Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Crash of Tarom flight 371 - Twenty Five Years On

Sitting in my front room on 31st March 1995 watching the lunchtime news I was shocked at the breaking story that an Airbus A-310 had crashed soon after taking off from Bucharest in Romania. The airliner was owned by Tarom and all 60 people on board had been killed.

Designated as flight 371 the aircraft had began her journey at 0904 and began to climb as normal, but within minutes the plane was having problems. In the middle of a turn the auto-throttle seemed to fail and at the same time it is thought that the pilot became incapacitated for some unknown reason.

In an attempt to take control of the flight the co-pilot tried to re-establish some kind of order but to no avail. At 0908 the Airbus slammed into a field in Balotesti and killed all those on board.

First reports in the press and TV gave details of an explosion in mid-air but this was dismissed as most air disasters start with reports such as this. Investigators combed the field looking for clues and the two Black Box flight recorders were recovered and taken away to be examined. Rumours of a bomb bringing down the plane were soon proved to be false and the true cause was soon found.

Now a quarter of a century on the memories of that dreadful day are being remembered by the relatives and friends of the sixty who died. This still remains the deadliest plane crash in the country's history as well as the airlines.

Once the painstaking investigation was completed a permanent memorial was installed at the site of the crash listing the victims and giving those affected a place where they could remember their loved ones. In 2019 the story of this disaster was featured in the popular documentary series Air Crash Investigation (also known as Mayday in other countries) under the title Fatal Climb.

Unfortunately due to the current pandemic of Covid-19 it is very doubtful that this memorial will get any publicity today. Tarom is facing huge problems along with every other world airline with grounding planes and cancelling flights to help stop the spread.

But nothing can erase the personal reflection of this disaster for those affected by it and those left behind with their memories. 25 years for them will feel like yesterday. But for those who can, we will remember the victims of the crash of Tarom flight 371.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Thomas Alderson - Bridlington George Cross Hero

The word "hero" is thrown around a lot these days, but while the press continue to label celebrities and sports stars there are people in this world who do incredible things that put their own life on the line in order to save others. One of these people deserving of this title (although he'd probably much prefer it if you didn't) was a man called Thomas Hopper Alderson.

Born in County Durham in September 1903 he moved to the town of Bridlington in East Yorkshire, working for the Corporation as an engineer following his time in the Merchant Navy. Married with a young daughter, he enjoyed living here and never thought for one moment that fate would propel his name into the history books in this town.

When the Second World War broke out the first months were known as the Phoney War, nothing much happened especially on the home front, but as the first months of 1940 showed, things were to escalate fast when bombing raids first arrived on the towns and cities causing devastation and death wherever they went. The night times were filled with terror as the air raid sirens sounded their alarm telling everybody to seek shelter. In the big cities they found solace in the underground railways, subways and vaults, but in the smaller towns they had to make do with what they had. Basements, cellars and home made air raid shelters were the best they had. Thankfully though the raids on small towns were no where near as bad.

On 15th August 1940 on particular bombing raid saw several houses on St Albans Road in Bridlington completely obliterated. Thomas Alderson by now was an ARP warden and raced to the scene. Trapped inside one of the houses was a woman who was still alive. He managed to tunnel through the wreckage and reach her, slowly but surely dragging her to safety much to the delight of the other rescuers.

Just days later there was another air raid on Bridlington. As the bombs fell on the town centre one in particular demolished a set of five-  storey buildings on Prince Street, the wreckage of the building collapsing in on itself and trapping eleven people within the cellar.

Again without any consideration for the amount of danger he was putting himself in, he once again tunnelled through the wreckage and for over three hours worked hard until he had managed to get every one of the trapped people out. By the end of the escapade he was badly bruised, cut up and filthy.

While the rescuers in the town worked hard to dig out the bombed buildings around the rest of the town, the name Thomas Alderson was starting to be known around town. But he was not done yet.

Days after his major rescue he was involved in a third bombed out building where he rescued two people out of a cellar, one tragically dying later. For now he was done with the major rescues.

But behind closed doors his named had been spoken with great zest. There was a new medal about to be released in order to honour civilians who had shown extreme bravery in "circumstances of extreme danger."

On 30th September 1940 the name of Thomas Alderson appeared in the London Gazette as the very first person to be awarded this medal. This was the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross, the kind of medal that a lot of occasions are posthumously awarded.

The importance of this medal was not lost on the town of Bridlington and he was celebrated in the town as the newspapers told of his exploits - a fantastic boost to morale during a period of dark times and gloom. But Alderson was always a humble man and never sought recognition for his wartime service.

Although he died of cancer in 1965, his name has lived on with a plaque that was placed next door to the rebuilt building in 1996 where he had performed his rescue of those 11 people and this being later removed and placed in a Royal British Legion Poppy Break Centre for veterans overlooking the south side seafront. Alderson House opened in 2007 but due to funding cuts was closed in early 2020.

As it stands there is no plaque at the place where this heroic individual rescued almost a dozen people and we are in grave danger of forgetting this incredible man and everything he did for the town. I am now beginning to collect as much information as possible to tell the story of Thomas Alderson and show the world exactly what he did in the form of a book about his life.

Hopefully one day soon he will once again have a plaque at the shops on Prince Street - this time one that we can all see and admire.

(If anybody can help with the story of the Bridlington bombings and Thomas Alderson then email me at shipwreckdata@yahoo.co.uk with your information/photos and lets get this story told).

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Fire in New York - The Triangle Factory Disaster 1911

New York City at the turn of the century saw a revolution of factories and businesses that made the Big Apple the bustling city that it was growing to be and one that made immigrants from around to the world leave their homes and travel the thousands of miles for the promise of work.

One of these businesses was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on Washington Place and Greene Street housed in the top three floors of a ten-storey Asch Building. It was here that hundreds of girls made shirtwaists in what we would now consider terrible conditions. Treated like dirt, these girls were locked in on a daily basis to prevent them from leaving before the jobs were done and the thought of  any health and safety law were non-existent. 

On 25th March 1911 a small fire broke out on the eighth floor which quickly spread amongst all the flammable materials around. The workers tried to call upstairs to raise the alarm but no sooner had they got word up the fire had already snaked up to the ninth floor and was heading for the tenth. With the locked doors and blocked fire escapes the workers had no way to escape from the flames and choking fumes from the thick black smoke that was overpowering them. 

Faced with certain death, many of them chose to jump from the window and take their chances with surviving the fall down to the pavement below. Needless to say they didn't stand a chance. 

As the fire brigade arrived to a raging inferno they were met with dozens of survivors that had managed to scramble free. This is where they realised that the ladders wouldn't go far enough to even reach floor eight let alone the tenth. 

The scale of the disaster shocked the world, the death toll was eventually calculated as being 146, many of them trapped upstairs, the rest laying on the pavement below. 

A scandal erupted as it was revealed the owners allowed the doors locked and went on trial for manslaughter - a trial that ended with their acquittal. They didn't learn from disaster - two years later one of the owners was fined for once again locking doors and keeping the workers inside. 

The building today still stands and is today known as the Brown Building for academic research, a selection of plaques telling the story of the day the worst fire in New York pre 9/11 caused a change in labour laws that led to factories being a safer place to work.

I visited the site of this fire in 2017 and it was perhaps one of the quietest streets in the city. You could never imagine the horror of people jumping from buildings or the helplessness of the rescue teams being at this exact spot. It is only good now that these victims are now remembered in memorials, ceremonies and several books. Thanks to the hard work of historians, these people and their fight for justice will now always be remembered.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Herald of Free Enterprise

The world has always been shocked by certain images of disaster and one that still resonates today is the image of the huge hull of a red car ferry laying on her side on the front pages of the newspapers. On Friday 6th March 1987 the Townsend Thoresen ferry Herald of Free Enterprise was loading up her passengers, cars and lorries at the Belgian port of Zeebrugge ready for the late crossing to Dover.

As the seven year old ship set sail and headed out to sea, a chain reaction of mistakes and critical events that took place that would lead to disaster. First of all the ship's bow was heavy due to a ballast tank being used to lower the ship in order for the car deck to come level with the loading ramp. Secondly the man sent to check the bow doors were closed mistakenly saw somebody else in his place (probably a lorry driver) walking towards them and assumed he had it in hand. Thirdly, the man who was actually meant to close the doors was asleep in his cabin. The fourth critical error was the ship actually proceeded to sea with these doors open and nobody on board noticed.

With just a very short distance travelled and barely out of the breakwater of the harbour, the ship lurched side to side violently. In just 45 seconds the entire car ferry was laid on her side and her passengers and crew were struggling for survival in the icy water in pitch darkness. The only thing to be thankful was the fact it had, by chance, come to grief on a sandbank preventing the ship completely sinking fully underwater.

A nearby dredger saw the capsize and radioed for help straight away. A massive rescue operation immediately swung into action with every available vessel heading to the ferry, helicopters and divers from nearby naval ships helped pull out over 300 people.

Inside the ferry the trapped passengers and crew were having a nightmare in the dark surrounded by upturned wreckage, water and unidentifiable flotsam. One man used his body as a bridge to get a group of people to safety. Others worked until they were exhausted.

As the morning broke the following day the TV cameras captured a sight that shocked the world. The open bow doors were clear to see and once again opened the debate on the safety of ferries and the open car decks. The Herald was part of the roll-on-roll-off style, whereby cars could enter the ship in one port through the bow and exit in the destination via the opposite end. The only issue is the enormous space between those doors running the complete length of the ship. When just on inch of water is allowed onto that deck it causes what is known as the "free surface effect" where water can move from one side of the ship to the other and destabilise the ship catastrophically. This is exactly what happened here when the Herald's open doors (weighted down) scooped water onto the car deck and sank her within minutes of picking up speed.

When the rescue operation was completed, the death toll stood at 193. A salvage operation managed to lift the ship upright before refloating her, a task that took several months. After the inquiry had been completed, it was found that the blame lay with the crew for sailing with the bow doors open. The wreck of the Herald of Free Enterprise was renamed Flushing Range and towed to Taiwan for scrapping. Not before she once again made headlines breaking her tow in a storm and almost falling once again a victim to the sea.

The legacy of the Herald disaster leaves a network of grieving families and memorials on both sides of the continent.
In 2009 I passed over the area where 22 years before the whole drama of the disaster had taken place before taking the time to visit the memorial garden at a Zeebrugge church. A stone disc on the ground bears an image of the Channel that the Herald was to take, a route taken many hundreds of times before.

The area here is very quiet, sectioned off with a hedge away from prying eyes. A place where mourners could lay flowers knowing that they would not be the first, neither would they be the last.

Fast forward to 2018 and over the water to Dover, I managed to visit three places where Herald memorials were on show. The first is a memorial garden on Marine Parade, facing out to the sea ahead. A small monument pays tribute to the disaster and gives the opportunity to see life growing from a small area commemorating so many deaths.

Dover was hit hard in the disaster, the place where the ship had departed from on so many occasions, the crew came from here and it was the place that was shocked the most by the enormity of the disaster. It was only natural that there were going to be more than one memorial dedicated to this ship.

In the centre of the town itself is St Mary's Church, a place that is so well positioned it is impossible to miss.  But inside is a beautiful stained glass window to the Herald and her lost souls (left).

Nearby a placard lists the names of all those who sailed on her that night and who didn't make it back. After a recent commemoration, her bell, recovered from the salvaged wreck, stood surrounded by fresh flowers and flanked by books of remembrance (Below and right). The silence in this church is deafening despite the central position to the town.

A few miles up the road, past Dover Castle, is the village of  St Margarets-at-Cliffe. The Church of St Margaret of Antioch stands tall here in the fog and wind swept hills. It was closed on the day I arrived but a phone call and a quick visit to a key holder allowed me to gain access for a short visit where I was able to take a few moments to stand in silence at another stained glass window (below), just as breathtaking as the previous. Only this was brought home to me even more so by the presence of graves nearby bearing the infamous date - 6th March 1987.

While the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise wasn't the largest sea disaster in British history, nor would she be the last, it was certainly the one that everybody these days seems to remember. The name itself resonates with the image of the bold red ship laying on her side that burned into the worlds memory, an accident waiting to happen but one that will now always be remembered.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Yorkshire Coast Shipwrecks

When I was a child I would find it fascinating that so many ships had been lost off the coast of my county, one book put an estimation that up to 50,000 ships had come to grief here over the centuries. When you think about it that is not too far fetched considering the storms that used to hit the coast and, according to records from the time, wrecked 300 ships here and 200 ships there. These soon add up when you throw in two world wars into the equation.

So this blog entry is on a few that I have come across over the years that the visitor to the Yorkshire coast can see without getting their feet wet. You certainly don’t have to be a diver to appreciate the maritime history of the ships that have ended their careers on the seabed.

Scarborough lighthouse is one of these places. It was the opening months of the First World War, on 16th December 1914 that this structure was seriously damaged in the infamous attack by German warships during the shelling of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool While the damage was repaired and the lighthouse returned to operations, today a plaque marks the event and the harbour area serves as a place of relaxation for holidaymakers who enjoy chips and ice cream in the sunshine while debating whether to go on a pleasure cruise around the coast. But if you walk just past the front of the lighthouse and head to the end of the pier you will notice a gun mounted permanently on a plinth (below).

Pointing skyward and restored to its former shape without the rust, oil and salty deposits, this weapon was once on the cargo ship Hornsund, manned by the crew during the First World War against any enemy attacks during convoy duties. The ship was sunk by torpedo attack on 23rd September 1917 as the plaque on the gun explains. The wreck lay just over two miles from the harbour and as with many of the wrecks close to land it was found and explored by a host of divers throughout the years.

The gun was salvaged in 1982 and placed here by helicopter two years later.

An identical situation (left)lies on the seafront at Whitby with the gun said to be salvaged from the wreck of the African Transport. On 25th June 1918 she was struck by a torpedo while in convoy to Gibraltar and sank two miles from shore killing three crew. What is interesting to note is that the gun from the African Transport still lies on the wreck site meaning this gun may have come from a completely different wreck nearby!

As with some of my previous blog entries, the gun from HMS Fairy was at one time mounted on the south side of Bridlington Harbour before being taken away and placed in storage. Rumours have suggested this may soon form a display elsewhere but as it stands nothing has been seen of it in 20 years. Other items from the German U-boats that have found their way in a permanent watery grave nearby as well as the wrecks of the Great Gale of 1871 and the Battle of Flamborough Head have all deserved their own story (do please check them out).

So now we will take a journey up to Bempton Cliffs. As you walk from the bird sanctuary and turn right at the cliff edge you come very soon to an area called Staple Nook. This is the site of three shipwrecks – the trawler Lord Ernle, trawler Skegness and cargo vessel Radium (right). The Skegness was particularly devastating due to the amount of crew lost but the other two grounded and were safely evacuated, all becoming dive sites and all now too broken up to see with the exception of the boiler from the Radium which only just shows the top at very low tide.

Another boiler can be seen if you were to walk in the opposite direction and follow the cliff edge to Speeton. After a long walk you can look over the edge at the small amount of stony beach below to see the remains of a boiler from one of the many cargo vessels that have grounded within the last century. Over 300ft down this is probably the best view you are going to get without endangering yourself or needing a boat (below).

But if you want to see boilers close up then the place to head to is Reighton beach where the steamship Laura went aground 21 November 1897 and broke up where she lay (below). The two boilers are fully exposed at low tide and the visitor can easily walk around them and admire the pure size of these steel monsters. Other chunks of wreckage are exposed nearby and it would be amazing to see what else is buried underneath from what was once a fully functioning ship ploughing through the seas. At only seven years old when she came to grief it was just lucky that this is one shipwreck that didn’t take any lives in her demise.

This is just a snapshot of some of the shipwrecks that litter the seabed off the coast of Yorkshire and as the seas become safer the newer wrecks become less and less, leaving the old ones to slowly fade away until not even divers visit them any more. The items that have been salvaged from these now adorn some of the local pubs and museums and it is great to see them cared for. If you are ever in these towns do seek out the guns pointing out to sea and the local museums telling the stories. One day these stories and artefacts will be all we have left of this time period at sea.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Sinking of HMS Affray

Few disasters at sea can sum up the worst imaginable death than that of a sinking submarine. To be trapped helpless beneath the waves as water floods in, knowing that the more seawater that comes in the heavier you get the further you sink. If you are lucky the sub will implode for an instant death (USS Scorpion and USS Thresher) but sometimes you are stuck on the seabed with only the darkness and cold like the Kursk disaster of 2000. The Amphion class submarine Affray was one of the latter.

Built in Birkenhead in the last year of the Second World War, the 281ft long Affray was commissioned in the November of 1945 and, together with her sister subs, they were said to be the product of the most modern submarine designs the Royal Navy had. Her journey with the British Pacific Fleet led to her going around the world taking part in multi-national exercises and some exciting port visits, but she was transferred to her new base port of Portsmouth in 1951 after she had previously been modified with a “snort mast” to allow the diesel generators to be run while submerged at periscope depth. 

She set sail on 16 April 1951 for another exercise with a complement of 75 people, this included Special Boat Service marines and officers under training. A passing warship saluted her as they crossed and the submarine signalled that she was preparing to dive. That was the last time the Affray was heard from. 

By the following morning the navy knew something was amiss when she failed to report in and so an immediate search was called for to track down the last known whereabouts of the sub. Two dozen ships scoured the sea and radio messages were blindly sent in the hope of a response, but all they got was silence. A listening device detected messages signalling that people were trapped on the seabed but the location was unknown.

It was two months before the wreck of the Affray was located, 17 miles from the island of Alderney in the Channel Islands. There were no survivors.

An exploration of the wreck located the snort mast which was said to be faulty but shouldn’t have failed to that degree. Many theories were put forward including trainee errors, battery explosion and the snort letting water in. The truth is nothing certain has been officially blamed for the loss. Items can be seen today in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport  (right) as well as a display at the museum at the shore base HMS Sultan from this year. 

In 2001 the wreck became officially protected as a controlled site and only diving can take place with Ministry of Defence permission to ensure the preservation of the wreck.

In April 2012 a plaque overlooking the sea on the island of Alderney was unveiled to commemorate the loss of the Affray and lists the names the 75 people who died that day, one year later an identical memorial was opened on the Gosport waterfront path. This ensures that one of Britain’s worst submarine disaster is never forgotten and that we will continue to remember the lost 75 crew, forever entombed in what is one of the largest submarine wrecks in the English Channel and the last Royal Navy submarine to sink and take lives.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

HMS Fittleton - Collision in the North Sea

The importance of having mine countermeasure vessels in any navy has never been in doubt and in 1976 at the height of the cold war this was a time when, after only three decades since the Second World War, the dangers of these underwater menaces were still very much alive.

HMS Fittleton was one of these vessels. After launch in 1954 she was renamed HMS Curzon between 1960 and 1975 before she was re-branded with her old name. With a speed of around 15 knots, she was a wooden built Ton-Class sweeper of 152 feet in length and was destined to spend the bulk of her career under the Royal Naval Reserves.

On 20th September 1976 she was in the North Sea off Holland taking part in a large NATO exercise which would soon finish with the ship visiting the German port of Hamburg, but first she had to take part in a dangerous manoeuvre involving getting close to the frigate HMS Mermaid and transferring lines across from one ship to the other. This would then be used to send and receive mail, a risky task but one that ships do around the world.

As the ships came in close the Mermaid’s sheer size compared with that of the Fittleton caught her off guard in an area of low pressure and the two vessels collided. The smaller ship suffered the most and rolled over completely.

The shocked task force mounted a huge rescue operation and thankfully located 32 survivors, the tragedy was that 12 others were not so lucky. The Fittleton wallowed around for several hours upside down before sinking to the bed of the North Sea.

It would only be one day later that the wreck of Fittleton was raised by a crane barge, the damage to the ship visible as it was hoisted out of the water. She was then made watertight and towed back to Chatham dockyard, UK. Five bodies were found, the other seven were missing.

A scandal erupted and the Royal Navy Police were called in to investigate when it was found that the sailors had just been paid in cash just before the collision, but only a few wet banknotes and a lot of empty wallets were found in the wreckage.

The wreck was examined and later towed off to be scrapped. The captain was court-martialled over the loss of his ship and found guilty of failing to reduce speed and putting his ship in danger.

HMS Mermaid was later sold to Malaysia and renamed Hang Tuah where today she is a museum ship after being decommissioned in 2018, a career lasting around five decades.

The sinking of the Fittleton was the Royal Naval Reserves worst disaster and there is a memorial window at the RNR base at HMS President in London, a place that looks out over the Thames with a fantastic view of Tower Bridge. Another window to the disaster is in the local church in the small village of Fittleton in Wiltshire.

Despite the loss of several warships in the Falklands War in 1982, the Fittleton remains to this day the last warship to sink in peacetime in the Royal Navy, a trend that (despite a few mishaps over the years) they will hopefully continue to adhere to.

Monday, March 2, 2020

Elizabethan Shipwreck at Alderney

The Channel Islands off the Northern coast of France have always been a potential magnet for shipwrecks. The modern years have seen less and less, perhaps a trawler in distress or, in 2019, the search for the wreckage of an aircraft that killed footballer Emiliano Sala.

Alderney in particular has an interesting story that revolves around a mystery wreck around half a mile from land and around 30M down. Discovered by accident in 1977 after a local fisherman snagged something in his gear, the wreck has been dived and explored by archaeologists ever since. The recovery of a treasure trove of artefacts led to experts dating the wreck to November 1592 making this the only Elizabethan wreck to be excavated in UK waters.

Some of the items located include a clay pipe, fragments of pottery, timbers, lead weights and best of all her cannon. Three of these cannon have so far been recovered and before long a trust was set up to help preserve the finds, excavate the wreck and spread the knowledge of what is being discovered. TV crews filmed the excavations and before long the newspapers followed the story. 

Since the salvage began over 1000 items have been recovered and preserved, most of which go straight into the local museum, others may take time to properly care for before they are on display.

Despite the amount of effort the Trust has taken to give this ship a voice, they are no closer to finding out her name. There is a mention of the sinking in States Papers and that gives it the approximate date of the sinking.

It looks like the divers, archaeologists, experts and researchers have a lot more work to do. Thankfully their passion for this wreck and their drive for bringing it back to the surface will continue to make sure that the world will know about this wreck for many years to come.

In 2009 I had the privilege of being able to visit this beautiful island and with previous knowledge of the wreck was excited to see some of the artefacts on display after the staff allowed me in after closing time for a quick look around and for that I am very grateful. I couldn't think of a community that deserved a marvellous piece of history more than Alderney.