Chapter 2

The Fateful Voyage

The West Point

The 3,074 ton “West Point” left Glasgow on the 18th August 1910, heading for Charlston, United States, with a large cargo of fertilizer and other goods amounting to about 5000 tons.  This was a familiar trip for the crew and all appeared well until the 27th August. During the time since leaving Glasgow there had been a small leak from the flange of a valve controlling a tank in the engine room, in which 200 gallons of paraffin oil had been stowed. Early that morning George Westlake, the ships second engineer, entered the dimly lit engine room to try to stop the leak, observed by the young greaser, the only other person on watch at the time.  He arranged his hand lamp so he could see the task ahead of him and endeavoured to close the valve to halt the leak.  As much as he tried he could not stop the trickle of oil.  Not wanting to fail at his task, he attempted again, with one last supreme effort.  This time the valve shifted in the required direction but then, to his dismay, resistance ceased and it came away in his hands.  The paraffin gushed through the aperture, soaking the unfortunate engineer.  The flammable oil also came in contact with the hand lamp and the oil inevitably ignited.   The surrounding woodwork caught alight and very quickly the stores in the engine room were engulfed in flames.  There was little chance for George Westlake to do anything to slow the spread of the fire.  He just managed to reduce the speed of the engines before the situation became far too dangerous and within a minute he had to follow the greaser up the steps, out of the engine room, to relative safety.

The shouts and cries from the two men disturbed the rest of the crew who soon began to emerge from their slumber.  Quickly they became aware of the perilous situation that confronted them all. Following orders issued by Captain Pinkham, the hands closed the skylight and ventilation to the engine room.  Grabbing buckets of water, some of the men attempted to extinguish the flames, which were shooting up through the fiddley grating.  The fire had now taken strong hold of the cross-bunkers and stokehold.

The heat and fumes were so intense that nothing could be done in the engine room to tackle the fire.  Very quickly a group of men attached the hose to the ashcock in the stokehold.  The water from the hose and buckets did little to slow the spread of the fire and very soon the hose became useless due to the lack of steam to drive the pumps.  The main boiler had failed due to the heat breaking the glass in the gauges.  The fire extended to the galley and storeroom, and all hands were now employed drawing water in buckets from over the side.

By this time the fire had partly burnt itself out in the engine room and with great courage a small group of men were able to force their way in and start a steam pump to bring life back to the hoses.  In the mean time the fire had extended its grip by spreading to the coalbunkers, cattle deck and cargo holds at the stern of the vessel.  The heat was incredibly intense, causing the structure to buckle and groan.  This heat, together with the ammonia fumes from the burning fertilizer, fought back the valiant efforts of the fire fighting crew. As a last ditched effort to conquer the flames, some men closed all the ventilators to the holds, whilst others cut holes into the deck through which steam was driven into the different compartments. Even this proved ineffective, and the fire gained complete mastery of the ship.

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