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Titanic Lessons learned

Four days after the Titanic sank, the first official inquiry into the disaster, chaired by Senator William Alden Smith, opened in New York and lasted for 17 days. The 82 witnesses called to the stand included: White Star chairman, Bruce Ismay; Guglielmo Marconi; lookout Frederick Fleet; and Captain Lord of the Californian. Two weeks later, the British inquiry began under Lord Mersey, a former High Court judge. Although both inquiries covered much the same ground, their main difference was motive: the US inquiry was conducted by politicians looking for someone to blame, while the British inquiry was conducted by lawyers and technical experts trying to establish the facts to ensure there was no repetition of the disaster. Both inquiries made much the same recommendations, calling for ships to be safer and built to higher standards, to make effective use of radio, and to carry sufficient lifeboats for everyone on board.



The US inquiry had no doubt that Captain Smith was to blame for the tragedy because of his “indifference to danger” and his “overconfidence and neglect.” The hearing also blamed Captain Lord of the Californian, for failing to come to the rescue, and the British Board of Trade for not updating its lifeboat regulations and for its poor inspection standards during the ship’s construction. In comparison, the British inquiry agreed that the Titanic was traveling too fast but did not find Captain Smith negligent, nor did it criticize the Board of Trade.


Under the White Star Line’s conditions of service, the Titanic’s crew ceased to be paid at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, the moment the ship sank. Those who appeared before the US inquiry received some expenses, but most were shipped directly home by White Star with little or no financial aid. Many of the surviving crew had to rely on charity or emergency shipwreck payments from the Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union until they could find another job.


One of the lasting results of the collision was the agreement, in 1914, by 16 North Atlantic nations to establish the International Ice Patrol to look out for icebergs in the North Atlantic shipping lanes. Today, the patrol uses ships and airplanes equipped with radar, underwater sonar equipment, and the latest forecasting technology to log all icebergs and report their existence to every ship in the area. Many lives have been saved as a result of this patrol.


Both inquiries recommended that every ship be equipped with a radio and that radio contact be maintained 24 hours a day. The inquiries also advised that ship radios should adhere to international regulations. Previously a novelty enjoyed by wealthy passengers only, radio contact now became a major navigational and safety aid at sea.


The main recommendation of both inquiries was that every ship be equipped with enough lifeboats to accommodate every passenger and crew member, and that regular lifeboat drills be held. For existing ships, this meant placing more lifeboats on deck, reducing the space available for passengers to walk on the upper decks and restricting their view of the sea. Modern ships are designed to overcome these problems.


Although the Titanic proved that watertight bulkheads could not prevent a ship from sinking, the designers of the Italian luxury transatlantic liner Andrea Doria claimed their ship was unsinkable. But after a collision with the Stockholm, in 1956, the ship sank when only one of its 11 compartments flooded. The reason was that the ship was light on fuel and ballast (heavy material used to stabilize ships) and was floating high in the water. As the bulkhead filled with water, the ship keeled to one side, and water poured in above the watertight compartments.