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The secret blunder that sank the Titanic

A steering blunder sank the Titanic on her maiden voyage as a helmsman panicked and turned the wrong way, says a new book that claims the error was kept secret for almost 100 years.

books Updated: Sep 22, 2010 15:33 IST

A steering blunder sank the Titanic on her maiden voyage as a helmsman panicked and turned the wrong way, says a new book that claims the error was kept secret for almost 100 years.



Daily Telegraph

reported on Wednesday that the new book revealed the ship's crew spotted the iceberg well in advance but still went straight into it because of a basic steering blunder.



The ship, considered to be an engineering marvel of its time, sank in April, 1912. According to the book

Good as Gold

, by the time the error was set right it was too late and the ship's side was damaged by the huge iceberg.



Titanic

The passengers and crew could still have been saved, if the ship had not steamed off causing water to enter through the damaged hull.

The explosive revelation was kept a close secret by the family of the most senior officer to survive the ship wreck.

Second Officer Charles Lightoller covered up the blunder in two inquiries as he was worried it would bankrupt the liner's owners and put his colleagues out of job.

Lightoller's granddaughter, Lady (Louise) Patten, has authored the novel that now reveals the truth. "It just makes it seem all the more tragic. They could easily have avoided the iceberg if it wasn't for the blunder," Patten was quoted as saying.

The error apparently took place as at that time there was conversion from sail to steam ships. This meant there was two different steering systems and different commands.

The media report said that some of the crew on the Titanic had experience on the Tiller Orders associated with sailing ships while others were comfortable with the more modern Rudder Orders.

Incidentally, the two steering systems were the complete opposite of one another. Hence, a command to turn "hard a starboard" meant turn the wheel right under the Tiller system and left under the Rudder.

The book says that when First Officer William Murdoch spotted the iceberg two miles away, he ordered "hard a-starboard". His direction was misinterpreted by the Quartermaster Robert Hitchins.

Hitchins turned the ship right instead of left. Even though he was told to correct the mistake, it was too late and the ship's side was ripped out by the iceberg.

Patten said: "The steersman panicked and the real reason why Titanic hit the iceberg, which has never come to light before, is because he turned the wheel the wrong way."

Patten's grandfather Lightoller learnt about the fatal mistake during a final meeting of four senior officers, which took place in the First Officer’s cabin shortly before Titanic sank.

Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star Line that owned the Titanic, coaxed the ship's captain to continue sailing. The ship sailed "Slow Ahead" through the sea for about 10 minutes and this added to the pressure of water entering the damaged hull, forcing it up and over the watertight bulkheads. This led to the ship sinking many hours earlier than she otherwise would have done.

"Ismay insisted on keeping going, no doubt fearful of losing his investment and damaging his company’s reputation. The nearest ship was four hours away. Had she remained at ‘Stop’, it’s probable that Titanic would have floated until help arrived," Patten was quoted as saying.

Lightoller, who the only survivor who knew exactly what had transpired, decided to hide what he knew.

"The inquiry had to be a whitewash. The only person he told the full story to was his beloved wife Sylvia, my grandmother. As a teenager, I was enthralled by the Titanic. Granny revealed to me exactly what had happened on that night and we would discuss it endlessly."

"She died when I was sixteen and, though she never told me to keep the knowledge to myself, I didn’t tell anyone. My mother insisted that everything remained strictly inside the family: a hero’s reputation was at stake," Patten said.

"Nearly 40 years later, with Granny and my mother long dead, I was plotting my second novel and it struck me that I was the last person alive to know what really happened on the night Titanic sank. My grandfather’s extraordinary experiences felt like perfect material for Good As Gold."