Face-to-face with disaster: The SS Gothic fire

Tony Clark in 2017Tony Clark was 4th Engineer on the Shaw Savill liner SS Gothic when she caught fire in the South Pacific in 1968.

Forty-nine years later, in September 2017, he wrote the following memoir for maritimeradio.org which we are honoured to publish in memory of those who died as a result of the fire, and those who fought to save the ship.

By Tony Clark

In May 1968, I was contacted at my parents’ home in Hull, East Yorkshire, by Fred Sibley from Shaw Savill’s head office at the Royal Docks in North Woolwich. I was on leave after signing off from a trip on MV Aramaic.

Fred was the fixer at Shaw Savill. Ensuring that each vessel had a full complement of engineers for the voyage, he was something like what might be called “Personnel” or “HR” these days.

He asked me if I would take the post of 5th Engineer on SS Gothic, as I had had a bit of experience on her sister ship, Ceramic, a couple of years previously.

I was 23 years old and had been with Shaw Savill for over three years. I don’t think I was very pleased at breaking off my leave to go back early, but I needed more steamship time to qualify for taking my 2nd Engineer’s Certificate. This trip would put enough on my record to do just that.

I replied that I would do it if I was upgraded to 4th Engineer. Fred agreed to this, as they had two 2nd Engineers aboard already, Colin Wickham as Senior 2nd and Phil Stanton as Junior 2nd. I knew of Phil, as he was also from the Hull area.

SS Gothic

SS Gothic

Gothic had been converted from her original purpose as a cargo/passenger liner, when she had quite luxurious accommodation for around 90 passengers.

She made comfortable, if somewhat boring, voyages of around 30 days, with just a one-day call at Curacao to fill up with fuel oil, and a passage through the Panama Canal, then on to New Zealand.

There was also the exciting stop at Pitcairn Island, to transport two or three children to schools in New Zealand for a term, and buy an awful carved fish from the islanders. There were only about 60 people living on Pitcairn, all descendants of mutineers of the HMS Bounty and a few Tahitian ladies the crew had picked up at their last port of call, before leaving their captain in a little boat with some of his chums to row their own way back to England. (That story would make a good film someday.)

Shipmates

4th Engineer Tony Clark aboard Gothic

4th Engineer Tony Clark aboard Gothic

Back to the Gothic. John (Jock or Sumo) McKinnon was Chief Engineer, and the Master was Captain Brian Agnew. I remember David Buck as he was my opposite number in the deck department on the 8-12 watch.

Colin Wickham was on the 4-8 engineers’ watch, and Phil Stanton on the 12-4.

My Intermediate Engineer was Willie McGurk of Lisburn, Northern Ireland and my Junior Engineer was, if I recall correctly, a youngster from southern England who might have been called Ed or Eddie.

I also remember Pete (Danny) Mulcahy (5th Engineer), Jim Christie (Chief Electrician), Paul (Ricky) Goldfinch (Junior Engineer), and of course Eddie Skelley (3rd Electrician and the scousiest scouser I have ever met).

Roger Cliffe was the Radio Officer and I knew him quite well as I believe he was from the town of Bridlington, on the coast of the East Riding of Yorkshire. I think he trained in Hull. As Bridlington was less than 30 miles from where I was living, it felt as though we were neighbours.

Our time on the New Zealand coast was spent discharging our general cargo, then chilling the holds down and loading with the usual lamb, cheese and butter, plus bales of wool to fill up the top of the holds.

The Halliday family joined us, as well as a supernumerary Chief Engineer by the name of John Heffernan, I think, as a passenger in transit back home. John and I had a history of sailing together. He was on Ceramic as 2nd Engineer on my second or third trip. And he also turned up as 2nd on a trip I did on Waipawa in 1967. I was told much later that both he and Phil Stanton became managers at the Drypool Dry Dock Company in Hull, where I had served my apprenticeship.

Fateful trip

On Sunday 28 July, we left Bluff for Panama and then home to Liverpool. The weather took a turn for the worse as we steered towards South America (this I believe was referred to as the “Southern Circle” route) where we would then pick up the current taking us up the coast towards Panama.

We were on the 8-12 watch on the evening of 31July. At midnight we were relieved by the 12-4 watch, led by the Junior 2nd Phil Stanton along with his intermediate and junior engineers

After Willie, Ed (Eddie?) and I had taken showers, we met in my cabin for a couple of beers to wind down and have a natter about putting the world to right, as usual. Dave Buck and his cadet (I think) joined us.

Around 2.30am, we suddenly started to smell smoke. We looked at each other, then opened the cabin door. The passage was full of smoke, but not too dense at that stage.

Dave Buck dashed off just as the alarms started. I grabbed the large brass window winding handle and a few blankets.

The window winder that Tony grabbed off the wall when he left his cabin

The window winder that Tony grabbed off the wall when he left his cabin

I don’t know why, but I wound the window down and I got out onto the deck. I think this was because the only exit from the Promenade Deck was through the forward end where the fire was, or through the area that had become the crew bar and lounge towards the aft end of that deck.

I’m not sure what Willie and Ed did, but we got together on the starboard side of the promenade deck. Flames could be seen towards the forward end, near the Chief Engineer’s cabin and the entrance to the staircase leading down to the forward lounge and bar area.

The first thing we did was to go up to the Chief’s cabin and start banging on the windows. Then the Chief came up behind us and said that he was OK and for us to carry on and check the others.

The next cabin back was the one I believe was occupied by Eileen Halliday. It was full of smoke and the cabin door was in flames or open, as we could see the glow of the fire through the smoke.

The next cabin down was the 2nd Engineer’s suite, which also looked to be full of smoke. I started to bang on the window and shouted to make sure that if anyone was there to move out of the way as we were coming through. Whilst the window winder was no good to lower the window from the outside in the normal way, it did prove very effective as a hammer, and it shattered the glass (the glass for these windows probably exceeded 1” in thickness).

I looked through the window and saw Colin Wickham, the 2nd Engineer, covered in glass and lots of cuts about his body. We threw the blankets over the remains of the broken glass in the window frame and assisted Colin through it out onto the deck, he looked as though he was suffering from breathing in the smoke.

(I remember sitting with Colin some time later. He told me he had begun to “drift away” from the effects of the smoke, but was thinking: “shut up Clarkie, and just break the bloody glass.” He said he would never forgive me for remarking, when I’d looked through the opening, “It’s Wickham, put the window back.” I do remember something like that, but it was just black humour that kept us all going during the shock of fighting the fire.)

I left Colin with Willie and Ed, and carried on down the line of cabin windows, but there were quite a few of the occupants of these cabins now appearing on the decks. They were running out the hoses and connecting them up to soak the wooden fittings.

We then went around to the port side of the promenade deck, were most of the hoses were out and in use. About halfway down the deck, I passed my window winder to someone else and it was used to break another window. This time it was the cabin of Pete Mulcahy 5th Engineer. Unfortunately he was dead, from what appeared to be smoke inhalation as there was no sign of flames that far down the accommodation.

Locations mentioned in this story, as noted by Tony Clark

Locations mentioned in this story, as noted by Tony Clark. These deck plans are for Athenic, a sister ship of Gothic, so may vary in minor details. Click to enlarge.

Gaining the upper hand

The ship then turned about 180 degrees, and we could start to follow up the flames and push them back though the forward areas they had already consumed.

The lifeboats were swung out and lowered, and were being loaded with any members of the crew who were not required to man the fire-fighting parties. I went down to the engine room to report on what was going on “up top”. I certainly felt as though I had to “keep moving” and doing something.

Gothic was rolling very heavily. With the large amount of water being pumped into the upper decks, and being contained by the lip on the lower part of the door openings, much of the water could not escape. When the ship rolled, she stayed at a very acute list, as though deciding whether to roll completely over or come back onto an even keel. But eventually she would come back up.

We think that this erratic rolling could have been what caused Eddie Skelley to lose his balance and go overboard.

It took almost four hours to bring the fire under control, and then we had to assess the results of damage, the casualties, how do we get back to New Zealand, etc.

It certainly was not a very nice task to search the accommodation and passageways, looking for and finding the bodies of our friends, colleagues and mates.

The fire victims comprised passengers John and Eileen Halliday and their sons Alan and David, plus two engineers: Daniel Mulcahy (5th Engineer) and Paul Goldfinch (Junior Engineer). Edward Skelley (3rd Electrician) was lost overboard.

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

Steaming back to New Zealand

Because the accommodation on the promenade deck was either destroyed, or water and smoke damaged, the engineers had to be moved into spare cabins on the deck below, which used to be theirs before the conversion took place. I remember that I had to share with the 2nd Engineer, Colin Wickham. For some reason Colin didn’t seem as adverse to my odd sense of humour as he had been before the fire.

The dining room aboard Gothic after the fire

The dining room aboard Gothic after the fire. The remains of the grand piano can be seen in the foreground. Photo: Evening Post, Alexander Turnbull Library

The six people who died in the fire were buried at sea. As I recall, the burial service was carried out in the morning, at which time I would have been in the engine room with the 8-12 watch.

As for the trip back to New Zealand, the engineers just carried on with their normal duties although there was a bit of jigging about with staffing as we were missing a couple of our number. The steering gear controls and the hydraulic rams on the steering engine were in the “poop” deck aft, and all we had to do was disengage the controls from the bridge by removing the locking pins from the connection arms, and replacing them into the holes that connected them to the control arms that were attached to the emergency wheel on the deck above.

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

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

After a few days, I was up on the top deck with David Buck, and we heard an aircraft. It turned out to be an RNZAF Lockheed Orion, a radar-equipped submarine hunter, that had found us. It circled for some time, obviously radioing in our position.

I think it was the following day that HMNZS Blackpool caught up with us. She perhaps underestimated our speed as she came up on us from astern.

The few days in Wellington were a bit of a blur, refitting the bridge, radio room and accommodation. There was a memorial service in Wellington Cathedral. Most of us got a few days’ break. I took a flight to Auckland to see some girlfriends from the Mata Hospital.

No further incidents took place on the trip back to Liverpool, where we docked on 10 October.

Gothic survivors meet again

Colin Wickham had always reminded me that I would never reach the dizzy heights of 2nd Engineer, as long as I had an orifice in a particular part of my body (I’m paraphrasing his precise words here).

When we left Gothic in Liverpool, I did some coastal relief duties, then went to Southampton Marine Engineering College in January 1969, and came away with my “ticket” in July of that year.

I was then placed on Ceramic as 3rd Engineer, did a couple of trips, then got promoted to 2nd in June 1970.

2nd Engineer Tony Clark of Ceramic

2nd Engineer Tony Clark of Ceramic

We did a trip out to Australia, then to New Zealand. Just before we set sail for the UK, there was a knock on my cabin door, which opened to reveal Mr Wickham himself. He looked at me, took a step back looking at the sign above the door, then back at me again.

I then asked if he would like to check if the aforementioned orifice was still there. He said “No thanks,” then “but I would like to introduce my wife Anne to you. We are travelling with you back to the UK to meet my family.”

Colin Wickham in Tony's cabin aboard Ceramic

Colin Wickham in Tony’s cabin aboard Ceramic

We all got introduced and relaxed after we’d had a laugh. Colin spent quite a bit of time in my cabin during the trip, always helping himself to my beers from the fridge. I realise it must have been very strange for him, for I was in an exact replica of the cabin he had occupied on Gothic, the cabin we broke into to get him out.

When we arrived at Hull, my home port, my father, two uncles and a cousin were on the dockside to watch us dock. It was my first time to dock in Hull, and the first time the family had seen those “three gold rings” on my sleeve. I think my dad was a little bit pleased with my success.

They then came aboard and into my cabin. Colin came in to say goodbye, and I introduced him to my dad – and Colin gave him a hug. My dad had a shock at this; men didn’t show this sort of affection to each other in Hull. Colin distributed beers from my fridge to everyone and kept them all occupied.

I got on with looking after the issuing of instructions and orders for repairs to the shore staff, and left everybody talking together in my dayroom. Colin took his leave from us, my family went home, and when I joined them later that day I was told that Colin had given them the story of Gothic. I hadn’t talked about it much to my parents, but I think they were pleased to hear about it from Colin.

I went on to do more trips in Ceramic, then joined the Royal Fleet Auxiliary for two or three years. They sent me to Poplar College in East London to do my Chief’s ticket. I met a lovely lass from the east end, Vanessa, and thought “do I really want to go back?” The answer was “No, I think that part of my life has run its course and it’s time for something new.”

We got married in 1976 and moved to the Wharfedale area in West Yorkshire. I worked for the NHS for some 20 years, then into some consultancy work for various government departments. In 2010 I retired and we are now content with the occasional trip to the village pub.

Scenes of terror find expression in words

One last thing – which I almost didn’t include, as I’m embarrassed by its naivety. It’s a poem I wrote only a few days after we got into Wellington. You must understand that my only experience of poetry was with ‘Limericks’, usually regarding “a young lady from Devizes” or suchlike, but I thought I would include it, as it was a moment when this incident was so fresh in my mind.

So I hope you will forgive my awkward attempts as a poet, and take it for what it is, just an ordinary working lad from Hull, with something he felt he had to put down in words to remember that night – as if I could ever forget it.

The Gothic Tragedy

Eighteen hundred miles out, In the grip of the storm
Men restlessly slept awaiting the dawn
The ship tossed about as the seas they grew higher
Then 2:30 am, the ship was on fire
Alarms bells they rang and men they did shout
At the sleep-fogged minds of those just turned out
They tumbled from beds as though in a dream
The illusion soon shattered by the wind’s banshee scream
The Radio room, it soon caught alight
No “MAY DAY” was sent, no-one knew of our plight
Through four desperate hours each man played his part
With smoke-blackened faces, silent tears in their heart
The flames, fanned by fury, through decks it was blown
And nothing remained of the splendour we’d known
The heat so intense, the boats were swung out
Everything seemed lost, ‘til the ship turned about
The winds that not long ago, to the flames were allied
Now turned the fire back ‘til eventually it died
We headed for land that would take us five days
Of the Master, the crew, spoke nothing but praise
With one day to go a message got through
Four days after the fire before the world knew
The port of Wellington was reached at long last
And everyone says time will blot out the past
Of August the first, on that fateful morn
The fight against death ‘til the first light of dawn
The thoughts will remain to prey on your mind
Those only at peace are the seven who died.

AJC – Aug 1968