Skip to main content

Analysis of the Destruction of the U.S.S. Maine



Fires in the Coal Bunkers the Most

Common Cause—Precautions of

Other Governments to Pre-

vent Such Disasters


     WASHINGTON, Feb. 18— The opinion of one of the leading naval experts in the use of high explosives, Prof. Alger of the Ordnance Bureau,1 as to the cause of the explosion on the Maine is as follows:

     “As to the question of the cause of the Maine’s explosion, we know no torpedo such as is known to modern warfare can of itself cause an explosion of the character of that on board the Maine. We know of no instances where the explosion of a torpedo or mine under a ship’s bottom has exploded the magazine within. It has simply torn a great hole in the side or bottom, through which water entered, and in consequence of which the ship sank. Magazine explosions, on the contrary, produce effects exactly similar to the effects of the explosion on board the Maine.

     “When it comes to seeking the cause of the explosion of the Maine’s magazine, we should naturally look, not for improbable or unusual causes, but those against which we have had to guard in the past. The most common of these is through fire in the bunkers. Many of our ships have been in danger at various times from this cause, and not long ago a fire in the Cincinnati’s bunkers actually set fire to fittings, wooden boxes, &c., within the magazine, and had it not been discovered at the time it would doubtless have resulted in a catastrophe on board that ship similar to the one on the Maine.

     I shall again emphasize the fact that no torpedo exploded without a ship has ever produced, or, according to our knowledge, can it produce, an explosion of a magazine within.”

Precautions of Other Governments.

     Lieut. Commander Wainwright,2 the executive officer of the Maine, as his last important work prior to his detail to the Maine, prepared a memorandum for the Secretary of the Navy, setting forth the precautions taken by other Governments to protect their men-of-war against just such calamities. This memorandum, which is lying upon the table of Assistant Secretary Roosevelt,3 suggested the appointment of a board of officers to investigate the subject, and make recommendations for the use of the Bureau of Construction in designing future cruisers and battleships.

     Mr. Wainwright’s memorandum shows that England protects the magazines of her ships from heat by linings of asbestos, by air spaces between the walls, which are packed with silicate of cotton and other non-combustible and non-conducting substances, and by the use of ventilating fans and ammonia.

     France uses refrigerating machines, double floors and walls and asbestos linings. The French experts declare that it is not only necessary to discharge cold air into the magazines but to have the chambers between their walls and floors so arranged that it can pass over and around them.

     In the German ships there are ventilating conduits to pump cold air into the magazines and expel the warm air from them. They have also special cooling machines for the purpose of protecting the coal bunkers against spontaneous combustion.

     The Italian Navy constructors provide particularly for the escape of the gas that is apt to generate in air-tight chamber in which explosives are kept. They also have refrigerating machines, and recommend that the air to magazines cannot be changed too frequently. Both the Italian and the French constructors describe the danger from the juxtaposition of coal bunkers, and advise that chambers packed with silicate of cotton, asbestos, and other non-combustible material should be placed between the coal bunkers and the magazines.

Danger from the Coal Bunkers.

     Serious fires occurred some time ago, as is well known, on the New York and the Cincinnati from spontaneous combustion of coal, and two weeks ago a board appointed to investigate this new danger to United States warships made a report recommending a radical reconstruction of the coal bunkers of the ships of the navy. The board contends that all bituminous and soft coal is subject to this danger, especially when it is “fat” and that condition for combustion are a high external temperature, a broken condition of coal, affording surfaces for absorbing oxygen, a supply of air sufficient to penetrate to the coal pile, but not adequate to carry off the heat, and the presence of volatile combustible matter in the fuel.

     In former years, in the old-fashioned ships, before there was so much machinery and so many compartments, spontaneous combustion, said the board, was unknown, but in modern war vessels all the conditions are changed, and a sufficiently high external temperature will cause spontaneous ignition at any time.

     The board reported that “there are some bunkers in which the fire will involve great danger-namely, those adjacent to magazines. On the New York and Cincinnati there were fires in bunkers next to the magazines which caused a charring of the woodwork in the latter, and if they fortunately had not been discovered in time there might have been in each a terrible disaster. For such cases we consider structural provision an absolute necessity, and no magazine should ever be separated from a coal bunker by a single bulkhead only. In all such cases there should be a double bulkhead, with at least four inches between the walls of the bunkers and the magazine, and with provision for a good circulation of air to carry off any hear that may come from the bunker.”

     The report said that the Chief Constructor of the navy4 informed the board that he had anticipated this important point and had made provision in the new battleships on the plan recommended and had taken steps for the alteration of the bunkers in the flagship New York wherever they were adjacent to magazines.

     Among other recommendations the board suggested that precautions should be taken to prevent waste or oil from getting into the bunkers, and that old coal should be used before that recently received. The board also recommended that particular care should be taken in ships stationed at Key West, Honolulu, and other places in the tropics.

Source Note Print: The New York Times, February 18, 1898.

Footnote 1: Capt. Philip R. Alger.

Footnote 2: Lt. Cmdr. Richard Wainwright.

Footnote 3: Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt

Footnote 4: Chief Constructor Philip Hichborn.

Related Content