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The Titanic: What Made It Sink

Among the key factors: the ship was sailing too fast, an iceberg warning was ignored and low quality rivets.

A perfect storm of fateful events conspired to cause the tragic sinking of the Titanic nearly a century ago, according to a study looking at the math and physics behind the tragedy.

Bound from Southampton to New York, the Royal Mail Steamer Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic at 11:40 p.m. on Sunday, April 14, 1912, on her unfortunate maiden voyage. Within three hours, she sank to a depth of about 13,000 feet and more than two-thirds of the 2,224 passengers and crew perished at sea.

Had the "unsinkable" luxury liner stayed afloat longer, the tragic loss of life could have been mitigated by rescue ships getting to the disaster scene.

"This is the real question of the Titanic mystery: How could a 46,000-ton ship sink so quickly?" science writer Richard Corfield wrote in the current issue of Physics World.

Taking an in-depth look at the structural deficiencies of the ship and the events of April 14, 1912, Corfield concluded that "no one thing conspired to send Titanic to the bottom of the Atlantic."

"It was a classic 'event cascade,'" Corfield told Discovery News.

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According to two inquiries carried out in 1912, in both the United States and United Kingdom, many circumstances concurred to bring about the disaster: The Titanic had been sailing too fast, Capt. Edward J. Smith had paid too little attention to iceberg warnings, and there had not been enough lifeboats onboard.

The inquiries brought to light other details, such as the absence of binoculars in the crow's nest and the fact that the senior radio operator had not passed on a crucial ice warning received from the British merchantship SS Mesaba.

"Mesaba gave the precise location (42° to 41°, 25' N; 49° to 50°, 30' W) of an area of icebergs that, at the time, approximately 9.40 p.m., was only 50 miles dead ahead of the Titanic," Corfield wrote.

The message, which read "Saw great number large icebergs also field ice. Weather clear," was interpreted as nonurgent as it was not prefixed with "MSG" ("Masters' Service Gram"), which would have required a personal acknowledgement from the captain.

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The Titanic was the most modern ship of her day. She featured the latest technological innovations, yet some material used in her construction turned out to be inadequate.

Poorly cast wrought-iron rivets caused the steel plates on the hull to come apart.

Corfield cited the work of two metallurgists, Tim Foecke at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Jennifer Hooper McCarty, then at Johns Hopkins University in the United States, who in the mid-2000s combined their own analysis with historical records from the shipyard in Belfast where the Titanic was built.

"Foecke and McCarty found that the rivets at the front and rear fifths of the Titanic were made only of 'best' quality iron, not 'best-best', and had been inserted by hand," wrote Corfield.

"Best rivets" were cheaper but also featured a higher concentration of impurities known as "slag." Lab tests have shown that the heads of such rivets are particularly vulnerable to stresses and can pop off, causing the hull to "unzip."

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"Then there are the maths and physics of the collision: six compartments flooded when, if it had only been four, the ship would not have sunk," wrote Corfield.

As if that weren't enough, the climate thousands of miles away may have contributed to the sinking.

At a time when the weather was warmer than usual in the Caribbean, a complex interplay of two surface-water currents - the Gulf Stream intersecting with the glacier-carrying Labrador Current in the North Atlantic - as well as an extraordinarily high spring tide three months earlier, concentrated icebergs "as if they were tank traps," said Corfield.

He concluded that such a chain of unfortunate circumstances, called "event cascade" by those who study disasters, basically led to the Titanic's demise.

"The best planning in the world cannot eliminate every factor that might negatively impact on the design and operation of a complicated machine such as a massive passenger ship," wrote Corfield.

"Eventually, and occasionally, enough of these individual factors combine and the event cascade becomes long enough and complicated enough that tragedy cannot be averted," he said.

Photo: The RMS Titanic under construction in Belfast. Credit: Library of Congress/George Grantham Bain collection.