Friday, 17 July 2015


Bendigo Advertiser (Victoria) Saturday 30 October 1909
Melbourne, 29th October.
Captain Bruce, of the British steamerHarlow, has, the cable tells us, suppliedLloyd's with a detailed statement with reference to the report he previously madethat on 27th July, when 180 miles fromDurban, he saw a large steamer afire, andthat the vessel - afterwards believed by himto be the Waratah—was destroyed by anexplosion. In his detailed account he statesthat the vessel was smoking fiercely, andtwo explosions occurred before she disappeared from sight, he presumes that thevessel was returning to Durban when thedisaster occurred. He estimates that shenow lies in twenty fathoms of water, andthat a diver could easily work there.
The leading officials of Messrs. John Sanderson and Co., the Melbourne agents ofthe Lund line, when questioned to-day,stated that they had not received any information regarding the statements by Captain Bruce, of the Harlow, beyond the reports that have appeared in the press. While not disposed to discuss Captain Bruce's sensational story, they still contend that whatever he saw was not in any way connectedwith the Waratah, and that the missing vessel is still afloat.
"Were there any explosives on theWaratah which could cause such a tremendous explosion as that described by Captain Bruce?" we asked.
"Certainly not," was the reply. '"TheWaratah carried no explosives exceptingthe usual ship's supply of rockets and bluelights. These could not possibly cause suchan explosion and flame."
(Ironically, the rockets could cause persistent flashes of light.)
"Supposing the boilers burst, might notthat cause a great explosion?"
"A large steamer has many boilers, andall the engineering experts tell us that ifthey burst at the same moment—whichit is unreasonable to suppose could occur,the effect would be nothing like what Captain Bruce describes. When a boiler bursts you generally hear of a few men being killed or scalded, and damage done in the engine room, but the ship is not destroyed or blown to pieces, boilers explode generally laterally and downwards."
"It is stated that the explosion occurredsix miles away from the Harlow. Whatreason can you suggest for Captain Brucenot having steamed to the spot to ascertainwhat had happened?"
"On the information before us no reason can be suggested. Six miles is nothingat sea, and after witnessing such a remarkable occurrence as he describes it is difficult to understand why the Harlow was notheaded for the spot. If a steamer or sailingship had been blown up there would certainly have been quantities of floatingwreckage. However, Captain Bruce is definite and explicit in his description but we are confident that what he saw was not connected with the Waratah, and that she is still afloatfor she is a large, powerful, well-formed and properly-loaded vessel, able to stand any weather.''

In this account, it is interesting to read how firmly (forcefully) the the Lunds' agents refuted Bruce's account. It was as though they 'protested too much'. Captain Bruce's claim, on the other hand, was 'definite and explicit'.
Of course Bruce should have gone back to investigate, with a view to rendering assistance. But he didn't. After the fact, when he could no longer keep quiet, Bruce tried to convince authorities to take him seriously and investigate the waters off Port St Johns. He even offered a word of encouragement that divers would be able to work at that depth.
But his credibility was lost and no one wanted to accept that the Waratah might havegone in such a gruesome manner.
From the very beginning, when I explored the case of the Waratah, it was puzzling why Captain Bruce risked his reputation by 'admitting' to the eye witness account so long after the fact and if held 'culpable' for not going back to help, his master's certificate and livelihood.
If it is argued that Bruce, his first officer (before he changed his story to 'bush fires') and Alfred Harris, fabricated the account, what did they stand to gain? From my perspective they stood to gain nothing, but rather, lose a great deal.
Clearly the 'large steamer' did not blow up, otherwise the explosion would have been heard and debris scattered far and wide.But if Bruce could convince the public that he 'thought' the steamer exploded into atoms (all souls instantly killed), there would be an 'excuse' for not going back.  
Captain Bruce risked a great deal by coming forward with his account. I believe his conscience intervened when he realised the full extent of searches at sea, and the simple unequivocal cruelty of perpetuating the hope that the Waratah was disabled and adrift in the southern ocean.
If the boilers exploded simultaneously, laterally and downwards, there is a remote possibility that the sounds of the explosion were muffled within the densely loaded hull of the Waratah. Such an explosion/s could have blown the sides of the hull out, causing the Waratah to founder very rapidly, indeed.

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