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Thursday, August 30, 2007Titanic And A key
It was perhaps the most catastrophic lapse of memory in history, costing more than 1,500 lives.
A sailor called David Blair forgot to leave behind a key as the Titanic set off on its maiden voyage.
Without it, his shipmates were unable to open a locker in the crow's nest containing a pair of binoculars for the designated lookout.
The binoculars were to look out for dangers in the distance including signs of bad weather - and icebergs.
Lookout Fred Fleet, who survived the disaster in which 1,522 people lost their lives, later told an official inquiry that if they had binoculars they would have seen the iceberg sooner.
When asked by a US senator how much sooner it might have been spotted, Mr Fleet replied: "Enough to get out of the way."
Ninety-five years later, the key which may have saved the luxury liner is up for auction - along with a postcard from Mr Blair telling of his disappointment at not being on the maiden voyage.
Titantic locker key
The key would have opened a locker where the crows nest's binoculars were kept
Alan Aldridge, of auctioneers Henry Aldridge and Sons in Wiltshire, said: "Mr Blair was the second officer in charge of the crows nest and he had the key, which we believe was for the binoculars locker in the nest.
"A few days before the Titanic sailed he was bumped off the ship, a decision which probably saved his life.
"But in Blair's rush to leave Titanic he carried this key off with him in his pocket and forgot to hand it to his replacement, Charles Lightoller.
"Had Lightoller had the key then there probably would have been a pair of binoculars in the crows nest.
"It is supposition but, in lookout Fleet's own words, they would have seen the iceberg sooner with the binoculars.
"It is the key that had the potential to save the Titanic."
Charles Lightoller - who replaced Blair as Second Officer and should have been given the key - was the most senior officer to survive the disaster
Mr Blair, from Tayside, was 37 when he sailed on the Titanic from Belfast to Southampton, and Mr Fleet recalled his ship mate having the binoculars with him during the two-day trip.
He had been due to be the second officer for the maiden voyage to New York on April 10 but was told at the 11th hour he wasn't going.
Bosses at White Star Line decided Henry Wilde, the experienced chief officer of the Titanic's sister ship the Olympic, should be transferred instead.
As a result everybody was moved down a rank but Mr Blair was deemed too senior to take up the position of third officer and was tasked to another ship.
Although the move would prove to save Mr Blair's life, he wrote of his disappointment in a postcard he sent to his sister-in-law.
He wrote: "Am afraid I shall have to step out to make room for chief officer of the Olympic. This is a magnificent ship, I feel very disappointed I am not to make her first voyage."
The 46,000-tonne Titanic struck the iceberg in the north Atlantic at 11.45pm on April 14 and sank at 2.20am on April 15.
According to the official US inquiry into the sinking, Mr Fleet said he had previously used binoculars - known as glasses - on the RMS Oceanic, another trans-Atlantic liner. Senator Smith, chair of the inquiry, asked Fleet: "Suppose you had glasses ... could you have seen this black object [the iceberg] at a greater distance?"
Fleet replied: "We could have seen it a bit sooner."
Asked "How much sooner?", he said: "Well, enough to get out of the way."
In Mr Blair's defence, Mr Aldridge added: "Blair would have been rushing about tidying up his loose ends before then.
"In his rush it slipped his mind to hand over the key so the fate of the Titanic was in his hands in a round-about way.
"But in terms of blame then you have to look at the captain, EJ Smith. The ship was going too fast in an ice field which he had warnings about."
He continued: "There was a pair of binoculars on the bridge and a pair for the crows nest because Blair had them just days before.
"But the failure to provide the lookouts with them could have been down to Lightoller not knowing where they were.
"He would have found them had he been able to open the locker.
"So in the end all the lookouts had were their own eyes."
A year after the Titanic disaster Mr Blair was awarded the Kings Gallantry medal for saving life at sea.
Mr Blair kept the key as a memento and eventually passed it on to his daughter Nancy who gave it to the British and International Seamans Society in the 1980s and it is now being sold.
The key and the postcard are expected to fetch up to £70,000 at the auction on