Thursday, 12 April 2012

Unforeseen errors

The Titanic sank on April 15 1912. It sank because it hit an iceberg. It hit an iceberg because of a chain of avoidable human errors that ended up causing the deaths of around 1500 people (the exact number is still uncertain).

It's all these human errors that fascinate me. Errors that the directors of the White Star Line couldn't have foreseen when they confidently described their prestigious liner as "virtually unsinkable". The sort of unpredictable blunders that can so easily sabotage years of meticulous planning.

These are the known human errors:

* Iceberg warnings from other ships were either ignored or not seen by senior crew

* Despite the iceberg warnings, on a poor-visibility, moonless night, the ship didn't stop or slow down but continued at its top speed of 21½ knots.

* This was because the captain was determined to reach New York in 6 days

* The lookouts in the crow's nest had no binoculars

* The radio operator told the nearest ship, the Californian, not to send any more messages as he was too busy sending messages for passengers

* When the lookouts saw a dark mass ahead, they spent ten minutes discussing what it was before realising it was an iceberg

* When the iceberg was spotted, the ship steered away from it and hit it side-on. If the collision had been head-on, the reinforced bow would have kept it afloat

Oddly enough, Titanic Belfast, the new building devoted to the Titanic story, has no gallery specifically on the collision with the iceberg, even though the collision is the crux of the story and the single reason why the liner is still so notorious a hundred years later.

I guess they find the human errors too embarrassing to emphasise, despite their importance. You're led to believe that the ship quite suddenly and unexpectedly hit an iceberg. Far from it.

(And that's not all. More human errors added to the high death toll)

Details of human errors are from the TV programme "The Unsinkable Titanic", Channel Four, November 3, 2008


  1. It is hubris isn't it. What do you think of the Titanic exhibition Nick? Would be interesting to read a review from you. Disappointing if they omit anything controversial - reminds me of national Swiss museum in Zurich which goes into great detail abt Swiss history but quickly scoots over WW2 and has nothing about Nazis and Swiss banks or the Swiss reluctance to take in Jews despite it's supposed neutrality.

    Censoring history always puts the censored in a bad light but few people actually notice.

  2. Sorry but just have to add this because I have apostrophe OCD - it was WV not me that added the apostrophe to the possessive "its" in the post above. (OK I know nobody else cares but we apostrophe-obsessive -compulsives cannot ignore these things. )


  3. Jenny - I visited Titanic Belfast on the opening day and have to say I was disappointed. I thought it was very incomplete and left out a lot of embarrassing details like the Protestant domination of the shipyard, the gruelling working conditions both in the shipyard and on the Titanic, most of the human errors I've mentioned, Captain Smith's general recklessness, the low-quality rivets etc.

    Okay as a quick introduction to the Titanic story, but if you're looking for a serious in-depth account - try elsewhere.

  4. most medical disasters also result from a series of human errors and it always fascinates me that there is a whole series leading up to something awful. if only one of those errors had been avoided the whole outcome might have been different.

    do you notice just HOW important ego and prestige are in the titanic story?
    sending messages to pamper rich passengers, not having enough lifeboats because it might offend someones aesthetic sensibilities, wanting to make new york in six days......

    if only we could leave our egos out of things!

  5. Jenny - I know what you mean about apostrophes. Misuse always make me wince as well! I was ejukated proper.

  6. Kylie - Ego and prestige indeed. Particularly Captain Smith, the White Star directors, and the smug first-class passengers who were kept strictly separate from second and third.

    I agree, so many disasters involve preventable human errors somewhere along the line.

  7. I am so glad that you and others here refer to the TITANIC as THE Titanic!
    so many refer to it in the bloody James Cameron way of just TITANIC
    and that really gets on my tits!!!

  8. do you need some support for those tits John? Just kidding xx

  9. John - Hadn't really thought about it, to be honest. No idea why I prefer "The Titanic"!

    I'm thinking one of those lovely pink lacy man bras, Myra. They're all the rage, I've heard.

  10. Nick, did you hear the BBC Radio 4 series on this week at 1.45pm. It was very interesting, informative and indeed somewhat frightening.

    Perhaps it was just as well Captain Smith's career ended with the ill fated ship.

  11. Grannymar - No, I completely missed that. It seems Captain Smith was reckless and irresponsible in numerous ways.

  12. Have you listened to the Radio 4 slot at 1.45? Last one tomorrow, it emphasises the errors etc and ( I'm feeling slightly bogged down by the current tidal wave of Titanic programmes) seems to be one of the best I've heard.

    Just read your comment above!

    Strange that the major event is missing from the exhibition. Is the exhibition as good as the coverage it has got?

  13. Suburbia - No, I missed it. Rats! Or maybe I can get it on iPlayer....

    As I said to Jenny W, I don't think it's THAT good. There are quite a few things it glosses over or leaves out, maybe because they were seen as too embarrassing or controversial. But surely as a major Titanic exhibition it should be warts-and-all or nothing?

  14. Trip Advisor has some interesting feedback on Titanic Belfast.

    One of their reviewers says Titanic Orlando is far superior in every way.

  15. That's a long list of errors. How amazing that a direct hit would have been less damaging.

  16. Liz - It is amazing. But by hitting the iceberg side-on, it was gashed in six places. No way it was going to stay afloat.

  17. Add:

    The steel rivets were of inferior quality and went brittle in the cold of the Atlantic. As a result, after the collision with the iceberg and with water increasing pressure inside the hull, they fractured and loosened more of the hulls steel plating, allowing water in into compartments after the watertight doors had closed.

  18. John - Yes, I knew about the low-quality rivets, but I didn't mention them because they weren't a direct cause of the collision. As you say, they allowed the ship to sink more quickly. Although others point out that her sister ship the Olympic, which used similar rivets, sailed for many years without them causing any problems.

  19. Moral of the story - it was drummed into my impressionable ears by older wiser men; "Don't mess with icebergs."

    PS. Please delete if it is politically incorrect to crack that joke. I will understand.

  20. Ramana - Wise men indeed. Icebergs may look innocent enough, sitting there sedately in their sparkly white coats, but don't be deceived!

  21. I hadn't realised about the likely better consequences of a head-on collision.
    Shame that the exhibition leaves so much to be desired. Perhaps (he said optimistically) the gaps will be filled in when the new centre gets settled in?

    Also - if you're around this coming week and fancy meeting for some kind of beverage (assuming the Garrick on Sunday doesn't suit or appeal) some day, let me know.

  22. Human error eh? And a huge spoonful of arrogance. And we never learn.

  23. Blackwater - There's been a lot of criticism of Titanic Belfast regarding queues, overcrowding, superficiality etc, so I guess they might be having a serious rethink about quite a few aspects of the exhibition.

    Scarlet - As Kylie said, so many disasters involve a string of human errors. Which by their very nature are hard to avoid entirely. And yes, often arrogance as well.

  24. Blackwater - I'm rather busy this weekend and Monday, so I think I need Sunday evening to unwind a bit. Must arrange a meet-up sometime though. I couldn't find an email address on your blog....

  25. I'm getting completely winded with all of this Titanic biz and of course biz it is. Here it is all about the last landfall to get the SOS calls with Titanic Dinners and showings and even, Maude help us, MASSES with the hymns (myth?) sung on the way down.
    And as you say, the blithe and blinkered human catastrophic error completely ignored.
    We could romanticize a fart.

  26. www - I know, the Titanic mania is way over the top. If it's bad in Newfoundland, you can imagine the overkill here in Belfast. Every tinpot organisation is arranging some Titanic-themed event, it's all completely crazy.

  27. To be honest, I'd probably really enjoy the Titanic exhibition - but the recent coverage on the news (news!) has had me howling at the telly. I can't see how the centenary warrants news updates on four consecutive nights.

  28. Macy - It all seems like huge overkill to me, but I'm amazed how many people are really fascinated by the story. Especially kids of course. But daily updates on the news? Give it a break.

  29. There's a big Titanic replica in Tennessee. Not to scale, but close. It's weird to me to have it be a tourist attraction.

  30. Agent - I don't object to it being a tourist attraction (after all, it's a fascinating story), as long as it's respectful and dignified, bearing in mind the huge legacy of pain and loss. What I do object to is every Tom, Dick and Harriet trying to cash in with ridiculous Titanic-themed events.

  31. Oh sorry - I presumed that the comment system on the blog took it automatically. For future reference it's paulwaters99 at hotmail dot com

    I visited the new Titanic building, though not the exhibition itself. Looks very good, except for the messages stuck on the windows all round the ground floor - great, magnificent, etc - no mention of its destination. Sea bed.

  32. Blackwater - I must say I didn't see the point of the messages myself. They don't add anything to the exhibition.