THE BURNING OF THE 'VOLTURNO' - PAGE 16
'SEA BREEZES' ARTICLE - JUNE 1963
BY CHARLES COWPER
'THE OUTLOOK' - ISSUE DATED OCTOBER 25, 1913
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Here is another page of data, respecting two articles, the first a three page article by Charles Cowper that was published in 'Sea Breezes' magazine of Jun. 1963, (Vol. 35 #210). And secondly an illustrated article that was published in 'The Outlook' in its Oct. 25, 1913 issue, and two related images that were published a week later, on Nov. 1, 1913.
SEA BREEZES - JUNE 1963
A copy of the particular 'Sea Breezes' issue was sold in early Apr. 2005 via e-Bay for GBP 5.50 or approximately U.S. $10.50).
I would have liked to find a way to contact Mr. Charles Cowper, to seek his permission for the use of his interesting first-person article. But without success! But since he was serving aboard Carmania at the time of the Volturno disaster in 1913, he surely has now long since passed away. If anyone can help in that regard, do please do so.
'Sea Breezes'? (cover of Jun. 1963 issue at left, incidentally) A very long established magazine, it would appear, having first published in 1919. The 'Sea Breezes' website is here & a magazine subscription can be arranged through that site. Do go visit!
This section has been made possible by the kindness of retired mariner Mr. Peter Baron, of Larne, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, whom we most sincerely thank.
BURNING OF THE "VOLTURNO"
A new "Carmania", formerly the "Saxonia", has recently made her appearance in the fleet of the Cunard Steam-Ship Co., Ltd. This article tells the story of the part played by the first "Carmania" in rescuing many passengers and crew from the steamer "Volturno", on fire in the North Atlantic, nearly half a century ago.
by Charles Cowper
Shortly before 8 a.m. on Thursday, October 9, 1913, the wireless operator on board the Cunard liner Carmania, in which I was serving, heard the SOS distress signal, sent by the operator in the London steamer Volturno, (3,602 gross tons) who also informed us that the ship was on fire, forward in Nos. 1 and 2 holds. The position of the Carmania at 8 a.m. was 78 miles from the Volturno and Capt. J. C. Barr immediately set his course; the watch of firemen was doubled, and the Cunarder proceeded at her utmost speed, steaming through a gale and nasty head sea at a speed of 19½ knots, arriving abreast of the burning ship at 11:55 a.m. As the Carmania was the first rescuing vessel to arrive, she was manoeuvred into position on the lee side of the Volturno, which was rolling heavily in the trough of the sea.
A lifeboat in charge of First Officer Gardener was lowered from our port side, and tried to get alongside the burning ship, but a very high sea was running which prevented the boat getting near her. Some two or three hours elapsed before our lifeboat got back to the ship again, and then only by skilful manoeuvring and at great risk was it pulled up. The boat's crew had lost all their oars but three, and several oars had to be thrown into the water, but were picked up before the boat managed to reach the ship's side.
We stood by until 3.30 p.m. when the German steamer Seydlitz arrived on the scene, and leaving her to stand by, we steamed in search of two lifeboats, which had drifted away from the Volturno prior to our arrival. We saw no trace of the missing boats, which were full of passengers and some crew; and evidently they had foundered in the high sea which was running.
On our return to the scene of the disaster, we found another German liner, the Grosser-Kurfurst also standing by, and so we at once manoeuvred abreast of the burning ship, to a position about 100 yards away from her. We then slowly went astern until the stem of the Carmania was within hailing distance from the stern of the Volturno. Truly our captain handled his ship with great skill, and many persons commented on the praiseworthy manner in which he handled the big liner.
What a sight met our eyes. We plainly saw men and women passengers, and some of the crew herded together round the after part of the Volturno, thereby keeping as far as possible from the devouring flames and suffocating smoke. One woman held up her infant for us to see and beckoned us; a most pitiful sight and one which touched many a heart on board our ship. I hope that devoted mother and her baby were eventually saved.
The crew of the Volturno lowered lines attached to life buoys into the sea, but these would not float away from the ship's side owing to suction caused by the rolling and pitching of the helpless vessel, and as darkness was setting in we reluctantly had to move away for safety.
During the night the steamers Asian, Devonian, Minneapolis and Kroonland came up, and in the early morning the French liner La Touraine, the Russian steamer Czar and the steamer Rappahannock arrived, together with the oil tank steamer Narragansett. At a time like this, one could appreciate the importance of the wireless telegraphic system, and the part it plays in maritime affairs. There were 11 ships, the majority of them being ocean passenger and mail steamers, all called to a given position on the face of the trackless ocean by that invisible agent electricity, which spread over the waters, in spite of all adverse weather conditions, in the face of a roaring gale. The call was picked up simultaneously by all these vessels, though hundreds of miles apart from each other.
About 10 p.m. some of our crew forward heard a cry from the water under our starboard bow; our searchlight was flashed down on to the water, and there we saw a man struggling for his life. Lifelines and rope ladders were immediately lowered over the ship's side and our first officer went down a rope ladder to help fasten a line round the swimmer, who by this time had drifted close to the ship. He was greatly exhausted, having jumped overboard from the Volturno an hour previously, and was unable to hold on to the lifeline which had been put within his reach several times. It was at this juncture that Quartermaster Heighway lowered himself down a rope into the water and fastened a line round the struggling and benumbed survivor. Amid a roar of cheers, both men were hauled on board to safety.
Later we learned from the doctor that the rescued man was a German seaman who with two other men had donned lifebelts, and cast themselves into the raging sea from the burning ship. This man providentially had drifted and swum two miles to be rescued, while his two companions, in the darkness had drifted beyond our ship and drowned.
About 10.30 p.m. our attention was particularly drawn to the burning ship, for with a loud report which could be heard for miles around, the bunker hatches blew up, the flames soon demolishing the bridge and superstructure of the ship immediately forward of the funnel. Everybody on board our ship believed that the life of every soul on board the Volturno was doomed, but providentially the flames did not creep aft of the funnel during the whole fearful night. Each ship was a blaze of light shining from deck lights and portholes, the vessels keeping a safe distance apart from each other. The silence of the night was occasionally broken by the sound of blasts from the steam whistles of the various ships, denoting the intended movement to avoid close proximity to another vessel.
At 4.30 a.m. a lifeboat containing an officer and boat's crew was espied and under the rays of our search light, it gradually drifted to the side of the Carmania, and when the crew had been hauled on board we learnt from the officer in charge that he had left the Minneapolis seven hours previously. Three times had this gallant little band pulled their boat under the stern of the Volturno, and requested people to jump into the water, from which they would be rescued, but all to no purpose. The people would not take the risk, and so eventually the lifeboat's crew became exhausted, their boat got out of control and the men were very glad to reach our ship. I noticed they could hardly pull their oars, and one man to whom I spoke said their work had been all for no purpose.
Now, by this time 5 a.m., the water and wind had died down to an appreciable extent and the light of early dawn began to show in the sky, and each liner manoeuvred for position to attempt rescue. We were thankful to see that the flames had only reached the after side of the funnel of the Volturno, and felt that now was the time to attempt the work of rescue.
The Carmania took up her position, some distance from the other ships, for Capt. Barr was instructing the other vessels in the rescue of the people on the doomed steamship. Lifeboats from the Devonian, Grosser-Kurfurst, Czar, Kroonland, Seydlitz, La Touraine, Minneapolis, Narragansett and Rappahannock, were lowered, and by means of rope ladders and life lines 523 people including 25 of the crew, were saved from certain death. The death roll is estimated at about 135, including the persons who left the ship in four lifeboats which were swept away and smashed up previous to the arrival of the Carmania, and also those who tried and failed to swim to safety.
The oil tank steamer Narragansett especially helped in the rescue of life, for Capt. Barr instructed the tanker to pump some of her oil cargo on to the water, and although the sea ran high, the water did not break around the lifeboats. By 8 a.m. every soul was rescued, and the burning vessel left to her fate. Capt Inch was the last to leave the ship, and saved his papers.
There was no more to be accomplished, the great work was done, and we left the scene of the disaster, after transferring the officer and boat's crew of the Minneapolis to that vessel. As we proceeded a sharp lookout was kept for the two drifting lifeboats, but nothing was sighted, and we steamed for Queenstown.
I was interested to read in the text above that the German swimmer, whose name in fact was Walter Trentepohl, was stated to be a seaman. That begs the question as to whether he was possibly a member of the Volturno crew. I now believe that he was a member of the Volturno crew and that Arthur Spurgeon's data as to his being employed by a firm of Barcelona merchants and being on his way to a job in New York City was incorrect. Walter Trentepohl has his own page on this site incidentally, complete with his image, available here, and you can read there why I say what I have just said. And, in passing, to the best of my knowledge as can be read elsewhere on this site, Heighway who rescued him, (Edward John Heighway) was an able seaman rather than a quartermaster. He can be seen also lower on the page at that link just provided. And that page even has a most dramatic image of Heighway effecting the rescue! He is referred to on many of the site pages, re the many awards he received for his gallantry.
And next, the content of an illustrated article that appeared in the Oct. 25, 1913 issue of 'The Outlook'. Its inclusion here has been made possible by the kindness of Steve Godwin of Tallahassee, Florida. Who provided both the text & the images. We thank you Steve!
Do NOT miss the related images, which appear lower on this page. Two of them are most interesting. The first, is an image taken by a passenger aboard the S.S. Grosser Kurfürst. It is the first image I have so far seen which shows the savagery of the sea at the time of the disaster. Most images make the sea look almost calm. In this image the sea is seen to be very rough indeed.
The second image? Photographs of Captain Inch seem to be most scarce. And an image of his dog Jack has long eluded me to an extent that I wondered if any image of the dog existed. But it does indeed! The second image, a composite image, includes two photographs that were published in 'The Outlook' on Nov. 1, 1913. Captain Inch is seen holding his dog Jack, which looks to me to be a small black labrador retriever. That dog was in the last party to leave the Volturno in the arms of his master and wrapped in a blanket. In Captain Inch's words 'Just before I left the ship I wrapped my dog in a blanket tied a rope around him and told the officer commanding to "catch my baby." He did so and when he took Jack out of the blanket he laughed and said 'why it is a dog' and so it was and one of the best and most companionable little fellows that ever lived.' Captain Inch gave Jack to Captain Peter Kreibohm, the Captain of the Kroonland, as a token of his appreciation. I presume, but obviously do not know, that Jack continued to serve honourably as 'ship's dog' and as Captain Kreibohm's faithful companion thereafter - but on the Kroonland of course.
The paragraph headings that follow throughout the article that follows were inset within the text in the original, something which the webmaster would have great difficulty in duplicating on this page.
THE STORY OF THE VOLTURNO
Measured by actual loss of life, the burning at sea of the British steamship Volturno, of the Uranium line, was less than one-tenth as widespread in tragical extent as that of the Titanic ; but cold-blooded statistics do not in the least express the intensity of that day and night of agonized waiting, or the extraordinary gathering by wireless of vessels to the rescue, or the many dreadful hours in which the succor near at hand could not avail, or the courage and endurance of the fighters of fire on the doomed ship and of the rescuing sailors who manned boats in a raging ocean.
The lasting impression made is chiefly that of a heroic fight against fire and ocean in which Captain Inch of the Volturno stands out as a brave and modest seaman of unflinching determination to hold out to the last minute of time and the last bit of unburned deck-room. Faltering or weakness on his part or that of his crew meant wholesale destruction. Only a few years ago such an unquenchable fire in the open sea would almost certainly have meant a total loss of life and a report of " ship never heard from." Here within twelve hours eleven ships speeding from all directions reach the scene of danger. To quote one of many word-pictures of the scene on Thursday night, one's imagination vividly sees " the blazing hulk with its affrighted company huddled in the stern ; around it the rescuing fleet of ten vessels representative of four nationalities ; the waves illumined by the searchlights of the Cunarder ; and every now and then, tossed high on the crest of a wave, a tiny craft battling to reach the doomed ship.
It was early on Thursday morning (October 9) that fire broke out. The vessel's hold was filled with terribly inflammable substances, such as chemicals, oils, and cotton. Some say that a cigarette thrown down a grating started the blaze, others that chemical action produced so-called " spontaneous combustion." At all events, the fire spread with startling rapidity. Captains Inch's own story says. " The flames gained rapidly and soon reached the height of the foremast light. The fire imprisoned the watch below, who were burned to death in the forecastle." Later a series of terrific explosions took place. The sea was running high, the ship rolling heavily ; one boat was smashed to pieces and fifty lives were lost ; two got away from the ship with crews and some passengers, but they were never seen again, and their loss makes up a large proportion of the 136 who perished out of a total of about 665 passengers and crew. Hope lay only in the wireless. The Carmania was nearest and fastest. She arrived at eleven o'clock Thursday morning, and lowered a boat, which was barely saved from instant wreck, searched in vain for the missing boats of the Volturno, and then, as other ships were arriving, Captain Barr of the Carmania left the boat work to them and used his big ship as a wind shield and guard for the others, helping also at night with his searchlights. Captain Barr has been censured by some, but Captain Inch praises highly the work of the Carmania.
As night came on the sea became calmer and two oil vessels poured great streams on its surface with good effect. Boats from the rescuing ships clustered around the stern of the Volturno, to which her distressed people had been driven. All day long the flames had made a glowing furnace of the forward part of the ship, and the officers knew that the conflagration was rapidly eating its way aft in the lowest holds. In the midnight hours passengers were urged to drop into the water and be picked up by the boats. Many men did this, but the women all refused. When daylight came Friday, the work of rescue was easy. Splendid work that night and morning was done by the crews of the Grosser Kurfuerst, the Kroonland, and the other vessels ; and soon the rescue ships were speeding east and west to various ports with their quotas of saved. Most of these were steerage passengers, and in the hurry and confusion families were separated and all arrived half-clad, hungry and distressed. When the Grosser Kurfuerst reached New York on Wednesday of last week with the largest number of saved people (105, all men), they were given a hearty welcome, were fed by the Hebrew Immigrant Society, aided with money by the Red Cross, sent free by rail to their destinations by the steamship companies, and relieved of most technical restrictions by the United States Immigration Service. One of them, a Russian Jew boy, exclaimed, " God be thanked! America is paradise!" The next day the Kroonland arrived in New York with Captain Inch and eighty-seven other survivors.
One of the Grosser Kurfuerst's passengers was Edward Lloyd, the second officer of the Volturno, who had been allowed by Captain Inch to go to the Grosser Kurfuerst in a lifeboat early Thursday afternoon to show that it was possible to handle boats. He and his men nearly lost their lives and had to admit that the high sea made waiting necessary. Here is what Mr. Lloyd said of his captain :
I want to say that Captain Inch is one of the bravest men I ever saw. He was always in the place of danger, always courageous and firm and cheerful. He had a hundred things to do all at once, but he was never wanting.
On Thursday afternoon a rush of flame nearly finished him. It burned off his hair and eyebrows and scorched his face. His uniform was in rags and his shoes were about burned from his feet. He was worn out from toil and worry, but he stuck to his post.
Captain Inch, Mr. Lloyd, and others denied emphatically that the crew acted like cowards and abused the passengers, and that they were driven to their work by threats and pistols.
WHAT THE DISASTER SHOWS
There is much that is reassuring about this tragedy. Best of all, it shows that seamanship and courage are not extinct. Captain Inch and his officers fought like tigers. The ship was kept before the wind by skilled work ; if it had not been, death and destruction would have instantly followed. Crew and passengers were handled with judgement.
The question of boats differs from that provoked by the Titanic disaster ; it is said that the Volturno's boats were few and poor (although Captain Inch denies this) ; but no number would have availed on Thursday. On the other hand, only fine handling of adequate boats by the rescuers could have been of avail as early as it was. The disaster does not, as some people seem to think, indicate that the question of boats is unimportant, but only that other matters are of at least equal moment.
The foremost of these is the shipment of explosives and combustibles. Surely if a passenger ship is to carry such things it should be under strict control and rigid precautions. The American Steamboat Inspection Service regulate the matter in detail. What is needed is an international agreement as to foreign-going commerce. The British investigation of the Volturno disaster ought to make this question of explosives and combustibles at sea of paramount importance. It would be interesting to know how far and under what representations this cargo was insured. The passenger in mid-ocean has a right to full protection from the horrors threatened by a dangerous cargo. The deaths of those men in the Volturno's fore part call out for investigation and action.
The glory of the wireless as a ready help at sea has again been demonstrated. But that it is so valuable and necessary is just the reason why it should also be more strictly regulated and controlled by governmental authority. Still another lesson of governmental control is seen in the fact that the Volturno is still floating, a dangerous derelict. When next the question of appropriation for such work as derelict-hunting comes up, let not an incident as this be forgotten.
Happily there has been in this case no question of personal shrinking from danger or responsibility such as followed the Titanic disaster. In the main the story of the Volturno calamity has been one of fortitude and endurance.
And the second image, a composite image as you can see, shows at left Captain Inch with his dog Jack. I suspect, from the interested seamen in the image background, that the photograph was taken aboard the Kroonland after the rescue & while the vessel was en route to New York. And at right, an image of two children presumably rescued from the Volturno, but not necessarily so, I guess. Their names & the name of the vessel which probably rescued them - that I do not know. These two images appeared in 'The Outlook' on November 1, 1913.
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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