Coal Fire



“Jack, put your hand there,” shouted Arthur over the din of the engine in the massive boiler room. One of six that powered the vessel. They both wore no shirt. The heat was almost unbearable as was the stench of sweat and the choking coal dust that filled the air. Jack placed his hand just above the pile of coal.

“Blimey, Art. We've got a fire. Smouldering red-hot coal! And it's deep in the pile.”

Bunker 6 and each of the other five had only 800 tons of coal, half the normal load. The National  Coal Strike of 1912 was making an impact. An effect of a reduced cargo of some 5000 tons of coal meant that the vessel rode a little higher in the water than usual though above them hundreds of passengers were completely unaware of the chaos deep in the bowels of this ship. The luxurious passage must be kept to schedule.

“Tell the foreman so he can inform the captain. This is serious. If this mass catches fire we're in deep trouble.”

Several stokers ran over to help and frantic shovelling moved the surface coal as they dug deeper into the pile. There was no sign of any hot coals, but the heat coming from lower down indicated where they'd find the source of the problem. They all increased their shovelling speed and the sweat poured off the men as they laboured. The urgency became painfully clear. Word quickly got around the boiler room, but it had already spread to other areas. The experienced workers were very aware of the dangers of a fire below when there was no way of removing the problem other than burning more coal to reach the hot zone.

Alarm bells were sounding and they could just be heard above the racket of the engines.

All six boilers fed the steam that turned two main propellers. A third, smaller screw was also engaged, though the direction of this propeller could not be altered.

“This may consume the fuel load faster, but the greater steam pressure will mean we'll also sail faster. All six boilers must be stoked at a similar rate to balance the output across all three propellers.”

The ship's telegraph suddenly went to Full Stop shortly followed by the signal for Full Reverse.

“What are they doing?” shouted Arthur. “Full Stop and Full Reverse with a full head of steam? This'll tear the ship apart.”

Steerage control was lost as the forward motion slowed. Fast water is necessary for the rudder to function effectively. The small central screw ensured a forward direction, but straight ahead.

There was a loud bang and even with the vibrations caused by the engines a gentle shuddering was felt. Slamming into reverse from Full Stop always created enormous stresses as the great pistons changed direction.

“What was that?” queried an anxious Jack.

“No idea,” shouted back Art.

Suddenly, water burst through between the outer iron plates of boiler room 6. Where the rivets had fractured, icy water flooded in through the widening gaps at a rate of several tons a second. The grapevine had been buzzing now for quite a while. “We're supposed to be in a field of ice-bergs and we must have just hit one,” screamed Art.

“You mean we've been sailing at full speed in the dark and in a 'berg field and nobody said a word?”

“We've got this fire down here so we have to burn the coal to reach the source and burn that. Or we'll have a problem with that too. We have to sail faster to use up the steam. We can't vent it off.”

After a short pause, Art suddenly exclaimed: “Put out the furnaces! If that icy water hits the boiler it'll explode.”

The terrible coincidence of the coal fire in bunker 6 and the apparent strike with an iceberg along the hull by boiler 6 was almost beyond belief, but the implication was not lost on Jack.

“Remember that rumour of the Olympic being a write-down after it was badly damaged in that collision in the Solent with HMS Hawke? The bow of Hawke was completely flattened, but the Navy was found to be not responsible. The Olympic had sucked the Navy ship in and they collided, but the damage to Olympic's stern was far greater than anyone had realised and the White Star Line was to absorb the losses. I reckon we're on the Olympic. They'll sink this vessel to recoup their losses from insurance, so couldn't care less if we all die.”

“No. They'd never do that,” reasoned Art. “There are well over 2200 people on board. And that doesn't include the crew. The heat from the smouldering fire must have ruptured the rivets and they've split. The iron plates then just separated. We're lost!”

The icy-cold water of the North Atlantic started to fill Jack's boots as the electric bulkhead door was lowered and the lights dimmed before they went out completely.


© Louis Brothnias v 1.3 (14.04.2012)


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