Thursday, August 26, 2021

A visit to the memorials of Washington DC

The capital city of the United States of America is filled with fascinating history, the museums lined up between the Capitol and the White House could take days to go around and the monuments dotted across the city would extend that trip into weeks. As a shipwreck and disaster researcher, I focused on those type of monuments when I went to visit in 2017. 

Two memorials side by side of the entrance to the Lincoln memorial were the ones dedicated to the US military losses in the wars in Vietnam and Korea, where over 100,000 names are on these panels. It makes for shocking reading when you see that each name is a real person, someone who had a family and career dreams yet ended their lives in a war so far from home. The Korean side had a mock up of the patrols, statues of soldiers trodding through vegetation, not knowing if this next step was going to be their last.

Close by, just behind Lincoln, is a monument to the Father of the American Navy, John Paul Jones. Born in Scotland, Jones fought the British at the Battle of Flamborough Head where his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, was sunk after an overnight battle on 23rd September 1779. He went on to be a Russian Admiral and took part in many sorties before he died alone in a Paris apartment many years later. The monument to him has a scene of battle with many of his legendary quotes such as “I have not yet begun to fight” which he famously shouted from the deck of his blazing ship.

One of the major things my wife and I went to see was the Pentagon, the home of the US military and the scene of one of the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001. While New York was reeling from the attacks on their World Trade Centre, a third passenger plane was directed at one of the sides of the Pentagon and demolished a hefty part of the well built structure. 184 people were killed and today the site has a memorial garden which names all those who were tragically lost in this pointless terror attack. Despite the main roads being so close, the area was quiet and secluded. By coincidence the attack happened on the 60th anniversary of the Pentagon being built as a stone around the other side gives the date 11th September 1941.

Heading out in a taxi we then directed our taxi to an area next to the Potomac River where a large memorial to the sinking of the liner Titanic in 1912 stood. A huge statue of a man with his arms outstretched was dedicated “to the men of the Titanic” from the women of America. This was another memorial that was nice and quiet and in very good shape for its age. One of many memorials to this most famous of shipwrecks.

The Potomac River is also the scene of a major disaster on 13th January 1982 when Air Florida flight 90 took off from the nearby airport and could not gain enough height due to ice on the wings. Losing altitude the Boeing 737 struck a bridge and smashed into several cars before plummeting into the icy river below. Despite a major rescue operation, there were just five survivors from the aircraft, but four others died on the bridge in their cars bringing a total death toll of 78. The bridge was later renamed the Arland D. Williams Jr. Memorial Bridge after one of the heroic passengers of the flight as a monument to his bravery in helping others that cost him his life.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Marchioness – Disaster on the Thames

The 1980’s was a decade of major disasters that stunned the world and made household names of the incidents that occurred. Names like Lockerbie, Hillsborough, Challenger, Zeebrugge were constantly in the news, but one name still stands out today as being a tragedy that should not have happened and certainly shouldn’t have had the aftermath that it did – the Marchioness.

Built in 1923, the Marchioness was an old pleasure boat that was designed for inland cruising and had undergone many modifications over the years. At just over 85 feet long, she was just 46 gross tons and had made a name for herself during the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, where thousands of stranded British troops were rescued from the beaches by the “little ships” that would then earn their place in history.

Owned by Tidal Cruises in the late 1970s, she was carrying over 100 passengers at a time by the time further modifications had made an upper and lower saloon internally, where parties could hire the vessel for celebrations and go on a cruise down the River Thames in London. The Marchioness, along with her sister ship Hurlingham, were popular vessels and it was in this role that she found herself in the early hours of 20th August 1989.

Setting off from Embankment pier at around 0125 hours, she was carrying around 133 people including her two crew members, for a celebration of the 26th birthday of city banker Antonio de Vasconcellos. The party was in full swing as the vessel slowly edged away and headed eastwards. At around the same time, further up the river was the dredger Bowbelle that had just departed from Nine Elms near Battersea Power Station. This much larger vessel was 25 years old and 262 feet long, at 1474 gross tons she was much bigger than the pleasure boat.

It wasn’t long before the Bowbelle was following the Marchioness close behind, but neither ship seemed to have seen each other. As the party boat passed under Southwark Bridge, the dredger crunched into the side of her twice and pulled her under the river, her upper decks being ripped off in the process and dozens of terrified passengers now finding themselves thrust into the Thames fighting for their lives.

The Bowbelle continued on and hit the Canon Street bridge as radio messages were transmitted for immediate assistance. Pandemonium broke out on the banks of the Thames as people were being dragged out of the freezing water and onto dry land, several clinging on to wreckage, the Marchioness completely underwater and trapping many within the confines of the boat.

As a huge rescue operation was mounted, it soon became apparent that 51 people on board would not be returning from this party. What happened next would shock the already grieving families as the inquest revealed that hands were removed from the bodies of the dead in order to identify them, the fact that the Bowbelle’s crew had been consuming alcohol before sailing led to it being highlighted at the inquest, but the main cause of the disaster was blamed on both vessels not keeping a proper lookout.

 The wreck of the Marchioness was raised the morning after the collision, she was eventually scrapped. Bowbelle was later sold on and renamedBom Rei, she went down off Madeira after breaking in two with the loss of one crew member. She is today a popular site for SCUBA diving expeditions.

Memorials to the victims of the disaster appear in several locations down the Thames bank at various rescue points; a large one is in Southwark Cathedral where memorial services are conducted on the anniversaries. But the greatest legacy of this tragic event is the building of the new RNLI lifeboat station just up the river from where it happened. Today if there is any water-borne emergency, including attempted suicide or falling off pleasure vessels, the fast boat and its professional crew are there to save the lives. Thanks to this being put in place, it is hoped that the likes of another disaster on this scale will never be seen again on the Thames. 

Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Tay Bridge Disaster

The River Tay is the longest river in Scotland, starting at the slopes of Ben Lui and ending 117 miles away in the North Sea. As with any river, it is necessary to build structures in order to allow people to cross, whether it be a tunnel, bridge or ferry. At certain points in any river these structures become a necessity, so in the 1800s a design was underway for a railway bridge across the Tay between Dundee and Wormit.

The bridge was designed by Sir Thomas Bouch and opened on 1st June 1878 for passenger carrying trains and was a success straight away. But just over 18 months later, on 28 December 1879 a violent storm erupted and hit the River Tay with a full fury. The bridge was restricted to one train at a time and as one train from Burntisland was allowed through, sparks were seen coming from the tracks. This was nothing to worry about as the previous train had had the same issue. In this weather it was not unusual for the train to be buffeted and the wheels make contact with the track.

On the Dundee side the train was expected but failed to appear. Other than a flash of light there was nothing but darkness in the storm. What nobody knew at this point was that the bridge had collapsed and the train had run straight off into the gap and plunged into the freezing River Tay below.

Nobody knows for sure just how many people died that night, 46 bodies were recovered, there were at least 59 people on the train but no accounting for those holding season tickets or additional people. The death toll has since been put at 75.

The subsequent inquiry into the disaster blamed the structure of the bridge and the design flaws that led to the storm destroying that part of the bridge. Designer Sir Thomas Bouch was held to blame and died less than a year after the disaster, his failing health worsened by the stress caused by the Tay Bridge collapse.

There have been many theories as to what exactly caused the collapse, controversies over whether Bouch should have been blamed and not forgetting the fluctuations in the number of people said to have died. The bridge itself was not used again, a new one being built next to it and opened for service just six years after the disaster.

A number of places remember the Tay Bridge train crash, for a start there is the bridge itself, the original stumps still visible next to the modern bridge jutting out of the water. On both the Dundee and Wormit waterfront are memorials which only went up a few years back after years of campaigning. A steel piece of the bridge is on display at the Dundee Museum of Transport, another in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh (below). 

Incredibly the train itself was salvaged and put back into service, nicknamed The Diver, it was in service until 1919 with may people refusing to cross the Tay on this locomotive, the superstition and fear being very real on this industrial service.