THE BURNING OF THE 'VOLTURNO' - PAGE 6
'SEA CLASSICS' ARTICLE
JULY 1993 - OWEN GAULT

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Here is another page of data, exclusively respecting a four page article by Owen Gault that was published in 'Sea Classics' magazine of Jul. 1993, (Vol. 26 #7) as follows: (a copy of that issue was sold in early Mar. 2005 via e-Bay for U.S. $8.99).

I have tried to find a way to contact Mr. Owen Gault, to seek his permission for the use of his article. But without success, alas! I see however, than another of his 'Sea Classics' articles, about Tokyo Bay, is on the WWW in two places. If anyone can tell me how to contact the author, do please do so.

And should Mr. Gault prefer that this page be removed from this non-profit and informational site, I would be happy to do so - though with regret. Because it is a fine article indeed.


DECISION AGAINST DISASTER: THE LINER VOLTURNO TRAGEDY by OWEN GAULT

There was nothing stately or majestic about the 3600-ton liner Volturno as she slowly plodded through heavy sea at ten knots destined for New York over a thousand miles away. A vicious mid-Atlantic gale had suddenly sprung up sending spumes of wind-whipped green water across her decks, slowing her westward progress even further. To minimize the pounding, Captain Horatio M. Inch reduced speed, knowing well the effect the violent pitching movement would have on the hapless 614 immigrant passengers jammed into the poorly ventilated cabins and steerage compartments.

Not unlike hundreds of other turn-of-the century medium-sized workhorses plying the Atlantic, Volturno was carrying a mixed cargo of freight and immigrants to America. A lean ship devoid of comfortable salons and gourmet dining, her spartan accommodations more resembled a crowded dormitory than a floating hotel. The cafeteria-style food was passable and nutritious, but few aboard knew of or cared about luxury sea travel. They simply wanted to get to America at the cheapest possible trans-Atlantic fare. That was what Royal Lines sold - price, not luxury, and few of those eager to begin a new life in the United States were in the mood to complain about the storm, the food or their too-small bunks.

Sophisticated well-heeled travelers avoided these "immigrant ships" with all of their overcrowding, foul odors, poor sanitation and lack of polite niceties like quiet cardrooms, gymnasiums, and inviting casinos and salons. That a polyglot lot of 57 crew members from 13 different nations were called upon to look after 614 passengers alone attests to lack of nattily dressed stewards, maids and waiters who would look after the passenger's needs on a luxury liner.

Having left Rotterdam on 2 October 1913, Volturno was still in mid-ocean seven stormy days later when word sprang out that a fire had started in one of the cargo holds. Captain Inch immediately investigated, fearful of the potential hazard of the mixed cargo of burlap, hemp, peat moss, volatile chemicals and oil. Fire at sea was every captain's worst nightmare and fighting a fire while in the teeth of a howling gale would be no easy matter.

Precious moments later the first officer returned to the bridge. He was grim-faced. The news was not good. A blazing fire was raging deep in number two hold. Even as the breathless officer made his report Captain Inch could see the thickening smoke begin to billow from the hold, swirling aft as it mixed with the sea spray and howling wind. A tall, powerful man in stature and demeanor, Captain Inch, a ten-year veteran skipper with Royal Lines, realized the danger all too well. He ordered the ship turned out of the wind so the thickening smoke would not blow back into the ventilators or superstructure and cause panic to the passengers.

Fire hoses were manned at great peril to the crew and strung out along the wave-lashed forward decks so that streams of water could be put against the fire. A tedious wait and watch vigil began, but, as the minutes ticked by, it was obvious the water had little effect on the raging fire. Sheets of flame now visibly sprang from the hold along with clouds of black smoke that nearly suffocated the fire fighting crewman. The fire was gaining and there was little hope of containing it.

Captain Inch scanned the rain-whipped seas and knew too that it would be perilous to launch lifeboats. Only a year before the Titanic disaster had shocked the world and he was determined to save his vessel from turning into a similar tragedy. Facing the double hazard of an uncontrollable fire and a vicious storm, he lost no time in sending out an SOS signal to all ships in the vicinity.

Concern among the passengers grew as they felt the intense heat soon emanating from the forward bulkheads. Soon, swirls of inky black smoke managed to filter deep into the depths of the ship causing many to choke from the acrid fumes. That they were equally aware of the Titanic catastrophe and the great loss of life on that ill-fated liner became all too evident as the nervous passengers anxiously questioned the busy crewmen. What was happening? Were they in danger? Could the fire in the sealed hold be contained? The replies were hardly pacifying. The crewmen admitted the fire was out of control. No officer or crewman could guess how long it would be before the glowing white hot steel bulkheads would melt and allow the flames to sweep into the steerage spaces. Initial concern became alarm and unchecked alarm could quickly become panic. The Volturno's plight had all the makings of another headline-making tragedy at sea.

Aware of the passengers' near panic, Inch, in spite of his grave doubts and anxiety about the swelling seas, ordered some of the lifeboats lowered. It was an agonizing life or death decision few captains are forced to make for there was a terrible hazard in either course of action; waiting too long to take to the boats lest the flames and smoke reach the boat deck or pitting passengers against a raging sea in open boats. Was it better to drown or be incinerated? Captain Inch reasoned that they at least stood a chance for survival in the boats, especially if a nearby ship heard their frantic SOS transmission.

Number 2 lifeboat was swung out on the davits and sent downward with 25 people in it. The boats slapped onto the angry surface of the sea and immediately capsized. Three officers managed to turn the boat over and climb inside. They were last seen clawing frantically with oars, trying to rescue those who were barely keeping their heads above water. The boat and the people thrashing and sputtering in the huge waves drifted away and were never seen again. On board the Volturno the fires were moving upward to the main deck. Inch still thought his passengers' chances were better in the sea and ordered Number 6 lifeboat over the side. This boat managed to stay afloat, and the immigrants on board waved confidently to the hundreds of grim faces at the liner's rails. Lifeboat Number 6 was never seen again.

Seventy-five miles distant from the sinking Volturno was the elegant Cunard steamship, Carmania. When Captain Barr of the Carmania was handed the Volturno's SOS, he instantly order his ship about and steamed at full power to Volturno's position. A host of other ships - American vessels Kroonland and Minneapolis of the Atlantic Transport line, the Rappahannock, the German ships Seydlitz and Grosser Kurfürst turned from their courses without question and made quickly for the Volturno's radioed longitude and latitude.

Captain Inch was still taking his chances with the ocean, and seeing Number 6 lifeboat successfully lowered, he ordered Number 7 swung out. This boat, jammed with crew members and immigrants, made it to the sea, but a series of waves swept her quickly astern. The churning propellers of the liner sucked the boat under, grinding her to pieces. All in the small boat drowned in full view of Inch and the other officers who had run to the stern to witness the destruction.

Shocked by the gruesome horror they had just witnessed, Inch and his officers did their best to calm the rapidly growing hysteria that was fast overtaking the frightened passengers. Children huddled against their confused mothers as frenzied husbands and relatives came on deck in ever increasing numbers. Smoke began filling the crowded passageways, while frantic crewmen desperately tried to calm the passengers' fears and lead then safely topside. Crewmen desperately trying to make themselves understood to Europeans unaccustomed to orders shouted in foreign tongues only added to the confusion.

Captain Inch seemed to be everywhere at once rushing fore and aft as he attempted to direct the rush to the upper decks without trampling or chaos. The sight of his imposing form clad in an immaculate white uniform, combined with his calm resolve, kept a bad situation from getting completely out of control.

But Inch's force of will alone could not stem the fury of the flames that crept aft threatening to devour everyone in their searing wake. With smoke shrouding the bridge and wheelhouse, flames soon began to eat their way through the planked wooded decks melting the tar caulking until the wood itself flashed aflame. Soon the forward decks became a bed of hot coals impossible to walk on, forcing everyone aft and upwind to escape the inferno.

Glancing at the storm-tossed sea, Captain Inch could only speculate on what the outcome would be if help did not arrive soon. Several ships had indicated having received his SOS signal, but it was now a race against time.

More vessels along the Atlantic shipping lines responded to the distress signals from the Volturno as her intrepid radio operator incessantly cracked out an SOS. The French liner La Touraine, the Russian steamer Tsar, the Asian, the Devonian, even the large oil tanker Narragansett, set their courses for the sinking ship. The tanker, though arriving late, was the most important vessel of the international rescue flotilla.

A short time after Inch had ordered Lifeboat Number 7 into the water, he was faced with a new problem. A large group of the black gang burst upon the main deck, shouting that the fires were getting close to the boiler rooms and stokeholds, that the metal walls had become unbearable under the "white heat."

Captain Inch and a few officers backed the grime-smeared stokers toward the ladders leading down to the boiler rooms. A surly giant of a man would not budge. "Captain, we're not going back down there. It's death."

"There are still more than five hundred souls on board this ship," Inch said. Wasting no time, he drew his revolver and pointed it at the black gang. "Go below and do your duty." The stokers stared defiantly. "I'll shoot the first man who breaks for the boats." Grumbling, the stokers went slowly down the ladders to their stations.

When the word spread through the tense immigrant ranks that the captain would lower no more boats, a group of panicky seamen, joined by some of the immigrants, let over a boat without orders. These men came to tragedy in seconds as the boat twisted crazily out from the davits halfway to the water and tossed all the occupants into the sea. They drowned while begging to be saved. Before lines could be thrown to them, they had disappeared beneath the waves.

Just when all on board were preparing to meet the same fate, the Cunard steamer Carmania arrived. Those on the Volturno cheered, but their joy was premature. The sea was so choppy that boats from the Carmania could not reach the stricken ship. Helplessly, Captain Barr of the Cunarder watched as flames began to appear at the stern of the immigrant vessel. The Grosser Kurfürst, the Minneapolis, the Tsar, the Devonian and many others steamed over the horizon. But try as they might - they put over lifeboats that had to turn back in the violent sea - the rescue ships could not reach the crowds of praying, screaming people on the Volturno's burning decks.

The decks began to buckle under the intense heat from the flaming cargo holds below. The fire reached the bridge, and flares, Coston lights, rockets and all sorts of explosive devices used to signal distress at sea exploded in a mighty bang. Captain Inch's hair, most of his resplendent uniform and pieces of his shoes were blown away.

Badly burned, Inch bravely continued to keep his passengers and remaining crew members from panicking.

As hope diminished, Inch told his crew members that if any one of them wanted to jump overboard before the entire ship blew up, he was free to do so.

Many did and were picked up by lifeboats from the international flotilla sailing in great circles about the Volturno. Others stayed and displayed enviable courage in calming the passengers.

In a minute-to-midnight drama, the huge tanker Narragansett arrived. Her captain shrewdly ordered an oil slick created around the Volturno, and the released oil caused the seas to remain calm and diminished the waves. All the rescue vessels then put over lifeboats, and sailors rowed like madmen to the immigrant ship, now burning at both bow and stern. It was a race against time.

Inch ordered all the men behind a rope that was stretched across the main deck. It was to be women and children first, as it had been on the Titanic and in the great tradition of the sea. Some of the men bolted and tried to join their wives and children, but they were turned back by Inch and some of his officers.

The lifeboats arrived alongside and speedily took off all the women and children. Then the men were allowed to the railing, and one by one, they were saved. Captain Inch was the last man to leave his ship, now entirely engulfed in flames. His clothes in tatters, Inch was the storybook seamaster, Under one arm he carried his ship's log; under the other he held the squirming small dog who served as the ship's mascot. He sat down in a lifeboat, staring wide-eyed at the blazing Volturno.

"Don't look at it, Captain," someone advised.

"No matter." Inch replied. "I can't see it. I was blinded in the explosion." He remained blind for several days. Saved were 535 grateful passengers and crewmen. Gone down to the sea were 136 persons who had taken their chances in the Volturno's lifeboats.

To the surprise of everyone, the burning ship did not sink. Not until 17 October 1913, did she go under. A Dutch crew from the tanker Charlois boarded the dead ship as she lurched through the seas. They knocked open the seacocks, and the liner quickly settled, a burned-out derelict reluctant to quite her dark passage.

In the formal investigation that followed, Captain Horatio Inch, still recovering from his injuries and partially blinded, was cited for his skill and handling of the Volturno in its time of crisis. He had demonstrated rare courage and unbridled tenacity in trying to save his ship and passengers from a fiery catastrophe that might easily have claimed many more lives. Refusing to think of himself as a hero, the veteran seaman simply claimed "That's what I'm paid to do." Five hundred thirty-five surviving crewmen and passengers did not share his modesty. They owed their lives to a valiant seaman who helped them overcome fear and panic under the worst set of impossible circumstances.

Webmaster's Note The caption under the inset image above reads as follows: "Taken aboard the German ship Seydlitz, one of eighteen vessels that responded to the Volturno's SOS, this immigrant family was typical of the hundreds of thousands who sought economical transportation for their migration to the United States. Immigrant ships offered none of the luxuries found aboard the major liners and many passengers brought their own food for the long voyage. (UPI photo)"

A fine article, as I trust you will agree. A few tiny puzzles to the webmaster, however. Nothing I have read elsewhere about the Volturno gives Captain Inch's first name as being 'Horatio'. That is a splendid name for a sea captain (Horatio Nelson, Horatio Hornblower & all that) but I thought the Captain was correctly 'Francis J. D. Inch'. And I thought that the Russian ship was the 'Czar' rather than 'Tsar'. But I have seen a number of spellings of that ship's name. And while the exact ownership/leasing status of the Volturno in 1913  seems to be quite confusing, and I have seen a number of names stated, 'Royal Lines' was a new name to me. But I have learned, thanks to Kathryn Atkin, that that term is one applied to Canadian Northern Steamship Company, which company had leased Volturno to Uranium Line at the time of the disaster.

Some day I will introduce into these pages somewhere (I now have here), the words of Lawrence, and I mean THE Lawrence i.e. Lawrence of Arabia, when his editor complained that an Arabic name was spelled by Lawrence one way on one page of his manuscript, in another way on another page, & so on and so on. It is a delightful clash of visions and purposes & makes interesting reading. My comment about the Czar/Tsar brought that to mind.

If YOU have any new data about the Volturno, or in any way related to the Volturno, I would welcome your dropping me a line.

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The following is from the 'PUBLISHER'S NOTE' to 'REVOLT IN THE DESERT' by T. E. Lawrence, published, I think, and certainly copyrighted in 1926 and 1927. My copy states it was published by Garden City Publishing Company, Inc of New York, but also states that the book was written in 1919 and was abridged for later publication, including the publication of my copy.

'It seems necessary to explain that the spelling of Arabic names throughout this book varies according to the whim of the author.
The publisher's proof-reader objected strongly to the apparent inconsistencies which he found, and a long and entertaining correspondence ensued between author and publisher. The author's attitude can best be judged from the following extracts which show questions and answers in parallel columns.

Q. A.
I attach a list of queries raised by F. who is reading the proofs. He finds these very clean, but full of inconsistencies in the spelling of proper names, a point which reviewers often take up. Will you annotate it in the margin, so that I can get the proofs straightened? Annotated: not very helpfully perhaps. Arabic names won't go into English, exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district. There are some 'scientific systems' of transliteration, helpful to people who know enough Arabic not to need helping, but a wash-out for the world. I spell my names anyhow, to show what rot the systems are.
Slip 1. Jeddah and Jidda used impartially throughout. Intentional? Rather!
Slip 16. Bir Waheida, was Bir Waheidi. Why not? All one place.
Slip 20. Nuri, Emir of the Ruwalla, belongs to the 'chief family of the Rualla.' On Slip 33 'Rualla horse' and Slip 38, 'killed one Rueili.' In all later slips 'Rualla.' Should have also used Ruwala and Ruala.
Slip 28. The Bisaita is also spelt Biseita. Good.
Slip 47. Jedha, the she camel, was Jedhah on Slip 40. She was a splendid beast.
Slip 53. 'Meleager, the immoral poet.' I have put 'immortal' poet, but the author may mean immoral after all. Immorality I know. Immortality I cannot judge. As you please: Meleager will not sue us for libel.
Slip 65. Author is addressed 'Ya Auruns,' but on Slip 56 was 'Aurans.' Also Lurens and Runs: not to mention 'Shaw.' More to follow, if time permits.
Slip 78. Sherif Abd el Mayin of Slip 68 becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin, and el Muyein. Good egg. I call this really ingenious.

In the face of such replies to the publisher's well-intentioned questions, further expostulation was clearly impossible.

'