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26 corrections, most recently by hindsight - Show corrections








The fine British barque Itata met with swift and terrible destruction this morning. Day- light disclosed the vessel snugly moored alongside a coaling wharf, all aboard being asleep, and an hour afterwards the ship had been consumed by fire, and was beached a mere charred derelict on a sandy island in the upper part of the harbour.

The disaster happened with surprising sud- denness. About 4.45 a.m. a watchman noticed a thin cloud of smoke issuing from the main hatchway, which was open. He immediately rang the ship's bell vigorously. Captain Balfour, who has command, and the crew tumbled out of their bunks, and on reaching the open deck saw at once that the vessel was on fire. A jet of flame shot up from the hold below, and then disappeared for a few seconds; then the jet became a torch, and the big hold began to burn with increasing fierceness. There was plenty of fuel aboard for the fire. The vessel had just received 300 tons of coal for stiffening purposes before discharging the balance of her inward cargo, some 300 tons of saltpetre. The salt- petre was stored in the main hatch. Once alight it burns with great rapidity. Knowing the nature of tho cargo, Captain Balfour was unable to direct water on to the outbreak, as this would only have added greater fury to the burning mass and caused an explosion. In ten minutes waves of fire and smoke were roll- ing out of the vessel with such fury that

nothing could save her.

The crew had been making strenuous efforts to smother the fire, but as this was found im- possible they directed their attention to cast- ing off the barque from the wharf in order to prevent the ships alongside from catching alight or the wharf being destroyed. Captain McCorquodale, a member of the pilot staff, who had to move the Itata before 5 o'clock to another berth, reached the vessel in a launch just as these casting off operations were in progress. The crew had become excited and were rushing frantically about the deck, seem- ingly endeavouring to obey a dozen orders at once. The pilot's launch was immediately utilised in getting the barque clear of the wharf, and Captain Balfour then wished to drop the anchor. Captain McCorquodale, knowing that if the vessel sank the fairway would be blocked and shipping seriously in- convenienced, took charge at the captain's re- quest in order to beach the vessel out of the track of shipping. He himself went to the wheel, and with the assistance of tugs he managed with difficulty to get the vessel clear of the other ships lying at the anchorage in the fairway, and then headed for a sandy patch called Walsh Island.


All this time there were exciting scenes on board. The crew were gathered on the poop, as amidships the vessel was now a roaring furnace, and clouds of heavy grey smoke from the molten saltpetre shot up to a great height. As the vessel slowly drifted with the tide and wind up the harbour she presented a magnificent spectacle. The flames reaching the coal in the fore hatch became redoubled in fury, and the heat was now in- tense. So the crew hurriedly dropped over the stern into tugs or into the water, where they were quickly picked up. Captain McCor- quodale, however, stayed on at the wheel, de- spite shouts to "come off," until his face began to scorch. Then, after finally steering the vessel straight for the sand, he and Cap- tain Balfour beat a hasty retreat into the tug Victoria. The men had left the vessel

none too quickly.

No sooner was the ship deserted than there was an outburst from the after hold, accom- panied by a tremendous crackling and hissing of flames, which rose at times to over 50ft. As the vessel neared the shallow water the tugs Bungaree and Victoria, which had been pushing the burning vessel at the stern, got away from the fiery furnace with as little delay as possible. Other craft in the vicinity, which had been endeavouring to render assist- ance, quickly followed their example.

A unique spectacle was witnessed as the doomed vessel grounded. Several small ex- plosions made a big outburst of fire and smoke, but suddenly a terrific explosion was heard, the report reverberating throughout the whole district, and immense flames shot up to the mastheads with great clouds of pun- gent smoke. The sides of the vessel were rent, and iron and woodwork were hurled hundreds of feet into the air. The foremast, which had been wobbling, fell with a deafen- ing crash over the side, carrying yards and everything with it. The mainmast, also loosened by the explosion, followed the other mast a few seconds later. As it came down it took the mizzen topmast with it, and both disappeared in the water with a mighty splash. Debris from the vessel was floating about everywhere. Great jagged pieces of wood had been torn out of the ship by the force of the explosion, and they were still

smoking in the water.

When the two masts went overboard the   barque became a complete wreck. The fire had consumed the whole of the interior of the vessel. Three hundred tons of coal were still roaring away, however, and for some consider- able time it was impossible to get near the hull owing to the intense heat and flying pieces of coal. A portion of the mizzen- mast alone remained standing, but so fierce was the burning furnace of coal in the after- hold that it became red hot, and disappeared


There is now nothing left but the mere hull, which in places is red hot. It presents an extraordinary picture. The iron has been bent and twisted as if it were tin, and it is very doubtful if it will ever be of any use.


During the day the hull was a furnace of flame. Water appeared to have no effect upon the intense heat. It is impossible to approach the sides closely. From the masthead of a tug, however, it was seen that the coal in the hull had settled down into one great mol- ten mass. Every now and then the rivets holding plates together dropped out, and as the water comes into contact with the red- hot coals there is a great hissing noise and clouds of steam. Steam is also rising from the sides of the hull all along the waterline and the water in places is boiling as it touches the iron. It was at first thought that the hull itself would be salved. But this is impossible, as it is fast falling to pieces owing to all the rivets flying out. The ves- sel presents a scene of frightful disorder. Iron masts and yards are tossed in piles and run- ning through a mass of debris is a tangle of bent pipes, stays, and steel rope, curiously coloured in parts by the flames. Every par- ticle of woodwork has disappeared, and one only knows it was burnt by the pieces of charcoal which come floating down the har- bour with the tide. The bare hull proved of great interest to a large number of captains and shipping men throughout the day, tugs filled with spectators constantly hovered about the gaunt and bare hull. Several cap- tains stated that in all their experience at sea they had never witnessed such a com-

plete disaster to a vessel.


The scene of the disaster was alive with boats. Three guns from Signal Hill lookout station spread the intelligence that a ship was on fire, and assistance seemed to spring up from every point. Tugboats and rowing boats rushed towards the burning vessel. A number had on board members of the fire bri- gade, but there was nothing for them to do. Several boats got in the way while the ves- sel was being towed into midstream, and besides the danger they ran considerably hampered the operations of the tugs, which were doing splendid service. But for the as- sistance rendered by the Victoria and Bun- garee, the Itata would now be blocking one of the principal channels of the harbour. Both these tugs reached the scene as the ship was casting off from the wharf. They towed the vessel for a short distance, but as this   work became extremely dangerous owing to falling sparks and suffocating smoke the tugs got at the stern of the big vessel, and by re- peatedly striking her sent the barque towards shallow water. This work was rendered easier owing to the wind and tide being in

their favour.


The cause of the outbreak is at present un- known. Many explanations are offered by seafaring men who are well acquainted with the inflammable nature of saltpetre under cer- tain conditions. Some of the seamen state that the covering was off the main hatch dur- ing the night; others say that it was put on. If off, a lighted match carelessly thrown down by some one would be sufficient to start the saltpetre ablaze. The barque berthed alongside No. 8 crane at the dyke at 11 o'clock yesterday morning, and received some 350 tons Wallsend coal, and it is stated that in the earlier portion of last night coal trim- mers were at work in the fore and after holds levelling the coal. While this work is pro- ceeding at night an ordinary candle is usually placed in some convenient spot in the hold. When the men left, however, nothing was no- ticed amiss below, and everything remained as usual until this morning.

Captain Balfour, on being questioned, stated

that he had not the faintest idea of the cause of the fire. He can only deplore the sudden- ness of the outburst and the completeness of

the ruin.


Wild stories were circulated during the morning that some of the crew had been over- come by the suffocating smoke, and had perish- ed in the flames. The crew were, therefore, mustered ashore as soon as possible, and all hands have been accounted for. Both Captain Balfour, who is much concerned at the loss of his fine vessel, and most of the crew have lost everything. When the fire broke out they rushed on deck very lightly dressed, and in the commotion and excitement which followed, they had no time to secure any of their pos- sessions. Captain Balfour, whose only thought was to cope with the fire, was in his pyjama suit, and when he hurriedly left the barque the tug's lockers had to be searched for an odd suit before he could venture ashore. Be- fore the fire got too fierce he made a dive for his cabin, and although driven back several times by dense smoke, he at last succeeded in getting some of the ship's papers. Several sailors managed to throw their belongings on to the wharf before the Itata left, but others have had to rely on the generosity of those ashore for a complete suit of clothes. Most of the men have found accommodation at the sailor's home. The individual battling with the fire is revealed by burns and bruises which some of the men have sustained, but happily there was no serious injury.  


Captain McCorquodale, who has been com- plimented on his prompt action in getting the doomed vessel clear of the shipping channel, states that he stepped on the Itata at five minutes to 5. The utmost excitement pre- vailed aboard. When the barque had cast off from the wharf he took charge, as he knew the channels and the depth of the harbour. He called to the captains of the Victoria and Bungaree, and both tugs lent great assist- ance in driving the vessel towards the near- est sand-bank. The heat on the poop, he states, was terrible, and the cracking of timber and roar of the flames made it im- possible to hear one another speak. More- over, the clouds of smoke hid out everything at times, and once or twice they thought it would be wise to leave her before any lives were lost. "We, however, hung on to her until a short distance from the island, when we were forced to leave. I saw the foremast tottering, and heard the sides of the vessel opening out as the fastenings gave way, as we all made a dash over the side." Captain McCorquodale considers that the ex- plosions must have been caused by some of the bolts in the bottom plates giving way, and the water reaching the salt-petre a se- ries of explosions followed, and the vessel went to pieces.

The Itata was built as far back as 1883 by Messrs. R. and J. Evans and Co., of Liver- pool. She was a steel vessel, of 950 tons, and was very stoutly built, being A1 at Lloyds. The barque was symmetrically shaped, and it is stated that she was the strongest vessel lying in the harbour. In her time she was a noted sailer, and did some fast passages. She is well-known here, hav- ing visited the port on several occasions. It is understood that the vessel is insured.

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