New York Times (Full Text)

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Divers to Find Whether the Force of the Explosion Was from the Exterior or Interior.


Spontaneous Combustion in Coal Bunkers a Frequent Peril to the Magazines of Warships -- Hard to Blow Up the Magazine.

WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 -- After a day of intense excitement at the Navy Department and elsewhere, growing out of the destruction of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor last night, the situation at sundown, after the exchange of a number of cablegrams between Washington and Havana, can be summed up in the words of Secretary Long, who when asked as he was about to depart for the day whether he had reason to suspect that the disaster was the work of the enemy, replied: "I do not. In that I am influenced by the fact that Capt. Sigsbee has not yet reported to the Navy Department on the cause. He is evidently waiting to write a full report. So long as he does not express himself, I certainly cannot. I should think from the indications, however, that there was an accident -- that the magazine exploded. How that came about I do not know. For the present, at least, no other warship will be sent to Havana."

Capt. Schuley, who has had experience with such large and complicated machines of war as the New York, did not entertain the idea that the ship had been destroyed by design. He had found that with frequent and very careful inspection fire would sometimes be generated in the coal bunkers, and he told of such a fire on board of the New York close to the magazine, and so hot that the heat had blistered the steel partition between the fire and the ammunition before the bunkers and magazine were flooded. He was not prepared to believe that the Spanish or Cubans in Havana were supplied with either the information or the appliances necessary to enable them to make so complete a work of demolition, while the Maine was under guard.

Thinks She Was Blown Up.

An Opinion different from this was that of Chief Naval Constructor Hichborne. Looking at the plans of the Maine, and discrediting the report that an explosion in the dynamo chamber, separated from the magazine by the space of an entire deck could have exploded the magazine, he also expressed the opinion that the coal bunkers forward were empty and thus could not have caused fire by spontaneous combustion next to the magazine.

"The Maine," he said, "when fully loaded with coal is down at the head, and it is usual to draw upon the forward bunkers first in order to lighten her at the bow. I believe that those bunkers were empty or nearly so at the time of the disaster. If they were empty it would not be possible to generate gas and provide the material for spontaneous combustion. Now, I do not think the disaster was the result of accident."

There was a very decided aversion, among naval officers, to approve the suggestion that the disaster was accidental, not so much because it was desired to fix the disaster upon an enemy, but because to publish the fact that a battleship was lost by an accident would demoralize the navy more seriously than a fight in which 300 men were killed.

Commander Dickens, Chief of the Navigation Bureau, expressed the opinion to-day that the explosion took place in the magazine of the Maine. He said that this was evident for the reason that the ship was afloat for an hour after the explosion. Had a torpedo been fired under the battleship she would have sunk almost immediately, and the fact that she had not done so was conclusive evidence that the firing of a torpedo was not the cause of the disaster.

Secretary Long Orders Inquiry.

Public men expressed their opinions with reserve when approached for interviews, but everywhere there was a demand for an investigation and full details in the light of which the horror may be justly viewed. Secretary Long undoubtedly summarized the general opinion of the majority of the naval experts in finding it impossible just now to state the cause of the destruction of the Maine. There are a great number of theories, but most of them are of a character that makes it easy to prove or upset them by a simple investigation of a diver. Secretary Long had taken immediate steps to make this investigation. Late this afternoon he telegraphed to Admiral Sicard at Key West to appoint a board of naval officers to proceed at once to Havana, employ divers, and generally to make such inquiry as the regulations of the navy demand shall be made in the case of the loss of a ship. It is expected that this work will take some time, and while there are officers who say that in their opinion it will not be possible, owing to the probably disrupted condition of the hull of the ship to make out the cause of the explosion, the opinion of the majority is that the question will be easily settled by the simple observation of the condition of the ship's hull plates in the neighborhood of the hole which sunk her, whether or not they are bulged out, as would be the case if the explosion came from the inside, or whether they were driven in as would result from the attack of a torpedo or the explosion of a mine beneath the ship.

Capt. Sigsbee's brief report, as well as Gen. Lee's dispatch, indicates that they now incline strongly to the belief that the explosion was of internal origin. Both agree that the force of it was in the forward part of the ship, and this is borne out by the escape of the majority of the officers, whose quarters are aft, and the heavy casualties among the crew, sleeping forward. Probably in the latter case the death list would have been even larger but for the fact that the Maine, having a superstructure forward on the main deck, a portion of the crew were quartered there, and so escaped the greater violence of the explosion, felt on the berth deck below them. The Maine had three magazines.

Magazines Not Easy to Ignite.

The one forward was used for the storage of ammunition for the big ten-inch turret guns. There were eighty rounds of this ammunition, weighing 15,000 pounds. This quantity of explosive is so large that the naval officers here can scarcely believe it was possible for any human being on board the Maine to have escaped alive had this magazine exploded entirely. There was no smokeless powder on board the ship, and the ten-inch ammunition was made up of brown prismatic powder. Not only is this powder most carefully packed in hermetically sealed copper cases, but its heat-resisting qualities are so great that it cannot be ignited by the flame of a match, 600 degrees Fahrenheit being the amount of heat that must be applied for some time to set off the powder. On the other hand, it is readily ignited, in the case of a charge in a gun, by the explosion of a good quantity of fulminate. Every precaution is adopted aboard ship to safeguard the magazine. In its vicinity a sentry stands on duty continually. The doors are closed hermetically, except when the ship is cleared for action.

At 8 o'clock every night the temperature is taken and the keys of the lock door are placed in the Captain's hands for the night.

The records of the Navy Department show that 87 degrees was the maximum temperature in the Maine's magazines during the past month, a very low and safe temperature. These facts make it extremely difficult to account for the explosion, particularly as no visitors are admitted under any circumstances to the magazine. Of course it is possible that there was spontaneous combustion of some fulminate or gun cotton intended for use in torpedoes.

There were no steam pipes or furnaces near enough to the magazine to cause the belief that they might have exploded the powder. The coal bunkers were in the neighborhood, and it is just possible that in them might be found the origin of the accident. It depends on whether they were empty or contained coal to some degree. It is said to be the practice of commanders to empty the fore bunkers of the ship first, in which case the Maine's bunkers in that quarter were probably empty owing to the length of her stay in Havana harbor.

Spontaneous Fires in Bunkers.

If, however, the bunkers were not entirely empty, they undoubtedly contained within themselves elements of danger that might account for the explosion. The department within recent years has been greatly troubled by complaints of spontaneous combustion of coal in the ships' bunkers, which have endangered the lives of the crews and the safety of the ships. The Cincinnati twice at least has been obliged to flood her magazines to prevent their blowing up during fires of this kind, and the cruiser Boston has been in the same condition. In some of these cases shelving in the magazines which separate the powder charges have been charred by the intense heat caused by the burning coal in the adjacent bunkers. Although the bunkers are inspected under the regulations at frequent intervals, so numerous have been these cases of spontaneous combustion that the Navy Department only recently had the special board investigate the subject with the view to applying preventive measures. Unfortunately, this board was prevented from making the thorough investigation necessary because no funds were applicable to the purpose.

Even empty bunkers have exploded. In the case of the Atlanta, some years ago, the bunker exploded with great violence, and the only explanation that could be given was that it probably was caused by the ignition of the vapors arising from the new paint applied to the lining of the bunkers.

The theory advanced by the Spanish authorities that the disaster might have been caused by the explosion of the boiler is accepted at the Navy Department as within the bounds of credibility. The Maine's boiler was separated from the powder magazine at the nearest point by a space of about four feet, usually filled with coal. At least one boiler undoubtedly was kept under almost full steam in order to run the dynamos and move the ship in case of need. The explosion of such a boiler might easily drive through the bulkhead and fire the magazine.

Many Precedents for the Disaster.

Inasmuch as suspicion exists in some quarters that a torpedo was used against the Maine, it may be said that the majority of naval officers believe that the character of the explosion was hardly such as could be attributed to a torpedo. The latter, charged with about 100 pounds of gunpowder or guncotton, it is believed, would have torn a large hole in the bottom or side of the Maine, but scarcely likely to fire the magazine, which is not near the bottom.

It is said at the Navy Department that there is no lack of precedent for such a disaster as that sustained by the Maine, all of which can be traced to accidental causes. In 1885 the United States man-of-war Missouri, lying at Gibraltar, was totally wrecked by the explosion of her magazine. Another case famous in naval history is that of her Majesty's ship Dolerel, off Puenta Arenas, in the Straits of Magellan, in 1887.

Every confidence is felt at the Department in the commander of the Maine, Capt. Sigsbee, and until it is really established otherwise there is every disposition to charge the accident, if accident it was that destroyed the Maine, to some cause beyond the usual range of human discretion.

The coast survey steamer Bache is now lying at Key West. The Superintendent of the Survey lost no time this morning in inviting Secretary Long to make any use of the vessel in this emergency that he might desire. The invitation was gratefully accepted, and the Bache has been ordered to proceed at once to Havana with wrecking paraphernalia.

While every United States warship is provided with diving outfits, it is probable that the apparatus on the Maine was destroyed in the explosion and sinking of that ship, so it will be necessary to forward another outfit to Havana as early as possible, if an investigation is to be make of the condition of the hull of the ship below water, to determine finally whether the explosion was external or internal. Divers will also be useful in recovering the valuables aboard the Maine, and there is little doubt that her battery of ten-inch and smaller caliber rifle guns can be raised.

A very prominent naval officer who did not wish his name used because of the meagerness of present information as to details, expressed the informal opinion that the accident occurred from spontaneous combustion in the coal bunkers, the heat of which exploded the powder in the supplementary magazines adjoining. Still another prominent officer was very confident that the forward magazine of the Maine could not have exploded. "Had the magazine exploded," said he, "the ship would have been blown to flinders."

Source: Excerpt from New York Times, February 17, 1898.