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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tragic Sisters


Today marks the anniversary of the sinking of the White Star Liner, HMHS Britannic, on November 21, 1916. Britannic was fitted out as a hospital ship during World War I. The ship was in route from Southampton to the Middle Eastern theater via the Mediterranean. The mission was to pick up casualties and bring them back to England.

Britannic's maiden voyage was on December 23, 1915. Eleven months later, she would be gone.

On the morning of November 21, the ship struck what has since been presumed to be a mine. She sank in less than an hour. Thankfully, the ship was on the outbound journey and carried no patients. Only thirty of the almost 1100 crew on board the vessel died that day. Most of those killed had hastily entered lifeboats against the captain's orders. The lifeboats were sucked into the still spinning but exposed propellers of the ship as she sank by the bow.

The Britannic was the ill-fated sister ship of the RMS Titanic. Titanic sank on April 14, 1912 from a breach in her hull after colliding with an iceberg on her maiden voyage. The "unsinkable" Titanic went down in just a little over three hours with a loss of 1,517 passengers and crew.

Britannic was redesigned following the Titanic disaster to allow Britannic to stay afloat with six of her forward compartments flooded (Titanic could survive only four flooded compartments). The mine explosion caused flooding of five compartments which should have allowed the ship to survive. She was flooded in her first four compartments and the watertight doors were ordered closed. But a door between engine rooms five and six jammed and failed to close allowing a fifth compartment to flood. The ship's fate was sealed from an unexpected source. Apparently, the portholes on the lower decks were kept open to allow ventilation into the stuffy spaces below deck. Water poured in through the open portholes filling Britannic beyond her safety limits. The ship hit the mine at 8:12AM. She was gone by 9:00AM, three times faster than Titanic's sinking.

What interested me about this story was that despite every effort made to improve the "unsinkability" of the Britannic, the best efforts of the engineers and builders of this great vessel were undone by a failure of a door closing and the unforeseen consequences of something as simple as open portholes. This was perhaps not as much hubris as bad luck and lack of contingency planning.

Engineering is an imperfect art. The engineers who redesigned the Britannic had a living laboratory to study how a ship sinks if the hull is breached. They designed the ship for safety and yet it was not enough. It was as though the gods were telling them that despite their best efforts, they were not in control.

Note: Britannic and Titanic had a third sister: RMS Olympic. Olympic was the first of the trio. She was launched in 1910 and served for 24 years before being retired and scrapped in 1935.

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