Shortly after the incident two military boards of inquiry were commissioned to investigate the loss.
Both commissions concluded that insufficient water in the boiler was the primary cause of the explosion.
However, while the exact cause was never fully determined, further investigation concluded that one or more of the following may have contributed to the explosion:
• Sultana was fitted with newly introduced tubular boilers.
While more compact and efficient, they also needed frequent cleaning to remove scale that rapidly formed with the use of silt- and mud-laden water.
Lack of proper cleaning and the resultant scale formations may have caused tube overheating and rupture.
• In efforts to maintain maximum speed, the boilers were being pushed to their pressure limits and perhaps beyond.
The repaired patch may have been the Achilles’ heel by letting go due to metal fatigue.
• The Sultana was driving against floodwaters, crossing from one side of the river to the other when the explosion occurred.
I twas reported that the vessel listed slightly as soldiers moved from one side to the other to view passing traffic and river towns.
This may have exposed tubes to direct heat withour water on the outside of the tubes.
As the boat righted itself water would have come in contact with red-hot tubes, causing a sudden spike in steam pressure.
Repetitive action of this sort may have ruptured tubes, causing an explosion.
In summary, lowwater level, excessive steam pressure and poor maintenance were probably all contributing factors.
Findings regarding responsibility for the selection of the Sultana and for overloading her suggested that culpability rested with the combined action of four men.
However, during the proceedings three of the four were exonerated, leaving a Captain Frederic Speed,
in charge of prisoner transfer and shipment, to face the music. Speed requested a trial almost immediately to have his name cleared.
His military court-martial convened 9 January 1866 in Vicksburg. He stood accused of “Neglect of duty to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.”
Speed entered a plea of not guilty and made known his feelings that the government was using him as a scapegoat.
Six months later Speed was found guilty and faced dishonorable discharge.
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