The story of what caused the Titanic's sinking in 1912, which killed 1,517 people and quickly becoming one of the most storied disasters in modern U.S. history, has been accepted as an agreed-upon fact for decades. The enormous passenger ship, the history books tell us, was simply too big to safely navigate the Atlantic icebergs that brought it down. But what if this account turned out to be based on false testimony from the surviving crew?
British novelist Louise Patten writes in a new book, and has repeated in newspaper interviews, that the Titanic crew took the real cause of the crash to their graves. She says her grandfather, Charles Lightoller, the senior-most surviving Titanic crew member, passed down a family secret: The Titanic was sunk by poor steering. The New York Times' Robert Mackey reports:
[Lightoller] told his wife that the man steering the ship when the iceberg was spotted had simply turned the ship the wrong way.
"Instead of steering Titanic safely round to the left of the iceberg, once it had been spotted dead ahead, the steersman, Robert Hitchins, had panicked and turned it the wrong way," Ms. Patten said.She added that her grandfather, who went on to become a war hero, "was lying" when he told investigators looking into the cause of the wreck that he had no idea what had happened. Ms. Patten said that the ship's captain and first officer told Mr. Lightoller, the second officer, about the steering error after the crash but he had concealed the truth to protect the reputation of his employer.
Patten, talking to The U.K. Telegraph's Peter Stanford, explains the unusual moment in maritime evolution and how the Titanic got it wrong:
Titanic was launched at a time when the world was moving from sailing ships to steam ships. My grandfather, like the other senior officers on Titanic, had started out on sailing ships. And on sailing ships, they steered by what is known as "Tiller Orders" which means that if you want to go one way, you push the tiller the other way. [So if you want to go left, you push right.] It sounds counter-intuitive now, but that is what Tiller Orders were. Whereas with "Rudder Orders' which is what steam ships used, it is like driving a car. You steer the way you want to go. It gets more confusing because, even though Titanic was a steam ship, at that time on the North Atlantic they were still using Tiller Orders. Therefore Murdoch gave the command in Tiller Orders but Hitchins, in a panic, reverted to the Rudder Orders he had been trained in. They only had four minutes to change course and by the time Murdoch spotted Hitchins' mistake and then tried to rectify it, it was too late.
Fortunately, Patten's historic correction--if it's true--comes just in time for Titanic 2, the unofficial sequel to the James Cameron film, to set the national record straight. Here's the trailer:
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.