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Sunday, October 3, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A New Titanic Theory -- Experts Now Say Steel Was Too Brittle To Withstand Collision With Iceberg

AP

NEW YORK - It was called unsinkable, but it sank on its maiden voyage 81 years ago, killing hundreds. Now maritime experts say the Titanic was made of steel too brittle to withstand a collision with an iceberg.

Whether the Titanic could have stayed afloat in the North Atlantic after the collision, even if it had been made of higher-grade steel, is "problematical," said William Garzke, a New York naval architect.

WITH TWO MORE HOURS . . .

But lives might have been saved if the sinking had been stalled just a couple of hours longer, he said.

Garzke is co-author of a report on the sinking that was presented recently at the centennial meeting of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers.

Pronounced unsinkable by its owner, the British company Cunard White Star, the Titanic was en route to New York from Southampton, England, when it collided with an iceberg off Newfoundland shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912.

Of the more than 2,340 people aboard, only about 700 were able to get off in the two hours and 40 minutes before the Titanic sank.

Garzke said it was impossible to know what would have kept the ship afloat without studying its hull, which is partly buried in the seabed under 12,000 feet of water. Although it has been examined closely by undersea robots, there's no prospect of the damaged bow section ever being raised, he said.

In their report, Garzke and his four co-authors said the ship's steel plating suffered "brittle fracture" in the 31-degree water. They said a better grade of steel might have held up longer.

The report is the latest revisionist history concerning the century's greatest peacetime sea disaster. The Titanic's hulk was found in 1985 by undersea explorer Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Research minisubs and robots have explored it four times since then.

Those surveys revealed much about the disaster, including the fact that the ship broke into two main pieces, and that the iceberg did not rip a 300-foot gash in the hull as originally reported.

The latest findings further demolish the "gash" theory, which has been nurtured partly by news accounts, books and movies about the Titanic.

The study's authors said videotapes and two separate laboratory analyses of metal plates brought to the surface show fracture damage was concentrated near the bow, indicating that the impact with the iceberg had popped rivets, broken seams and allowed water to rush in.

PROBLEM SOLVED DURING WORLD WAR II

"The real tragedy in this is that without that brittle fracture tendency, the ship might have lasted longer, maybe a couple of hours, until the Carpathia got there and rescued some of the passengers who were actually lost," Garzke said in an interview.

He said the problem of brittle fracture, which lay in the composition of steel, was solved during World War II.

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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