In addition to the two eye witness accounts of Captain Bruce and his chief officer, we have a third, independent account by the chief engineer of the Harlow. Harris described how he noticed two white lights of a large steamer (small steamers had one white masthead light) after coming out of his cabin at 7.30 pm, 27 July.
His immediate impression was that the lights represented a steamer about 4 or 5 miles astern, not that of bush fires or the Cape Hermes light. He also, very importantly, remarked that the sea was calm. The cold front storm had not reached this position by this time. Note 4 - 5 miles astern = much reduced chance of mistaking the vision for bush fires or other. This was relatively close by.
He further confirmed his impression when noticing a red light connected with the steamer astern. The impression was affirmed when he asked Captain Bruce what the lights were and received the reply that they represented a steamer.
He noticed that a large volume of smoke emanated from the steamer, which substantiated earlier observations made by Captain Bruce and the chief officer. He could not see the hull of the steamer. This is significant because being at night, the black hull of the Waratah would have been difficult to distinguish.
He noticed a glow in the smoke further suggesting that the steamer was on fire. Harris then became cautious, referring to a 'large flare up in the heavens lasting a moment or two' 'five or ten minutes later', as far as he could remember. Why did he choose to insert 'as far as he could remember' at this juncture? In a legal situation (affidavit), the veracity of a statement is covered to some extent by referring to the limitations of memory fallibility. Harris, before this referred to the flares as:
'a glow among the smoke - then a large flare up in the heavens lasting a minute or two'....
'narrow at the bottom and mushrooming out at the top.'
In the earlier account he refers to 'minute' rather than 'moment' and describes the flare as narrow at the bottom, mushrooming out at the top. If we recall, the flares left a residual red glow in the night sky, which bathed the chart room in a red glow (stated by Captain Bruce). In my opinion, such a phenomenon would not be made possible by bush fires on the distant shore, nor explosions, which create a momentary flash and residual smoke.
Once the light created by the flashes subsided (two minutes) the lights (white and red) and smoke from the steamer had entirely disappeared. It beggars belief that persistent light from bush fires and a lighthouse light could disappear entirely on a calm night. This simply is not possible!
Harris went on to state that no explosions were heard (fits in with the description of a steamer disappearing within two minutes without leaving a zone of debris) and 'no signals of distress rockets' were seen. It is interesting to note that the 3 witnesses made a point of clearing themselves by stressing that no distress rockets were seen, when in obvious point of fact, the flashes as described, could only have been distress rockets. In fact socket signals created the very thing described.
The most crucial part of Harris' affidavit comes in the form of the statement made;
'In talking over these unusual phenomena with the master and officers of the Harlow, I accepted the explanation which they as practical mariners deemed satisfactory, vis., the lights which I and the master had at first supposed to be those of a steamer were really from a signal station in the vicinity, (I believe Cape Hermes) and the flare was ascribable to the bushfires, a number of which we had passed during the day. This seemed more probable to me owing to the absence of any signals of distress from the supposed steamer'.
In my opinion this statement is the crux of the matter. It is almost ridiculous that highly specific running lights and the red side light of a steamer could be confused with a signal station (one light) almost 7 miles away. Then bush fires are introduced as an explanation for the 'flares'. All of this hinged on the sentence owing to the absence of any signals of distress. Everything hinged on this singular fact of interpretation. Even if the flares were not distress signals and the steamer foundered suddenly and unexpectedly, the crew of the Harlow were obliged to return and investigate.
The chief officer stuck to this story, but Captain Bruce in later months became more adamant that they had witnessed the disappearance of a large steamer, probably the Waratah.
Harris gave the game away in his affidavit. He stated that the steamer was only '4 or 5 miles distant'!! Bruce at least had the savvy to add some distance between the vessels. The large steamer was close enough for the crew of the Harlow to have been sure what they saw and investigated her last position and attempt to lend assistance. The sea was calm and smooth. It would have been relatively easy for the Harlow to retrace and investigate. But a collective decision was made to abandon the effort of finding traces of the steamer and her souls. She had gone down within two minutes, suggesting that the crew of the Harlow did not expect to find much, or be able to rescue survivors. Being close to shore there was also the very real danger of Harlow striking a reef.
Captain Bruce must have had a change of heart about this decision, taking into account the extraordinary expense incurred by deploying a number of vessels in search of a 'drifting' Waratah. He became positively adamant about his own witness account, which was more detailed and went back to 5.30 pm 27 July, tracking the approaching steamer up until about 8 pm, when it disappeared. Captain Bruce was even able to determine the approaching speed, 13.5 knots, of the large steamer. The cruising speed of the Waratah was 13.5 knots. Finally no one in their right mind would give coordinates 'for the hell of it'.
Harris inadvertently (or perhaps not) reinforced that nothing was done to go to the aid of the Waratah in distress. Bush fires and the light at Cape Hermes lighthouse 'let them off the hook'.