1968: Fire aboard Gothic

The fire-damaged Gothic in rough seas off Cape Palliser, South Wairarapa

Fighting her way back to New Zealand, the fire-damaged Gothic in rough seas off Cape Palliser, South Wairarapa, 6 August 1968. Photo: Evening Post

During the night of 1 August 1968, four days after leaving the New Zealand port of Bluff bound for Liverpool, the 15,911-ton British cargo liner Gothic suffered a fire which killed four passengers and three crewmembers.

At the time of the fire, Gothic was 1802 miles east of Bluff, at approximately 44°24’S, 149°04’W.

Position of TSS Gothic when fire broke out

Position of TSS Gothic when fire broke out

It was 2.30 in the morning when the automatic fire alarm sounded on the bridge, and a cadet was sent to investigate. He discovered a small fire in the officers’ smokeroom, but was unable to get the nearest firefighting cabinet open. He got a fire extinguisher from another deck but it failed to operate properly. By this time the fire and smoke were spreading to the bridge, radio room and cabins where the victims were sleeping.

Roused from his cabin, Captain Brian Hilary Agnew turned the ship downwind using engine commands relayed by another crew member to the engine room (the ship’s steering and engine telegraph were disabled by the fire). The Gothic’s crew then fought the fire from behind – on three decks – taking some three and a half hours to extinguish it.

Fire damage to three decks, including the bridge, of the liner Gothic is clear visible as she approaches New Zealand

Fire damage to three decks, including the bridge, of the liner Gothic is clear visible as she approaches New Zealand on 6 August 1968. Photo: Evening Post

Captain Agnew navigated Gothic safely back to New Zealand under her own power – even though the fire had gutted the bridge, radio room and parts of the accommodation and the ship had to be steered from the stern using an emergency compass with unknown error. Gothic docked at Wellington, and was repaired sufficiently for the trip to Britain, although she was scrapped soon afterwards.

For full details, see the Preliminary Report into the Gothic Fire.

Roger Cliffe, radio officer of Gothic with the Marconi Salvita lifeboat radio he used after the ship's radio room was destroyed by fire

Roger Cliffe, radio officer of Gothic with the Marconi Salvita lifeboat radio he used after the ship’s radio room was destroyed by fire. Photo: Evening Post. Alexander Turnbull Library

Joe Collett, a radio operator (later to be manager) at Awarua Radio ZLB, recalled that fragments of an emergency call “XXX XXX XXX” were copied at ZLB by a diligent operator on 5 August (more than three days after the fire). The message said that a fire had destroyed equipment and all instruments:

The ship’s radio officer was using a hand-cranked Salvita lifeboat transmitter to transmit, and a cheap transistor radio belonging to a crewmember as his receiver.

The late David Dow was the operator at Awarua Radio who first logged the fragmentary emergency call. There was enough intelligence in the message to indicate that there was a fire on board and a rough indication of the vessel’s QTH (location).

ZLB went into action stations. A special watch was set up on 8364 and the HF/DF (high frequency direction finding) was put on standby. Our Mission Statement “Safety of Life at Sea” really came to life that night. Everyone on the staff was ready to man a receiver.

Joe also recalled:

We were in Bluff the night the Gothic sailed, a beautiful graceful vessel with all lights ablaze, She was there in all her glory like a real “Queen”. Little did we know what she was in for later.

David Dow was at one stage a guest of the Captain and R/O (radio officer). It was a condition that the media not be involved under any circumstances.

Happier days

Gothic (radio callsign MAUQ) was the fourth and final ship in the Shaw Savill Line’s Corinthic class, the other vessels being Corinthic, Athenic and Ceramic. Gothic was launched in December 1947 at the Swan Hunter shipworks in Wallsend-on-Tyne. With her hull repainted white, she served as the Royal Yacht for the Queen’s tour of the Pacific in 1954.

TSS Gothic in white

TSS Gothic in white for her role as Royal Yacht

The fire

Damaged liner Gothic heading back to New Zealand

Southland Times, Invercargill, Tuesday 6 August 1968

Captain BH Agnew and Chief Engineer J McKinnon on the burnt out bridge of Gothic

Captain Brian Agnew (right) and Chief Engineer John McKinnon on the burnt out bridge of Gothic. Photo: Evening Post. Alexander Turnbull Library

Gothic made at least one more voyage to New Zealand before being scrapped.

Captain B Agnew, master of Gothic, on the bridge shortly after the ship berthed in Wellington, 7 January 1969

Captain Agnew, master of Gothic, on the bridge shortly after the ship berthed in Wellington, 7 January 1969, 5 months after the devastating fire that killed seven people. Photo: Dominion Post Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library

Captain Agnew was awarded an OBE on 1 January 1970 for his efforts in getting Gothic safely back to New Zealand. He died 12 April 2015, aged 82.

Shore stations involved: Awarua Radio ZLB, Wellington Radio ZLW

Links