An intense coal bunker fire that likely reached 1,000 degrees Celsius caused damage that accelerated the sinking of the Titanic more than 100 years ago, an Irish journalist claims in a new documentary.

Senan Molony, who has been researching the Titanic disaster for decades and has written several books on the topic, said there is now photographic evidence that a massive fire damaged the hull of the ship long before it struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland on April 14, 1912.  

Molony outlines his theory and findings in a new documentary that aired in the U.K. this month. “Titanic: The New Evidence” will be broadcast on Discovery in Canada on April 9.

The theory that coal fire contributed to the Titanic’s demise is not new. In 2004, an engineer at Ohio State University suggested that attempts to control the fire by throwing the smouldering coal into the steam engine boiler increased the Titanic’s speed before it struck the iceberg.  

Newspaper reports from 1912, and a British inquiry into the disaster, also discussed a fire on board. 

But Molony said photos taken of the Titanic before it embarked on its doomed maiden voyage now prove that there was, indeed, a massive fire that weakened the ship and ultimately accelerated its sinking.

The photos, acquired by a collector in 2012, show a diagonal mark about 30 feet long on the ocean liner’s starboard side. When Molony and photography experts analyzed the images, he said there was no doubt about what he was seeing – evidence of fire damage from within.

“We eliminated the obvious possibilities that it could be a reflection or some meteorological phenomenon, or shadow, and photographic experts verified that it was a true representation of what was in front of the lens and not a quirk of the photographic process,” he told in a phone interview.

“My mind immediately leapt back to the fire that we know was raging in a coal bunker in boiler room number 6.”

Molony believes that the coal fire began spontaneously in a bunker “the size of a three-storey house.” Stored coal can ignite on its own and smoulder for a long time.

Molony believes the fire blazed all the way from Belfast, where the ship was being delivered from, to Southampton, where the Titanic’s actual trans-Atlantic journey began.

From Southampton onwards, stokers aboard the cruise liner worked around-the-clock to extinguish the fire.  Those who survived the disaster were quoted in newspapers as saying that the Titanic was “afire” until the day before the ship struck the iceberg.

“Now we know, by investigating scientifically, what the nature of that fire was,” he said, noting that the blaze would have likely reached 1,000 C, severely damaging the bulkhead steel that was supposed to protect the ship.

“The case that’s been made is that, because the iceberg was struck in the exact place where this coal fire has been…this fire robbed the steel of the properties it should have had,” Molony said.

He said the fire should have been disclosed to a surveyor who was aboard the ship for three days in Southampton, but according to reports at the time, the Titanic firemen and crew were told to play down the situation.

More than 1,500 passengers and crew died in the disaster, and there were an estimated 705 survivors.

Molony said hundreds more might have been rescued had the Titanic been able to float longer in the icy waters.