Thursday, April 17, 2008

Titanic Mistake

This photo of the Titanic under construction comes from the NY Times article describing a recent discovery concerning the sinking of the great ship. The Titanic was designed to be unsinkable, yet it sunk on its maiden voyage. The discovery shows why the Titanic sunk from striking an iceberg, and why it sunk so quickly, taking so many with her.

In the article, reported by William J. Broad, research by Jennifer Hooper McCarty and others shows the cause of the disastrous sinking was faulty rivets located in the bow. A transition from iron rivets to steel rivets was underway in shipbuilding of the times, and steel was the newly preferred, stronger material. Steel rivets were used in the areas designers felt it was most needed, in the main hull, but not in the bow nor stern. Iron rivets were specified, and there were shortages. A lower grade iron rivet was used in the Titanic, as demonstrated in samples recovered from the ship. When compared to standard wrought iron, there is up to three times the inclusions, or trapped slag, in the iron. Inclusions make the steel weaker, providing fracture paths for failure propagation.

How could this be? This was a premium luxury liner of the time and there were cheap rivets? It is a story of a crisis with seeds in decisions far removed from the chilly arctic where the Titanic lays today. In an earlier post, I described a model for a crisis with an adverse outcome:

- An initial problem, often minor in isolation, that goes uncorrected
-A subsequent problem that compounds the effect of the initial problem
- An inept corrective effect
- Disbelief at the accelerating seriousness of the situation
- Generally, an attempt to hide the truth about what is going on while an attempt is made at remediation
- Sudden recognition that the situation is out of control or “in extremis
- Finally, the ultimate disaster scenario involving significant loss of life, financial resources, or both, and ultimately, the recriminations.

* Initial problem: material shortages. There were three huge ships being built at the same time and materials and labor were in short supply. Iron rivets were substituted for steel and used in the bow.

* Subsequent problem compounding the initial one: the proper iron rivets were not ordered (due to a shortage?) and the ones received had inclusions, weakening them. They came from smaller forge shops not normally used by the shipbuilder.

* Corrective Effect: There was none that we know because the iron rivets were not tested and found to be weaker than required. The Board of Trade stopped inspecting iron rivets at the time, deciding they were a mature technology and the focus went to steel.

* Disbelief at the accelerating seriousness: this had to occur the night the Titanic hit an iceberg. Due to the weaker rivets, the Titanic literally fell apart at the seams in the bow, allowing water to rush in and sinking the ship faster than anyone could respond.

* The final disaster scenario: the sinking of the Titanic with all the loss of life and property associated with it.

Interestingly, denial and recriminations persist to this day. When asked about the research findings, the shipbuilder, "Harland and Wolff, after its long silence, now rejects the charge. 'There was nothing wrong with the materials,' Joris Minne, a company spokesman, said last week. Mr. Minne noted that one of the sister ships, the Olympic, sailed without incident for 24 years, until retirement. (The Britannic sank in 1916 after hitting a mine.)"

The Titanic rests at the bottom of the Atlantic, with six slits in its bow. The slits replace seams once held closed by iron rivets, and the slits stop where the steel rivets hold the seams together still.

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