On the 6th December, 1908, on the outward run, the coal in the starboard lower deck bunker was found to be on fire. The following are the relevant entries extracted from the engineer's logbook:
"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 fire could have had catastrophic consequences, abutting a boiler casing and extending into the engine room. One's first reaction is; how could a fire penetrate into the vulnerable engine room? Surely there would be sufficient insulation protecting the engine room from adjacent coal bunkers? The procedure tackling the fire was standard. The bunker was sealed off and water pumped into the space using a standard hose for the purpose. An additional standard hose was required for the engine room. The coal was then worked from the offending bunker in an attempt to remove burning coal into furnaces and also to get to foci of burning coal, deep within the pile. The reduction of smoke was a good sign, but in the case of bunker fires did not reflect the full picture, namely coal burning deep within the pile.
"4 p.m. Coal in bunker making more smoke, started both pumps on same for one hour."
"7th December, 1 a.m. Using hoses and water occasionally on fire in bunkers."
"2 p.m. Found large piece of burning coal back of casing over boilers. Played water on same."
After believing that the fire was reasonably well controlled, this burning piece of coal was discovered on the casing over boilers. This illustrates the unpredictability of the situation. One moment, under control, the next, a potential boiler explosion.
"4 p.m. Working all coal from starboard lower deck bunker, using water when necessary on coal when smoke gets excessive."
"8th December, 4 a.m. Using water on coal in bunkers when necessary."
"11 a.m. Fire still in starboard lower bunker."
"9th December, 4 a.m. Large piece or batch of burning coal found, same extinguished by water."
This, again, illustrates that burning 'batches' of coal could be discovered (assumed to have been within the pile), by day 3. It did not incite panic and one gets the impression that this was a relatively common occurrence, sometimes taking a number of days to bring under control. There is no mention of the Waratah slowing down or diverting course. The general expectation appears to be one of eventually gaining control of the fire, at sea.
"6 a.m. Bunker still burning slightly."
"10 a.m. Fire out in bunker at 10 a.m."
The fire burned for a total of 4 days. Apparently passengers found the incident amusing and were kept up to date with progress. If a fire had broken out in a similar manner, shortly after the Waratah departed Durban, 26 July, I believe there would have been a similar expectation, until the fire progressed beyond the control of standard fire fighting procedures and appliances. As we can see by the piece of burning coal discovered on the boiler casing, day 3, anything could happen....
In the deck log are the following entries:
"6th December, 6 a.m. Discovered smoke in starboard bunker, got hose to work."
"8 a.m. Working coal out of starboard bunker, and playing hose at intervals, keeping the fire under."
"6 p.m. Keeping fire hose and men in attendance on bunker throughout."
"7th December, 8 a.m. Hose still kept in readiness in bunker and played on coal at times, coal being worked out and found heated in wake of boiler."
This important entry illustrates that the cause of the fire might have originated from the heat from the boilers, and that heat insulation was deficient, with that same deficiency allowing a fire in the bunker to spread back to the engine room.
"9 p.m. Hands attending hose in bunker throughout the night."
"8th December, 4 p.m. Fire still showing signs in the starboard bunker, hose kept in attendance night and day."
"10th December, 12 noon. Fire in bunker finished."
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 set of boilers and near the engine-room, in the 'tween decks; that 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.
'The bulkhead over the engine-room was pretty warm', is alarming to say the least. The fact that the 'bunker plates never got distorted', highlights that this COULD have happened with a progressively deteriorating situation. It draws our attention to deficiencies in the heat insulation separating coal bunkers from the heated environment of furnaces and boilers. That this happened at all, suggests that it could have happened again, this time with fatal consequences.
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."
That work was done in Sydney to the engineer's satisfaction.
Very interesting! I assume that Captain Ilbery did not report the fire to the owners, because the chief engineer (Mr. Hodder) dealt with relevant correspondence to the superintending engineer (Captain Bidwell). But the way the report is worded suggests some form of negligence on the part of Captain Ilbery, which I believe is misdirected.
The chief engineer, Mr Hodder, described the shortcomings causing the fire. He stated plainly that the problem was one of lack of adequate insulation, at the 'back of the reducing valves for steering engine and starboard side of the engine-room'. This should have been a red flag moment, because it was viewed as a 'small job' and 'that work was done in Sydney to the engineer's satisfaction'. Mr. Ryan claimed that the bulkhead over the engine room was 'pretty warm', suggesting that the problem of heat insulation was not necessarily localised to the plates behind the reducing valves. It gives one an impression of dealing with a small part of a bigger problem. Perhaps crew was blase about their ability to contain fires, rather than preventing them?
The incident has been related at some length, because one theory it will be examined later of this ship's disappearance is that she blew up in consequence of her bunkers firing. What happened on her first voyage could have no direct relation to what happened on the second voyage, but in the absence of direct evidence as to her loss it has been considered advisable closely to scrutinize the whole history of the ship on both voyages.
This cross-section of an average steamer from the era, illustrates the close proximity of engine room, bunkers and holds. Fire had the potential to spread quickly between the spaces, and after all the beam of the Waratah was only the length of an average bowling alley.