Burning of the S.S. Ontario on Montauk Point
With a raging fire in her hold, the coastwise liner Ontario, of the Merchants and Miners’ Transportation Line, bound from Baltimore to Boston with 31 passengers and a large cargo on board, was beached on the Long Island coast near Montauk Point early on the morning of April 8. A heavy sea was running at the time, and for a while it looked as if the landing of the passengers would be a task. The officers of the Ontario, however, proved their worth, and while the crew worked to keep the fire as nearly under control as possible, the skipper and his junior officers would now and then leave their posts, and mingling with the passengers, assure them that they were in no immediate danger, and that the only thing that stood between the burning ship and safety on shore was a little patience. The passengers were transferred to a tug minus most of their baggage, but otherwise safe and sound.
It was about 1:30 o’clock a. m.. when Capt. Bond was informed by one of his officers that the vessel was on fire. The Ontario was then about 10 miles off Shinnecock. A member of the crew was the first to see the telltale glare in the forward part of the ship. He rushed with the information to the watch officer, who in turn communicated with the captain. Capt. Rond quietly got the crew together, and in less than two minutes every man was at his post and the battle to save the Ontario was on. The crew chopped great holes through the deck, and into these tons of water were pumped on the flames, but fight as they would, the fire gained headway, and Capt. Bond soon realized that he would have to beach his ship. In the meantime, Ingalls, the wireless lad, was sending out the “S. O. S.” signals for help. His little wireless hut on the deck was almost directly over the burning part of the ship, and life within it was almost unbearable. But that had no effect on Ingalls. At intervals of a few seconds the signal for assistance was repeated. The first station to hear the call was Point Judith, the message the Point Judith man received being, “Ontario, big fire below,” and then followed the vessel’s position. It was then about 2 o’clock. The man at the land key promptly answered, and in a few minutes came another message from Ingalls. In this message Ingalls said that Capt. Bond was getting ready to beach the Ontario, and he added that the heat in his room was so terrific that he feared his instruments would go out of commission any minute. This last message was picked up by other stations, among them the naval station at Newport, and the stations at Boston and Norfolk, and these stations relayed the “S. O. S.” to every station along the coast between New York and Boston.
Within an hour after the “S. O. S.” was received, relief was on the way to the Ontario. Tugs went out from New London, while every revenue cutter that could be reached immediately on receipt of the news steamed for MontauK Point. The derelict destroyer Seneca, from New York, also got word, and she, too, headed for Montauk. Capt. Bond, with his face black with soot, had only praise for his men and his passengers. “I cannot say too much in praise of my men,” he said, “and they have not faltered for a second. Owing to the nature of our cargo— mostly cotton, turpentine and resin—the flames spread rapidly, and it is an almost impossible job to get them under control, but we won’t give up until we have to, and I still hope to save the ship. As soon as the fire was discovered we started a stream of water into the forward hold, but the flames made such rapid headway that I soon realized that I would have to beach the vessel. Owing to the direction of the wind, I was unable to make a straight northerly course, since to do that would have driven the fire aft and consequently my only alternative was to set a course northeast from Montauk Point, near which point I beached the Ontario at 3 o’clock in the morning. We had 31 passengers on board, of whom about 15 were women. They, of course, u ere uppermost in my mind. They accepted the situation with surprising calmness and at no time was there a semblance of a panic. And I may add that we did not awaken the passengers until after we had beached the ship. By then the fire had eaten up through the forward deck and to the pilot house and wireless house, where Ingalls did such gallant work.” Capt. Bond and First Officer Harding remained at the wheel in the pilot house until the heat was so intense that they had to take the wheel at intervals of a few seconds, it being impossible for any man to hold it tor more than a few moments at a time. They did not leave the house until the ship was beached, and when they staggered out were both nearly overcome by the dense smoke in which they had been compelled to work in order to beach the vessel. Ingalls said it was nothing out of the ordinary. “It was fully three-quarters of an hour, he said, “before I got an answer to my calls for assistance. Then, after I got an answer from Judith, the heat did its work and the instrument went out of commission. That’s about all there is to my story.” That the fire started before the ship left Baltimore was the opinion expressed by D. C. Cannon, one of the passengers. He said that the fire must have smoldered a long time. Cannon declared that he saw stevedores who were stowing the cotton, smoking, and it is his theory that a smoldering match or cigarette started a blaze before the steamer left port. The illustrations presented herewith were made from photographs taken expressly for this magazine. The vessel was valued at $450,000, and her cargo at $200,000. The entire loss is covered by insurance.