DEMISE OF AN EMPRESS
Source: Duncan Haws, Frank Rushbrook, Newspapers of the Day
Empress of Canada ex Duchess of Richmond
Empress of Canada was launched as Duchess of Richmond on the 18th of June 1928 and made her maiden voyage on the 26th of January 1929. From May of 1946 to July of 1947 she underwent extensive refurbishment at Fairfields of Glasgow emerging finally as Empress of Canada the secound ship to carry the name for Canadian Pacific.
Empress of Canada had undergone refit prior to the Queens Coronation and had vacated the drydock on the 24th of January 1953, she moved round to the number one branch of the Gladstone Dock on the same day. She was fully booked to carry passengers from Canada to attend the Coronation and was insured for £2,000,000. She was 582ft long and had a beam of 75ft, she was built with eleven main watertight transverse bulkheads extending upwards to "C" deck and watertight doors for the use of. Fourteen fireproof bulkheads were in place on or above "C"deck and she had three main passenger stair wells.
Her fire fighting equipment consisted of seven mains fire pumps all electrically driven, six from the main switchboard and the seventh from the Emergency Generator Room situated on "B" deck aft. Hydrants were fitted throughout the ship along with 28 lengths of canvas hose, 134 portable extinguishers were sited at various stations though at the time of the fire 25% were ashore for overhaul. A series of emergency alarms of the break glass type were strategically situated in the accommodation and heat sensors were fitted in the baggage and store rooms. The ship was supplied with two smoke helmets of the bellow type, impossible to manoeuvre when in practice and no independant B.A.'s. The fire and general alarm was activated from the Bridge and was of the Klaxon type. Steam smothering was installed in the holds and Boiler Room the latter also had CO2.
During the day of the 25th 291 shoreside workers were occupied onboard as were 36 Officers and Crew of the Company. Two shoreside workers leaning over the rail noticed that smoke was curling up the ships side from a few decks below, thinking that it was welders they took no further action, this was at 3.45pm. Twenty minutes earlier a watchman on a grainhopper also saw smoke and attempted to hail the ship but received no response unfortunately he also took no action. The fire was eventually discovered by Mr Halliday at 1615hrs and he immediatly sent a man ashore to call the Fire Brigade and then broke the glass in one of the many alarms. He and his men tried to access the Dispensary where the fire was situated but discovered that the door was locked also there was no water coming out of the fire main, with the accommodation rapidly filling with smoke Halliday gave the order to evacuate. The alarm was ringing by this time on the Bridge but no-one was in attendence, the Engineer down below was working away from the control platform where the bell was ringing and consequently no action was taken by the ships staff whatsoever.
The Bootle Fire Brigade received the call at 1617hrs and was first on the scene under the command of a Deputy Chief Officer with four pumps and one emegency tender. They entered the ship through a midship shell door and discovered that serious fires raged along both "B" and "C" decks with smoke so dense the firemen had to wear B.A.'s to tackle the blaze. Shortly afterwards, realising the intensity of the fire, the Deputy Chief called for additional support doubling his pump capacity to eight at 1630 and a further four five minutes later.When Chief Officer Greenslade arrived he made further increases, twenty pumps in the first instance and then to thirty at 1820hrs.
With the intense heat and heavy smoke making it quite impossible to see the firemen could spend no longer than ten minutes at a time tackling the raging inferno.Great explosions shook the accommodation as oxy-acetylene sets blew up scattering debris and themselves in every direction exacerbatinging the problem faced by the firefighters. As more and more water poured onto the ship the Empress of Canada took on a decided list to port, at 1700hrs it was one degree, 1945hrs ten and a half degree's, by this time forty hoses were being played on the fire, this equated to 1,400 tons of water an hour.
In an attempt to stabilise the ship holes were cut in the ships hull to drain off excess water on the port side, "Salvor" a fire and salvage tug also pumped water into the ships Engine Room and water was also pumped into the Starboard deep tanks. The Empress continued to list and consideration was given to sinking her hoping she would settle on the bottomand remain upright but it was decided that she had gone to far over.After a hurried meeting between Dock and Shipping experts it was decided to cease fighting the fire and hope that it would burn itself out thus leaving the Empress upright, the Fire Brigade were incensed declaring that they had just got the fire under control. The fire now swept through the ship unchecked and the Empress's list continued to grow until 0140hrs on the 26th she finally toppled over into the basin leaving just her Starboard side visible.
Work began almost immediatly to salvaage the stricken Empress and it was estimated that the task would take some twelve months to complete.
The work was carried out by the Mersey Dock's and Harbour Board Salvage Team and the first job to be completed was the removal of the masts and funnel which were by now perpendicular having crashed onto the adjacent warehouse. Teams of divers worked for months sealing off open ports and doors they also sub divided the ship into compartments so that she could be pumped out. Meanwhile tall inverteed "V" shaped spars were welded to her side big enough to carry nine inch hawsers which would be wound by static winches on the opposite side of the dock. Finally on the 6th of March 1954 at 1235hrs, five minutes later than scheduled the winches simultaneously began slowly to upright the once proud Empress of Canada, she eventually achieved "0" degree's at 1322hrs still set in the mud but at least vertical.
It was estimated that some 2,500 Tons of debris and mud would have to be removed before she could be floated and this took over two months to complete, the whole operation cost £450,000. She was towed round to the Gladstone Drydock on the 30th of June and made watertight for her last voyage to the breakers in Genoa. Smits Zwarte Zee set sail on the 1st of September and arrived in Italy on the 10th of October.
An enquiry into the loss of the Empress of Canada was held between the 7th of December to the 22nd and from the 5th of January to the 8th by Mr K.S.Carpmael, Q.C., Commisioner of Wrecks and he was assisted by four other Notaries. Unbelievably after nearlt three weeks deliberation the committee issued a mere eight page inconclusive report. As to where and how the fire started was impossible to assertain, though the point was made that the ship was a honeycomb of light timberwork which was extremely susceptable to ignition and that the three main passenger stairwells assisted in the fires rapid advance A working party had been set up in 1950 on fire prevention and fire fighting on ships in port and Mr Carpmael and his committee expressed regret that Canadian Pacific had made no attempt to carry out its reccomendations especially in the following repects:
.1. No liaison existed between the Owners and the Fire Brigade.
.2. Fire Patrol was below standard.
.3. A direct line to the Fire Brigade had not been installed.
.4. The fire main had not been charged and no alternative provided.
.5. Fire Doors and Watertight Doors were not closed.
.6. Oxy-Acetylene bottles had been left lying around in an haphazard manner.
The committee also deplored the amount of time it took to raise the alarm before concluding thet the right type of man should be chosen for patroling and fire watch duties aboard ship emphasising that "the man in charge should be someone accustomed to taking charge and not someone who's normal duties are confined to looking after baggage".