March 2013 sees the centenary of the SS Alum Chine tragedy which claimed the lives of more than sixty people, writes Lee Middleton. Just like today, it can be hard to find out exactly what happened.
Built in 1905, the big, reliable 1,500 tonne Scottish cargo steamer went down in history for the terrible events of 7 March 1913. While being loaded with 300 tonnes of dynamite at Baltimore in America, tragedy struck. An explosion killed over 60 people, 50 of whom died instantly. The blast was so great that it could be heard in Reading over 100 miles away.
Many of the victims were never found although the Chine’s chief engineer managed to escape from the roaring blaze onto a nearby boat this is sadly one of only a few miracle survivals. Those lucky enough to be 200ft away recall a 50ft column of fire shoot up into the air, topped with smoke. The crew was then engulfed by a hail not only of wood and steel but the human remains of their crew mates. When everything cleared the survivors were stunned to see the Chine and the barge beside it had completely sunk.
Exactly what had happened remains something of a mystery. Several days after the blast the media was consumed with rumours and eventually the blame began to fall on a stevedore whom many witnesses claimed punctured a case of dynamite in the freighter’s cargo hold with a bailing hook, although he continued to deny it. Another witness insisted that a box had exploded on being lowered to the floor, 20 minutes before the main blast. Luckily a number of the stevedores had a close escape in a tug they had boarded before seeing smoke from the Chine’s hold.
Although the foreman in question was found guilty by a court of law there is no historical evidence available that informs of any sentence or imprisonment and despite in depth research there appears to be no record of any repercussions for maritime safety, as the crew of the Alum Chine SS claimed to have fulfilled explosive guidelines without error on the day of the disaster.