yes, you could see where the bulkhead had been red hot.

You looked at the side after the coal had been taken out? - Yes.

5248 What condition was it in? - You could see where it had been red hot; all the paint and everything was off. It was dented a bit.

It was damaged, at any rate? - Yes, warped.

Was much notice taken of it. Was any attempt made to do anything with it? - I just brushed it off and got some black oil and rubbed over it.

To give it its ordinary appearance? - Yes.

You are not a professional expert and would not be able to express an opinion as to whether that had any effect on the collision? - I could not say that.

British Inquiry, Day 5, Hendrickson

Hendrickson's testimony does not use the phrase "cherry red" nor does it describe the color of the bulkhead, rather he says, "you could see where the bulkhead had been red hot" [#5246, #5248]. It was obviously cool by the time Hendrickson rubbed oil on it [#5248]. In fact, the only appearance of the word "cherry" that I can find in any of the documents at TIP is the name of Miss Gladys Cherry in the List of First Class Survivors


Leading Fireman Frederick Barrett, who was on duty in boiler room #6 at the time of the collision, also helped fight the bunker fire. Barrett joined Titanic at Southampton. He previously served aboard the American Line's New York.] Here is his testimony:

2292 [Mr. Lewis] Now, with regard to the bunker, you have said this bunker referred to just now was empty - the coal bunker? - [Barrett] - Yes.

2293 Were there any other coal bunkers empty forward? - No.

Was this the only one empty? - Yes.

Had it been emptied in the usual way? - No.

Why was it emptied? - My orders were to get it out as soon as possible.

When did you receive those orders? - Not very long after the ship left Southampton.

Was there anything wrong? - Yes.

What was wrong? - The bunker was a-fire.


2301 ... How long did it take them to work the coal out? - Saturday.

The whole Saturday. What condition was the watertight bulkhead in? - It was the idea to get the bunker out. The chief engineer, Mr. Bell, gave me orders: "Builder's men wanted to inspect that bulkhead."

The bulkhead forms the side of the bunker. What was the condition of the bulkhead running through the bunker? - It was damaged from the bottom.

Badly damaged? - The bottom of the watertight compartment was dinged aft and the other part was dinged forward.

2306 [The Commissioner] What do you attribute that to? - The fire.

Do you mean to say the firing of the coal would dinge the bulkhead? - Yes.

2308 [Mr. Lewis] This is the bulkhead between sections 5 and 6? - Yes.


2330 The Commissioner] You told us there was some fire in that bunker? - Yes.

Soon after you left port? - Yes.

Is it a very uncommon thing for fire to get into a coal bunker in that way? - It is not an uncommon thing.

It happens sometimes? - Yes.

I suppose the proper order is to have that actual bunker emptied as soon as possible? - Yes.

And, therefore, that was all right? - Yes.

Did the fact that there was fire in that bunker in any way conduce to the collision as far as you know? Had it anything to do with it? - I could not say that.

Do you think it had? Do you think that the fire had anything to do with this disaster? - That would be hard to say, my Lord.

Very well; perhaps I am asking you a riddle.

2338 [Mr. Laing] Did you work out that bunker yourself? - I was in charge. There were between 8 and 10 men doing it.

Was it fire or only heat? - It was fire.

Did you play upon it? - The hose was going all the time.

And did they get it out by the Saturday? - Yes.

Cleared all out? - Yes.

I want to ask you about this bunker, just a question or two. When you saw the water coming into the bunker in No. 5 section, did you shut the bunker door? - Yes.

The bunker door is not a watertight door? - No.

And did you tell the engineer that you had seen water coming in? - I reported to Mr. Shepherd and he reported to Mr. Hesketh.

And as far as you know you are not able to say whether they were pumping it or not? - No.

All you know is you shut the door and left it? - Yes.

British Inquiry, Day 4, Barrett

Barrett's testimony elsewhere clearly identifies the bunker in question as the forward bunker on the starboard side of boiler room #5, not the adjacent bunker in boiler room #6. He also says [#2293, above] that no other bunkers were empty.

Other Witnesses at the Mersey Inquiry

According to the testimony of Harold Sanderson, Vice President of International Mercantile Marine, the fire began prior to Titanic reaching Southampton: British Inquiry, Day 18, Sanderson [beginning at #19630]. During Sanderson's examination, Lord Mersey makes the statement, "Spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker is by no means an unusual thing. This sentiment was shared by Captain Maurice Clarke, a Board of Trade inspector (Assistant Emigration Officer) and retired Captain with 22 years at sea, "... it is not an uncommon thing to have these small fires in the bunkers." Clarke was one of the inspectors who cleared Titanic for sea. The bunker fire was not reported to him during the course of his inspection, but he did not find this unusual. British Inquiry, Day 25, Clarke

Titanic's Second Officer, Charles Lightoller, testified that he was unaware of the bunker fire, indicating that would not be unusual in the case of a small fire: British Inquiry, Day 12, Lightoller [see #14640].

Trimmer Thomas Dillon helped fight the bunker fire, but his testimony about the fire is very brief and adds nothing: British Inquiry, Day 5, Dillon

The testimony Naval Architect Edward Wilding, one of Titanic's designers and an expert witness at the Mersey hearings, contains only a brief mention of the effects of the fire: British Inquiry, Day 20, Wilding. Mr. Lewis misstates Hendrickson's testimony while asking Wilding about the effects of a fire that "caused the bulkhead to be red hot." [see #20883].


Here are the statements attributed to Fireman Dilley:

The WS liner Titanic was on fire from the day she sailed from Southhampton. Her officers and crew knew it, for they had fought the fire for days.

This story, told for the first time on the day of landing by the survivors of the crew who were sent back to England on board the Red Star liner Lapland, was only one of the many thrilling tales of the first---and last---voyage of the Titanic.

"The Titanic sailed from Southhampton on Wednesday, April 10, at noon," said J. Dilley, fireman on the Titanic, who lives at 21 Milton road, Newington, London, North, and who sailed with 150 other members of the Titanic's crew on the Lapland.

"I was assigned to the Titanic from the Oceanic, where I had served as a fireman. From the day we sailed the Titanic was on fire, and my sole duty, together with eleven other men, had been to fight that fire. We had made no headway against it.

"Of course, sir," he went on, "the passengers knew nothing of the fire. Do you think, sir, we'd have let them know about it? No, sir.

"The fire started in bunker No. 6. There were hundreds of tons of coal stored there. The coal on top of the bunker was wet, as all the coal should have been, but down at the bottom of the bunker the coal had been permitted to get dry.

"The dry coal at the bottom of the pile took fire, sir, and smoldered for days. The wet coal on top kept the flames from coming through, but down in the bottom of the bunker, sir, the flames was a-raging.

"Two men from each watch of stokers were told off, sir, to fight that fire. The stokers, you know, sir, work four hours at a time, so twelve of us was fighting flames from the day we put out of Southampton until we hit the iceberg.

"No, sir, we didn't get that fire out, and among the stokers there was talk, sir, that we'd have to empty the big coal bunkers after we'd put our passengers off in New York and then call on the fireboats there to help us put out the fire.

"But we didn't need such help. It was right under bunker No. 6 that the iceberg tore the biggest hole in the Titanic, and the flood of water that came through, sir, put out the fire that our tons and tons of water had not been able to get rid of.

"The stokers were beginning to get alarmed over it, but the officers told us to keep our mouths shut---they didn't want to alarm the passengers."

Evertt, M. Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic, [copyright] L. H. Walter, 1912, 1998 reprint by Castle Books (Edison, NJ).

I see several problems with the Dilley statement: First, the PARTICULARS OF ENGAGEMENT sheet (engine crew 1), entry #49, lists Dilley's home address as "44 Threefield Lane", not "21 Milton road, Newington, London" and lists his last ship as Olympic, not Oceanic. Second, referring to "bunker No. 6" does not sound right. The testimony is pretty clear on the fire being in the forward bunker in boiler room #5, which was referred to as "section 5" and "stokehold 9" (in the case of the forward half). I haven't seen anything in the testimony where "bunker number such-and-such" is referred to. Thomas Andrew's builders notebook for Olympic labels the lateral bunkers on either side of bulkhead "E" (between BR#5 and BR#6) as "W" and "Y". Also, inquiry testimony states that the fire was out by the time of the collision and the number of men used to fight the fire does not seem to correlate.

The statement about wetting down coal to keep it from burning is false. The best ways to prevent spontaneous combustion of coal is to keep it dry, cool and to minimize small particles and coal dust. According to Parr and Kressmann,

"Any coal with conditions favorable to oxidation will be facilitated in that action by moisture. ... Without exception, in all the series of tests, the wetting of the coal increased the activity as shown by the ultimate temperature."

Parr, S.W. & Kressmann, F.W., "The Spontaneous Combustion of Coal", The Engineering Magazine, Vol. 43, No. 5, August, 1912, page 83

A popular text on Marine Engineering also warns against wetting coal:

"Coal should not be taken on board wet if it can be avoided, and care should be taken to keep it dry in the bunkers, as moisture sometimes causes a rapid and dangerous generation of heat and gas, which may result in spontaneous combustion. Before decks are washed down after coaling, the bunker plates should be replaced and made tight, to prevent water from getting into the bunkers."

Osbourne A. Modern Marine Engineers Manual - Volume I, Cornell Maritime Press, 1941, page 6-83.

I am sure that we have not heard the last of the bunker fire aboard RMS Titanic. But with luck, future authors will be able to stay closer to the facts when discussing its significance.

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