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. Alfred Harris described how he noticed two white lights of a large steamer (smaller steamers displayed one white masthead light) after emerging from his cabin at 7.30 pm, 27 July.
Harris' 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.
He further confirmed his impression when noticing a red side-light connected with the steamer astern and reinforced when Captain Bruce stated that the lights represented a large steamer.
Harris noticed that a large volume of smoke hung over 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 or, as Captain Bruce put it, her deck lights blazing. Harris then referred to a 'large flare up in the heavens lasting a moment or two' 'five or ten minutes later'. This phenomenon was also witnessed by Captain Bruce and the chief officer and was one of two distinct such flares. Harris described the flare:
'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.'
About 7.50 p.m. the master of the "Harlow" went to consult his chart. When he returned a short time after, he saw two quick flashes astern, one of which went about 1,000 feet into the air, and the other about 300 feet. The flashes were narrow at the bottom, widened out as they ascended, and were red in colour. He heard no noise. His own eyes were dazzled with the strong light in the chart-room,
In my opinion, such phenomena 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! There is the possibility that Waratah was carrying a burning oil barrel on her fore deck - a clear distress signal at night - which might have given the impression of a bush fire.
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 point of fact, the flashes (as described) were probably distress rockets. In fact socket signals created the very thing described. Generally a detonation was associated with socket signals which might not have been heard due to the ambient racket made by the tramp steamer's engines etc. Many survivors on lifeboats during the Titanic disaster, within a radius of 4 miles from the scene (same distance as Harlow to large steamer) did NOT hear the detonations of Titanic's distress rockets.
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. Bush fires were introduced as an explanation for the 'flares' - possibly confused with a burning barrel as mentioned. The affidavit hinged on the sentence owing to the absence of any signals of distress. If the flares or a burning barrel had been acknowledged as distress signals, the crew of the Harlow would have been obliged to render assistance to a vessel in distress. They did not and therefore could never acknowledge the flares for what they were!
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 of what they saw and close enough to investigate her last position and attempt to render 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 and as such confirmed that the steamer did not ultimately overhaul the Harlow. 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'.