An iceberg didn’t sink Titanic – human error did. From the BP oil spill to 2012’s Costa Concordia shipwreck, Titanic’s lessons still apply.
By Jim Meigs
WHEN THE RMS TITANIC went to the bottom of the Atlantic in the early hours of 15 April 1912, it carried with it the era’s uncritical faith in the promise of technology. The ship was the jewel of the industrial age. That such an extravagantly engineered behemoth could fall victim to the everyday risks of sailing the North Atlantic was more than shocking; it set off a period of deep scepticism about the relationship between man and his machines.
A series of inquests and reports laid out the reasons for the catastrophe and led to reforms in marine engineering and maritime law. But one risk factor couldn’t be eliminated: human fallibility. In an article published in POPULAR MECHANICS soon after the tragic event, we noted that the Titanic “simply furnished another example of the well-established principle that if, in the conduct of any enterprise, an error of human judgment or faulty working of the human senses involves disaster, sooner or later the disaster comes.”
In one respect, little has changed. As the recent loss of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia demonstrates, bad decisionmaking can overcome even robust engineering. Virtually all man-made disasters – including the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the space shuttle Challenger explosion, and the BP oil spill – can be traced to the same human failings that doomed Titanic. After 100 years, we must still remember – and, too often, relearn – the grim lessons of that night.
No disaster is a single event. Complex systems rarely fail without warning. Instead, accidents are the product of decisions made over hours, days and sometimes years. Those choices are shaped both by the culture of the organisation – whether it’s NASA or the White Star Line, which owned Titanic – and by outside pressures.
On the morning of 28 January 1986, the launch of the Challenger had already been postponed six times. Ever image-conscious, NASA brass pushed to launch, despite the objections of engineers who worried that the rubber seals between segments of the vehicle’s booster rockets might fail in the unusually cold temperatures. One of those engineers, Allan J McDonald, recounts in his book Truth, Lies and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster that small quantities of combustion gases had leaked through the seals on previous missions. It was a warning sign – but NASA came to accept the leaks as normal. Engineers were forced into the impossible position of trying to convince officials that their worries were valid. “ ‘Is it safe to fly?’ is the correct question,” McDonald tells POPULAR MECHANICS, “not that you have to prove it will fail.”
Like the space shuttle, Titanic was the technological pinnacle of its day. But a series of decisions – from carrying too few lifeboats to using a rudder that may have been too small to enable the ship to turn quickly – pared its margin of error. Those risks were compounded by unsafe operation. Accounts differ on whether White Star Line managing director J Bruce Ismay urged Captain Edward Smith to speed across the Atlantic in the hope of setting a record. But there’s no question that the captain sailed the new and barely tested vessel through a region of known iceberg risk at nearly full speed on a moonless night. (A nearby ship, the SS Californian, had stopped for the night.) It was just one more bad decision along the Titanic’s doomed path.
Success can breed complacency. During a career of more than four decades, the Titanic’s Captain Smith had been involved in only a single accident at sea, one that ended without loss of life. The New York Times noted that Smith’s “rise in rank and importance was commensurate with the safe uneventfulness of his command”.
Major disasters often occur after such long, uneventful stretches. Before the partial meltdown of the reactor at Three Mile Island in 1979, no US nuclear plant had experienced a serious accident for 25 years. Similarly, before the blowout of the BP Macondo Prospect well in April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig had gone seven years without a serious mishap while drilling some of the deepest wells on the planet. “When you think you have a robust system, you tend to relax,” Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering at Duke University, tells POPULAR MECHANICS. Over time BP and its contractors began to cut corners: alarms that would have warned of a gas leak were silenced, safety checks cancelled. The blowout preventer – a last-ditch device intended to shut off a runaway well – was only partly functional. And workers were constantly urged to drill faster. That kind of culture invites trouble.
Technology can outpace judgment. The construction of Titanic came at the apex of a remarkable period of innovation in
shipbuilding. Well before the launch of Titanic, Captain Smith expressed supreme confidence in the state of maritime engineering: “I cannot imagine any condition (that) would cause a ship to founder,” he said in 1907. “Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”
With three powerful engines, Titanic could maintain high speeds day or night. But the crew’s ability to spot hazards was little changed from the days of sail. Two men stood in a crow’s-nest scanning the horizon – they didn’t even have binoculars. The ship was equipped with the latest communications innovation, wireless telegraph, and in the hours before the collision the ship received five warnings about icebergs from other vessels. But at the time, the telegraph was seen primarily as a luxury service for passengers, and the crew had no firm protocol for acting on the information. One message was handed to Ismay, who slipped it into his pocket, apparently unconcerned.
Similarly, at the time of the Gulf of Mexico blowout, BP and its contractors were pushing the art of undersea drilling into ever-deeper waters, using increasingly sophisticated equipment. And yet the procedures to monitor and control these
deep wells had not advanced much beyond those used in shallower seas.
Leaders may fail to plan for the worst. Just as Deepwater Horizon crews derived a false sense of confidence from their blowout preventer, the White Star Line put undue faith in the supposedly watertight compartments that composed Titanic’s lower decks. The compartments were not sealed at the top; if the ship’s bow dipped low enough, seawater would flow from one compartment to the next like water filling an ice cube tray. The probability of that happening? Low. The consequences when it did? Catastrophic.
And so, the sinking of Costa Concordia feels sadly familiar. The ship was studded with technology – what it lacked was good judgment by the people in charge. The captain approached too close to a rocky shore. Then, after the collision with an undersea outcrop, the crew rushed to reassure passengers that everything was fine. Had the crew quickly mustered everyone to the lifeboats instead, there might have been no loss of life. “A tool is only as good as the person that’s using it,” says John Konrad, a US Coast Guard master mariner and author. “All the technology in the world can’t replace a good captain.” That remains as true in 2012 as it was a century ago.
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