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 SS 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.
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.
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.
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 Sunday 4 August (more than two days after the fire):
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.
The logbook entries above read:
8.25PM XXX1 DE MAUQ
8364 KCS (NIL FURTHER)
9.52PM XXX DE MAUQ GOTHIC 40S 168W2 (GARBLED) SEVERE DAMAGED. STEERING EASTWARD REQUIRE SHIP ASSISTANCE USING LIFEBOAT RADIO +
QSA 1/23 DIA DOW4
1. XXX is the urgency signal – not as serious as SOS.
2. The ship’s position in latitude and longitude.
3. The ZLB operator noted that Gothic’s signal strength was only QSA 1-2 (very weak)
4. Signature of the ZLB operator
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.
Gothic made at least one more voyage to New Zealand before being scrapped.