Ice on Deck

Further analysis of the iceberg impact.


My first article about the newly discovered Bremen Iceberg that appeared in Encyclopedia Titanica in July 2001 (The Iceberg — resurfaced?) was about the photograph itself. This second article concerns another part of the fateful moment of collision: this iceberg picture provides us with a possible answer to the question, why chunks of ice were thrown onto the deck but no damage was caused to Titanic’s upper decks. The conclusion: chunks of ice did not fall from the top of the berg straight down onto the deck – they were thrown upwards then rebounded at the overhang of the iceberg and finally fell onto the ship.

The common view is that the top of the iceberg threw chunks of ice straight down onto the deck 1. It is also the common view that there was no extreme overhang at the berg which has reached over to the ship straight above the deck. Regarding both aspects it is hardly possible that ice was thrown from an icebergs top which was NOT hanging over the deck: furthermore it is widely known that the upper decks did not even touch the berg. According to these points, this must mean that the berg would have thrown its ice some way horizontally over to the ship. And we can furthermore assume that the size of the berg maybe did not reach up to the upper deck2. The witnesses reported very different sizes and even Rehoreks photograph doesn´t give any clue to that question.

How much ice was fallen onto the deck? The Able Bodied Seamen William Lucas has been examined at the British Enquiry (Day 3) by Mr. Rowlatt:3

Rowlatt: ”Where did you see the ice on the deck?”
Lucas: ”On the fore-well on the starboard side.”
Rowlatt: ”How much ice was there on the deck there?”
Lucas: ”I suppose, about a couple of tons.”

However we have very different witnesses reports. Fourth Officer Joseph Groves Boxhall was examined from the British Enquiry to this point as well (Day 13):

Mr. Raymond Asquith: ”Did you then go up again through the other decks as far as C deck?”
Boxhall: ”I came up the same way as I went down.”
Asquith: ”Without noticing any damage?”
Boxhall: ”I did not see any damage whatever.”
Asquith: ”When you got to C deck did you see some ice there on the deck?”
Boxhall: ”Yes, I took a piece of ice out of a man's hand, a small piece about as large as a small basin, I suppose; very small, anyhow; about that size (Describing.) He was going down again to the passenger accommodation, and I took it from him and walked across the deck to see where he got it. I found just a little ice in the well deck covering a space of about three or four feet from the bulwarks right along the well deck, small stuff.”

Boxhall was the only witness who described a bit more precisely the quantity of ice he saw on deck. Not a ”couple of tons” as Lucas said, but ”small stuff”. The Able Bodied Seaman Thomas Jones testified before the US Inquiry (Day 7), that he went on deck and could see ”some ice”. The Able Bodied Seaman Edward John Buley also reported ”a couple of tons of block ice” to the British Inquiry (Day 16). The Leading Fireman Charles Hendrickson saw ”a lot of ice...on the deck” (British Inquiry, Day 5). But none of these accounts was as precise as Boxhall´s one.

Another interesting statement was given by Lookout Reginald Lee at the British Inquiry (Day 4) after a short talk between the Commissioner and the Attorney-General:

The Commissioner: ”What is supposed to have caused the ice to fall on the deck? Was it some part of the ship, the Titanic, striking the berg above the waterline, or was it something that fell from the iceberg without the iceberg being struck.”
The Attorney-General: ”I should have thought myself that it followed that the vessel must have struck the iceberg, and brought the ice on to the deck.”
The Commissioner: ”So I should have thought, but I was wondering what part of the Titanic would strike the iceberg.”
The Attorney-General: ”I do not think there is any such suggestion.” (To the Witness.) ”You have told us that you saw some ice fall on to the forewell deck?”
Reginald Lee: ”It must have been overhanging from the berg as she struck, otherwise it could not have come there, because there were no yards on the mast or anything of that sort. It must have been.”
The Attorney-General: ”It must have been either the head or the side?”
Reginald Lee: ”It caused it to fall inboard. This is where it landed, just on that forewell deck.” (Showing on the model.)
The Attorney-General: ”You did not notice that, did you. Did you notice whether there was any overhanging part?”
Reginald Lee: ”No, I cannot say what was overhanging; I cannot say the size.”

If we try to get a precise quantity of ice on deck we cannot get a clear result: some witnesses said ”a lot”, some said ”some” ice. But Boxhalls description was the most precise one. Lee´s report is very interesting because he spoke of an overhang he did not see. Was the iceberg somewhat higher than the guard rail or not? Boxhall spoke of an iceberg which was floating very low in the water and probably did not extend above the level of the guard rail. Other witnesses said that the iceberg did. As mentioned above Rehorek´s iceberg photograph doesn´t give any clue about its size. If we assume the iceberg did not reach up to the upper decks, how did the chunks of ice then get onto the ship? As Charles H. Lightoller, Second Officer, explained at the US-Hearing (Day 1):

Senator Smith: ”Was the vessel broken in two in any manner (i.e.: as a result of the collision) or intact?”
Lightoller: ”Absolutely intact.”
Smith: ”And the decks?”
Lightoller: ”Intact.”

Boxhall’s report to the same hearing, after having inspected the ship’s interior, was similar (Day3):

”... I went on the bridge and reported to the captain that I could not see any damage.”

Boxhall repeated this at the British Inquiry (Day 13).

If the Titanic had chipped chunks of ice off the iceberg at the forecastle level, then Lightoller and Boxhall would certainly have spotted some visible damage. But there are no reports from any other witnesses either of any damage suffered by the Titanic above the water line. This is also confirmed by the report of the British court of inquiry:4

”The collision with the iceberg, which took place at 11.40 p.m., caused damage to the bottom of the starboard side of the vessel at about 10 feet above the keel, but there was no damage above this height.”

This must mean that the Titanic did not come into contact with the iceberg in the area of the upper forecastle – but, nevertheless, chunks of ice were thrown onto the deck assuming that there was an overhang, but which did not reach over up the deck? This inevitably raises the question as to how they could have got there. In the Cameron film, in which the collision was reconstructed as accurately as possible, this moment is cleverly disguised: the Hollywood iceberg rises straight up out of the water well above the height of the guard rail, and chunks of ice break away high up and plummet straight (!) down onto the forecastle deck. If the collision had happened as it is portrayed in the film, then the Titanic would most certainly have shown signs of damage in the upper area. After all, the ship’s hull becomes a bit broader as it rises out of the water accordingly some damage caused by the perpendicular face of the iceberg must have been visible higher up as well. In reality, however, in 1912 this was not the case.

Looking at Rehoreks iceberg photograph, that has shown up in the year 2000 5, we now can state that chunks of ice could still get onto the deck even when the iceberg did not reach the height of the guard rail. On this photograph the face of the iceberg is slightly (not extremely) overhanging above the point of initial impact. Let us just visualize the collision again: the 50,000 ton ship rams the iceberg at full speed. The force of the impact causes chunks of the iceberg to be split away and projected some ice into the air. The smashed edge at the berg is clearly to be seen on the photograph, of course the bigger damage we cannot see on the picture was below the water line.

We can therefore assume that only a few chunks of ice were thrown onto the deck. As we mentioned earlier, Lightoller and Boxhall reported that above and below deck everything was ”intact”, which corresponded to the findings of the British court of inquiry, too. This is also an indication that only the lower sections of the Titanic hull struck the iceberg and that ice was thrown upwards then rebounded from the upper overhang of the iceberg and finally deflected onto the deck. Of course a bigger part of these chunks fell back into the water.

This theory - by the way - does not depend on the size of the iceberg: the rebound effect works with an iceberg that was or was not extending the upper decks.

(December 2001)

Please note: This article is protected by copyright. Any duplication of the pictures for commercial or journalistic purposes or for publication in the press, TV, Internet (also on private homepages) or in any other media is forbidden without the explicit consent of the author. This also applies to enlargements or graphic alterations of parts or all of any images. Duplication for private use is, of course, permitted.

1. I did not find a detailed description in a book, but in some films, specially in the Cameron film it is shown that the chunks just fell down on the deck, as it seems from the top of the berg.
2. Please see former ET article ”The Iceberg – resurfaced”.”The Iceberg – resurfaced”.
3. All witnesses accounts are taken from the ”Inquiry project”.
4. Report on the Loss of the S.S. Titanic, Reprint, New York 1998, Pg. 32.
5. Please see former ET article ”The Iceberg – resurfaced”.


Henning Pfeifer

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Ice On Deck by Henning Pfeifer (18 posts)

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