The sinking of the Titanic is possibly the most well remembered of all passenger ship disasters. When the luxurious ocean liner struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic on the night of 15th April 1912, she sank with the loss of 1,500 souls. It was her maiden voyage.
In the fallout following the disaster there was much to unpick, and alongside the grief and shock there was blame and culpability to be assigned. The Titanic’s design, which allowed flooding to eventually bypass the supposedly “unsinkable” watertight system of compartments, was considered a primary cause, as was the lack of lifeboats.
However, for one man back in Britain, the guilt was much more personal. David Blair, the second officer of the Titanic, had left the boat shortly before she was to sail: with the most senior of the company’s captains and his command crew coming over to operate the Titanic, Blair was surplus to requirements.
However, the change was last minute and Blair has left with a seemingly small and unimportant item in his pocket: a key. However, as it turns out, this key could have saved the Titanic.
The Key to the Mystery
Captain Edward Smith, the White Star Line’s most senior captain, understood the importance of the voyage he had embarked on. The reputation of the company was at stake, and despite ice warnings from other ships in the area the Titanic proceeded across the Atlantic at full speed.
Smith expected that icebergs and other floating debris could be seen in the calm waters from a sufficient distance, and steps could be taken to navigate around anything dangerous. The ship had a crow’s nest which was permanently manned with lookouts, scanning the horizon with binoculars night and day.
However three things conspired to thwart the captain’s plan, which would ultimately spell doom for the ship. The first was the fact that the Titanic had its fateful encounter with the iceberg at night, when visibility was reduced.
Secondly there was fog in the area which reduced visibility further. Neither of these things concerned Smith unduly however: the seas were calm and icebergs were not considered a major threat to shipping, with several collisions already on record.
The third thing, however, was the key, which was not on board and which unlocked the cabinet containing the binoculars used by the lookouts in the crow’s nest. Without this key, sitting in the pocket of David Blair thousands of miles away, the crew did not have binoculars.
One of the lookouts, named Fred Fleet, survived the Titanic disaster. When he was asked about the lack of binoculars he told the Titanic Inquiry that they would certainly have allowed the ship to sight the iceberg earlier.
He was also of the opinion that with binoculars they would have seen the iceberg early enough to “get out of the way”. As it was the Titanic almost did dodge the iceberg, with much of the damage being caused to the side of the ship as she scraped her length along it.
But the key was not there, and the binoculars were not available. And the rest is history.
Top Image: The Titanic might have been saved were it not for the absence of a single key. Source: Willy Stöwer / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green