ON THE WATERFRONT: Tragic ship fires on the Wear

Although fires on board ships in UK ports are comparatively rare nowadays due to improved safety standards, they nevertheless present serious challenges to fire and rescue services in the event of an outbreak.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 24th June 2016, 12:30 pm
Updated Friday, 24th June 2016, 4:18 pm
The Landwade blaze.
The Landwade blaze.

As recently as the mid-1960s, the loss of 11 lives in two separate ship fires sent shockwaves across Wearside.

Fire fighting on board ships was by then solely in the hands of Sunderland Borough Fire Brigade, the Wear’s last fire boats having been withdrawn in 1961 on the dissolution of the River Wear Watch.

The Toronto City fire.

In fact, the last attendance of a fire boat at a ship fire had been in 1950, when Fire Queen assisted at a blaze on board the tanker British Navigator at Manor Quay.

Returning to the events of the 1960s and the Toronto City fire, this was a tragic accident which cost the lives of seven shipyard workers.

Launched by Doxford and Sunderland Shipbuilding and Engineering at Pallion on August 8, 1966 for Bibby Line, the 7,643 tons gross refrigerated cargo ship was berthed alongside Doxford’s fitting out quay.

On October 30, that year, nine men were working in the propeller shaft tunnel as performance testing of the variable pitch propeller hydraulic control mechanism was taking place.

The Toronto City fire.

At some point, a pipe became disconnected, leading to oil spraying out under pressure and forming a mist.

This then spread along the tunnel, reaching the flame of an oxy-acetylene burner which was being used to cut steel plates.

Consequently, the vapour ignited and caused the death of the men.

A subsequent investigation by HM Factory Inspectorate decided that there had been no breach of regulations, although a number of safety lessons were learnt.

Seven fire appliances dealt with the incident, with firemen toiling alongside shipyard workers to recover the bodies of the unfortunate victims.

Toronto City was broken up in 1985, while sailing as Kanika III.

Less the six months later, disaster struck once more - this time at TW Greenwell and Company Ltd’s quay at South Docks.

Owned by Atlantic Shipping and Trading Company Ltd, the 7,856 tons gross cargo ship, Landwade had just competed repairs in one of Greenwell’s dry docks.

On April 15, 1967, the vessel was due to sail when fire swept through the vessel’s superstructure, engulfing the bridge, chartroom and officers’ accommodation. It took 40 firemen to extinguish the flames, which at one time threatened to spread to the engine room.

Two local tugs also provided valuable assistance.

Sadly, the ship’s master and his wife, together with the third mate and his wife lost their lives.

Landwade had been launched by Bartram and Sons in 1960 and was eventually scrapped in 1984, then named Uniluck.