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"What destroyed the USS Maine?" Topic

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©1994-2019 Bill Armintrout
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23rdFusilier Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2018 8:25 a.m. PST

How the USS Maine was destroyed is still controversial in spite of four major investigations into what happened.

The first took place in 1898, immediately after the sinking. The McKinley administration created a naval board of inquiry that concluded unanimously that the ship was sunk "only by the explosion of a mine situated under the bottom of the ship at about frame 18, and somewhat on the port side of the ship."

The second investigation took place in 1911. President Taft ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to study the wreckage. Never to do anything by halves, the Corps built a cofferdam around the ship's wreckage, pumped out all the water and examined the exposed hull. Hundreds of photographs were taken, and the Corps removed much of the wreckage. A revised board of inquiry reaffirmed that a mine sank the ship, but it concluded the mine had detonated at a different place.

The third investigation came in 1974, when Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear Navy, asked historians to re-examine the case. The historians dredged Spanish archives and consulted with foreign militaries about their own experience with internal explosions. They consulted professional engineers to analyze the 1911 photographs and took into context the "natural tendency to look for reasons for the loss that did not reflect upon the Navy." This study resulted in How the Battleship Maine was Destroyed. That book concluded the explosion was, "without a doubt," internal.

The fourth investigation came in 1999 and was conducted by the National Geographic Society. NGS commissioned a study by Advanced Marine Enterprises, which conducted the first detailed computer modeling of the disaster. AME stated that a coal fire within a bunker could have raised the temperature within one of the Maine's magazines to hazardous levels within a few hours. As to a mine strike, AME found that even a simple mine consisting of 100 pounds of black powder and a contact fuse could have sunk the ship. "If so, the mine must have been perfectly placed, which under the circumstances would have been as much a matter of luck as skill." While it did not discount either option for the Maine's destruction, AME ultimately concluded (based on the 1911 photographs) that there was more evidence in favor of the Maine's destruction by a mine.

So, do you believe the USS Maine was destroyed by
A. External explosion (i.e. Mine)
B. Internal explosion (i.e. Coal fire)

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2018 8:36 a.m. PST

I've always heard that the coal dust caused the explosion.
Much like static electricity in a grain elevator sets off the grain dust.

Personal logo miniMo Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2018 8:53 a.m. PST

C. Godzilla

Personal logo StoneMtnMinis Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2018 9:02 a.m. PST

miniMo +1 thumbs up


David Manley13 Jun 2018 9:05 a.m. PST

Internal explosion. IIRC the USN had suffered several fires in coal bunkers that year, this was the first in a bunker adjoining a magazine.

Also, never bet against Admiral Rickover!

rmaker13 Jun 2018 9:38 a.m. PST

Before putting too much trust in Rickover (and especially his computer model), you should know that about 20 year ago the card deck for his program was rediscovered at the naval War College. It was examined by modern programs and entered into a modern computer. It turns out that it was never run against any data except that from the Maine i.e., it was never tested.

The program was found to contain a major logic flaw. No matter what parameters were entered, the result was sunk by internal explosion. Modern test run data included, among others, the USS Maine, USS Arizona, USS Constitution, USS Enterprise (CVAN65), and Bancroft Hall (the huge dorm at Annapolis). All were reported as sunk by internal explosion.

Oberlindes Sol LIC Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2018 10:03 a.m. PST

I assume that it was jihadists from the Philippines, another Spanish possession.

They got jobs as coal tenders on the Maine, taking advantage of the Navy's predilection in those days of hiring locals to work on their ships. That put them in a perfect position to start a coal fire next to the magazine and kaboom!

Because Al Gore had not yet invented the internet (or even been born), the jihadists were never able to get anyone to pay attention to their claim of responsibility, and jingoistic newspapers in the United States drowned out everything except the Spanish mine theory.

Ferd4523113 Jun 2018 10:13 a.m. PST

I thought it was the reign in Spain fell mostly on the Maine).

23rdFusilier Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2018 10:23 a.m. PST

Rmaker, many thanks for that. I had not heard it before but I am not surprised.

My reasons for disregarding the coal bunker fire are;

The Maine carried a type of bituminous coal that rarely spontaneously combusted. The coal in bunker A-16, though not of a type of coal prone to spontaneous combustion, and even if it was prone to spontaneous combustion, it was well beyond the critical period in which spontaneous combustion was likely to occur.

Bunker A16 was not situated by a boiler or any other external heat source, and spontaneous combustion does not occur unless there is a heat source to speed up the process.

When Bunker A16 was inspected the morning of the disaster, the temperature was only 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Maine's temperature sensor system did not indicate any dangerous rise in temperature on the morning of the last inspection.

Discipline on the Maine was excellent, and regular inspections of coal bunkers for hazards, as well as the implementation of precautions for preventing bunker fires, were diligently carried out.

A number of witnesses stated that they heard two distinct explosions several seconds apart. If anything else besides a mine had triggered the magazine explosion, then witnesses would have only heard one blast, because the only explosion would have been that of the magazines.

The only reason that two explosions would have been heard is if something besides the magazine had exploded, such as a mine.

Irish Marine Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2018 10:42 a.m. PST

Probably the Cubans who planted a mine in the hopes of starting a war between the USA and Spain.

22ndFoot13 Jun 2018 11:53 a.m. PST

I think Winston has it.

A coal bunker fire and a coal dust explosion are two very different things. The cause, and fuel, of such an explosion, if that was indeed the cause, was probably coal dust and not coal.

Coal dust suspended in air at the appropriate concentration is highly explosive; this is not dependent on temperature and happens very quickly. Coal dust can spontaneously combust but its explosion is more often caused by a spark or, in mining, a firedamp (methane) fire. It is for this reason that an empty bunker is considered more dangerous than a full one.

It is worth noting, as did the Sampson Board, that four of the Maine's bunkers (B3, B4, B5 and B6) were empty on February 15, 1898 and these were adjacent to her forward magazine and shell rooms. The Report concluded that the ship had been struck by a submarine mine and specifically excluded the likelihood of spontaneous combustion of the full load of New River coal in bunker A15. The possibility of a bunker explosion in one or more of her empty bunkers is not addressed by the Board but two distinctly different explosions are noted.

I don't know what the state of knowledge was in the USN at that time concerning coal dust explosions and one can speculate as to why, under the circumstances, the Board might have concluded that a mine was the cause as well as why the Board may have reached some of its other conclusions. As noted, the 1974 enquiry noted the "natural tendency to look for reasons for the loss that did not reflect upon the Navy." There were obvious political ramifications too!

"The only reason that two explosions would have been heard is if something besides the magazine had exploded, such as a mine." Yes, such as a mine but not necessarily only a mine. It is perfectly possible that the first explosion was the coal dust in the bunker and the second the magazine.

In short, we'll never know. Interesting subject though.

Wackmole9 Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2018 12:07 p.m. PST

+1 to Winston, coal dust explosion and fire.

rmaker13 Jun 2018 2:01 p.m. PST

Rmaker, many thanks for that. I had not heard it before but I am not surprised.

It was written up in USNI Proceedings (or maybe Naval History) at the time. It was a common problem with "backdoor programs" in the main-frame era. Backdoor programs being those not regularly funded who had to borrow time from funded efforts. AKA "parasite programs". Since the programmers were attempting to fool the accounting system, they ran the programs as infrequently as possible. Testing takes time (and more runs), so it tended to be skipped altogether, or at best, left to "bench testing", i.e., eyeballing the listing for possible problems. Usually by the guys who wrote the code. Even properly funded programs were sometimes not adequately tested (and still aren't today).

Extrabio1947 Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2018 4:08 p.m. PST

In underground mines, extracting bituminous coal is much more hazardous than mining anthracite coal. If not properly vented, bituminous coal can produce high levels of very explosive firedamp, which is a mixture of highly volatile gases. Firedamp explosions are probably responsible for more mining fatalities than any other single reason. Not explosive dust, but very close.

It does burn hotter than anthracite, which is probably why it was used in The Maine.

David Manley13 Jun 2018 9:48 p.m. PST

Some interesting oints that raise additional questions and observations.

I'm curious to know what Rickover's "program" was. His conclusions were based on the findings of the panel of experts that he assembled to review historical data and structural evidence, the latter (which was the meat of the investigation in many ways) conducted by Hansen and Price at what is now the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Carderock. As far as I can see from the papers they published the analysis was based on review of the evidence coupled with their deep understanding of the effects of internal and external explosions on marine structures. I've not seen reference to a "program", and if such was used curious as to why it would be found at the Naval War College. so I'm not convinced by that. The lack of any reference that I can find to a post-Rickover discovery and rerunning of code interests me though, can you point me at something that covers this? Perhaps the "Proceedings" article? I had one from 1994 (pesky trainees have pinched it) that supports Rickover's conclusion, as I recall it didn't mention code. If there's something subsequent to that it would be great to see it.

On the bunker fire. USN regulations required bunkers to be inspected by 10am. This was done and nothing untoward was noed. This in itself is not conclusive; the USN had suffered in the region of 20 bunker fires in previous months (including fires involving the same fuel as the Maine's). Only the previous year bunkers in the USS New York were inspected as per the regulations, found to be OK, yet a blaze broke out 4 hours later, without the aid of an external heat source. And that was in relatively fresh coal, loaded 14 days previously, whereas Maine's bunkers (A16 in particular) had been filled 3 months prior to the explosion.

Curious to know what Maine's "temperature sensor system" was, if anything more than a thermometer and a roundsman.

Discipline and following of process on the Maine may well have been excellent, but New York's experience showed that the process could be breached by the forces of nature.

Two distinct reported events (by some) – but then there were multiple magazine events. And my personal experience of witness testimonies in events such as this leads me to treat with caution, and to go with the physical evidence.

Speaking of which, the physical evidence doesn't really support an external explosion as the initiator. The damage to the bottom structure isn't consistent with an UNDEX. Again, personal experience here, I was involved in an investigation on a vessel where the crew were convinced they'd driven over a ground mine. The state of the ships hull plating showed this was clearly not the case and that a contact mine or (as it turned out after further investigation) torpedo was the cause. The style of plating damage in Maine doesn't fit a contact or non-contact (ground mine) event.

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP13 Jun 2018 9:49 p.m. PST

I suspect politics was involved in choice of coal.
Anthracite coal has a limited range in the USA. It comes mainly from northeastern Pennsylvania.
In fact that alone could be the factor. Bituminous coal has a much larger range, so availability was probably the reason.

One reason I suspected politics…
Wilkes Barre congressman Dan Flood was a powerhouse in the 60s and 70s.
He actually pushed through a law mandating that US Army barracks in West Germany were to be heated with good old Pennsylvania anthracite coal. Apparently he was worried that there was no coal in Germany.

CSherrange14 Jun 2018 3:50 a.m. PST

I believe it to be coal dust. Spark/ heat/ whatever led to a terrible explosion

ToysnSoldiers Inactive Member14 Jun 2018 9:13 a.m. PST

Accident combined with design flaws.

Rallynow Supporting Member of TMP14 Jun 2018 10:37 a.m. PST

Coal dust.

goragrad14 Jun 2018 12:29 p.m. PST

As to methane, for nearly every major disaster it is the initiator of a dust explosion. As light as it is, it is rare to get a concentration that will create a major explosion by itself. A methane bump that puts coal dust into the air where it forms an explosive mixture that then gets sparked is where the disasters occur.

As the bulk of the methane present in coal is released within the first 24 hours after being mined, it would seem to be unlikely enough would remain in bunkered coal to cause an explosion.

Another question is how tightly sealed the bunkers were – methane is very light and it would require a tight seal to prevent its escape.

Legion 414 Jun 2018 1:09 p.m. PST

Everything I had read or heard was B … But I was not there … so …

pvernon14 Jun 2018 4:54 p.m. PST


Covert Walrus15 Jun 2018 3:47 p.m. PST

The last serious attempt to solve that was a National Geographic expedition in IIRC 2009 or so. They recovered much of the hull from the area that was most likely the point of explosion, and discovered that the plates were buckled to suggest and explosion. The area that would have determined by eh way it was buckled exactly whether the detonation was internal ( Buckling outward) or a weapon ( Buckling inward) . . . was *exactly* the piece missing from the otherwise intact wreckage.

The obvious conclusion was never drawn.

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP15 Jun 2018 8:41 p.m. PST

If National Geographic couldn't settle it, at least we have a TMP poll to settle it finally!

23rdFusilier Supporting Member of TMP17 Jun 2018 3:02 a.m. PST

Thank you everyone for your input. Great answers!

Patrick Sexton Supporting Member of TMP19 Jun 2018 2:29 p.m. PST

"They recovered much of the hull from the area that was most likely the point of explosion,"

I believe the Maine was given a burial at sea so I am not sure how much data could be gathered from where it blew up at anchor when it isn't at that site anymore.

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