Saturday, 13 May 2017


I believe that Waratah experienced a fire on board, as was observed and described by Captain Bruce of the Harlow. Clearly, under such circumstances, Captain Ilbery was attempting to return to Port Natal. The last sighting of Waratah, roughly 8 pm, 27 July, was in a position a mere 0.5 n miles off the shore, near Poenskop. If this scenario is true, there has to be an explanation for Waratah being in a dangerous position close to the St John reef, Bluff Point. In the next few posts I am going to explore period incidents involving fires on board steamers to understand the scenario outlined by Captain Bruce.

For an in depth reminder of the Harlow theory go to:

The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 October, 1909.
Fire which was discovered In the lower
starboard coal bunker of the Federal-Houlder
-Shire liner Surrey was followed by tragic 
results, two members of her crew were 
suffocated in the burning compartment.
The occurrence took place on the coast
about 6 o'clock yesterday morning in fine
weather as the vessel was on a trip from
Sydney to Williamstown at which place
she was to take in wool and other cargo 
for London. At the hour mentioned the 
chief officer detecting signs of fire below
reported the matter to Captain Gordon 
who gave instructions that the watch on 
duty should make an examination of the 
vessel. A search quickly revealed the fact 
that the coal in the lower starboard bunker 
was on fire.
A big hole was at once cut in tho bunker and
hoses were brought to play upon the outbreak
whilst J A Christlansen the boatswain and
A Nielsen A B entered the bunker to ascertain
the extent of the fire. The heat and smoke were 
overpowering and considerable uneasiness was 
felt for Christiansen and Nielsen which was greatly 
intensified when in response to the loud calls of 
their mates, the two men made no response from 
the dark and burning places which they had shortly 
before entered.

It is believed the outbreak was due to spontaneous

Mr. Mcowan, Lloyd's surveyor ascertained that 
the insulation of the hold was on fire. The theory
most favoured is that the heat from burning coal
bunker was transmitted to the insulation of the
hold, which ignited.

Upon the hatches being removed, dense volumes
of smoke arose, and even on deck there was an
oppressive smell of poisonous fumes. Many were
prostrated and had to be hoisted up in rope nets
and restoratives were necessary to bring them

The cargo in holds consists entirely of frozen beef 
and rabbits. 

It was argued by the Lunds and certain present day commentators that Waratah could not have experienced a catastrophic fire on board when her cargo did not include much by way of flammables. This account makes it perfectly clear that even with a cargo of mainly frozen meat, a coal bunker fire could occur by means of spontaneous combustion. Waratah experienced a coal bunker fire during her maiden voyage:

More disturbingly in the account above it was reported that the insulation was on fire! Was not the purpose of insulation to remain nonflammable, preventing the spread of fire?? This illustrates, circa 1909, materials had limitations and fires could overwhelm even the best efforts introduced into the construction of steamers. 

Fire in an enclosed environment is a terrible thing to imagine, but before flames cause death, the associated noxious gases and carbon monoxide can exact a terrible toll as outlined in this report. Captain Bruce came to the conclusion that Waratah was on fire because of the immense volumes of smoke issuing from the vessel. Captain Ilbery and his officers must surely have been experiencing some form of diminished cognitive function during the last minutes and hours in command. One can understand the logic of attempting to land passengers in Gordon's Bay, off the St. Johns or Umzimvubu River, but due to inaccessibility, difficult-to-mobilise lifeboats and conditions, not being able to achieve this goal. The fact that Waratah was so close to shore and possibly took a destructive knock off the St John Reef could also have been the result of poor judgment brought on by diminished cognitive function.

Signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may include:
  • Dull headache
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Loss of consciousness
Carbon monoxide poisoning can be especially dangerous for people who are sleeping or intoxicated. People may have irreversible brain damage or even be killed before anyone realizes there's a problem.

SS Morro Castle on fire - 1934

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