Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Waratah - explosion off Cape Hermes.

"Sight of a large steamer astern of his own ship, working hard into the heavy seas. She was making a great deal of smoke, enough for Capt. Bruce to wonder if the steamer was on fire."

This extract from the Inquiry raises the question of fire and possibly an explosion aboard the Waratah during her last moments.

It is often quoted that an explosion would in most cases result in flotsam / debris of some kind.

Nothing from the Waratah was ever officially discovered.

We know from the Inquiry transcripts that the Waratah had problems with an on-going coal fire (December 1908), as was common in steamers of that era.

Coal fires aboard ship could start in a number of ways, the most common of which was moving the coal from one bunker to another.  The reaction temperature for a smouldering fire is about 150 degrees to 500 degrees centigrade, and this is known as incomplete combustion and takes place in the absence of oxygen.

Smouldering coal can be found deep within the coal pile, difficult to reach.

"6th December, 1908, 5 a.m. reported by second engineer smoke issuing from hatch of bunker on lower deck, alongside boiler casing and extending into engine room as far as the store rooms. All bunker doors shut and coal worked only from starboard bunker where on fire. Hose put on to same from deck, and holes cut in two places in engine-room, and hose put into same, pumps kept on, and at 11.30 a.m. smoke greatly reduced."

This smouldering coal fire continued unabated despite the above measures through until noon 10 December, 4 complete days.

During the attempts to extinguish the fire the following was dealt with: a large piece of burning coal on the casing over the boiler and  'working the coal' from starboard lower deck bunker, using water when the smoke became excessive.

"Mr. Ryan, the former senior fourth engineer of the "Waratah," was examined as to the circumstances of the fire. He said that it was over the after (rear) set of boilers and near the engine-room, in the 'tween decks. No coal was destroyed in putting out the fire, that the bulkhead over the engine-room was pretty warm, but that the bunker plates never got distorted."

One would like to know more about 'the bulkhead over the engine room was pretty warm'.  Was the bulkhead hot enough to cause damage?  The mere mention 'that the bunker plates never got distorted' suggests to me that plates could be significantly damaged by prolonged intense heat from a smouldering bunker coal fire.  Distorted plates could be expanded to include the integrity of the bulkheads and hull.

Captain Ilbery and the Chief Engineer were required to comment on the fire:

"Captain Ilbery made no report of the fire to his owners, although he wrote twice from Adelaide; but in a letter of the 15th December, 1908, written from Adelaide by the chief engineer to the superintending engineer is the following paragraph:”

"On Sunday, December 6th, a small fire started in the after lower bunker. We found smoke at 5 a.m. and we cut a hole in the engine-room and practically put it out at 11 a.m. The fire was caused by the heat from the several reducing valves and steam valves in the recess on the starboard side of the engine-room. The roof is insulated, but at the back of the reducing valves for steering engine and starboard side of the engine-room is not. As it will only be a small job, it would be advisable to have it done here."

Captain Ilbery did not report this to the owners.

Perhaps coal fires were of such common occurrence that it was not necessary to report them to the owners?

Perhaps the lack of reporting was so as not to blemish the reputation of the newly launched flag ship?

The second issue that strikes one is that of the fire reported to have been extinguished by 11 am 6 December, 1908.  We know from the above transcripts that the fire did in fact continue to require repeated attention until 10 December, 1908.

The location of the fire, adjacent to the engine room (boilers) suggests potential for explosion and a large piece of burning coal was reported to have settled on the casing of the one boiler.  Was the boiler in question left with residual damage?

If the casing and outer skin of a boiler were 'distorted' by continuous heat, there is the very real possibility of an explosion.

A boiler explosion in the case of the SS Sultana, 1865, a Mississippi side-wheel steamboat, occurred when a faulty and poorly repaired steam boiler exploded, setting off a further two boiler related explosions, killing 1600 passengers and creating an inferno on board.

A coal dust explosion could also certainly account for massive damage and distortion of hull plates causing a vessel to founder. Coal dust suspended in air is explosive and is susceptible to spontaneous combustion. A near empty coal bunker would be more risky for this type of explosion than a full one. The resultant shock wave would certainly be capable of destroying bulkhead and hull.

The crew of the Harlow were down wind from the Waratah, less than 4 nautical miles. If there had been an explosion they would have heard it (which they did not) and seen far more than the 'flares' rising into the night sky. Further to this, the Waratah was observed gaining on the Harlow which suggests that if a fire was out of control in one of the coal bunkers, a solution would have been to increase the rate of removal of the coal into the furnaces, thus pressing the engines and reducing the burning coal or getting to it within the pile. The Waratah under such circumstances would be travelling at or faster than her listed speed of 13 knots. This figure is 4.5 knots faster than the listed speed of the tramp steamer Harlow.

It would be imperative under such circumstances to return to Port (Durban) for assistance with control of the fire. Fire could have been a major factor causing the Waratah to founder.


The SS Sultana ablaze after explosion


Mole said...

It's said that the reason the Titanic's captain was speeding through the ice field was not to set a record but because there was a fire in a coal bunker that could have got out of control. This fire was already burning when Titanic left harbour: stokers were working but couldn't extinguish it. The heat could well have weakened some of the hull plates thus weakening the structure when it hit the iceberg. Such a fire in a coal bunker was not unusual on ships at this date.


Thanks very much Mole for reminding us about the Titanic, and the need for stoking the boilers to reduce the smouldering coal pile. The very fact that the fire was noted at Southampton before departure tells us that it was a frequent occurrence and generally not seen as a threat to the vessel or her passengers and crew,