The Fire on the “City of Richmond.”
W. H. Laslett, the board of trade surveyor at Liverpool, has issued a report to his department upon the fire which recently occurred on board the City of Richmond during her voyage between New York and Liverpool, the general facts regarding which were published in FIRE AND WATER at the time.
“From Mr. Laslett’s report,” says Engineering, “it appears that a large proportion of the cotton was carried under the cabin floor, and the length of the space on fire was about 100 feet. At the fore end of this space is an iron bulkhead with double doors four feet eight inches wide. These doors were closed. This bulkhead is thirty-five feet before the fore end of the stokehold casing, and this space was filled with cargo from a hatchway, which is eleven feet lrom the iron bulkhead. There are six coaling scuttles through the cabin deck over the cotton. These scuttles had iron covers screwed down. There are also five ventilators leading from the top of the bridge down through the iron stokehold casing. The tubes are of iron and eleven inches in diameter, and they open out into the cotton space just below the deck beams. Two of these ventilators are fitted on each side, and one at the fore end. The deck on which the cotton was carried is of wood, and that immediately over the cotton was of iron sheathed with wood on the top. The iron deck fits close to the shell plating, and the space between the frames is tight. The boiler casing was fitted with wood sheathing three-quarter inch thick, standing four inches off the iron plate. Between the two lengths of boiler casing is a short space fitted with a wood bulkhead on each side fore and aft, and this middle line space had a small quantity of coal in it. Steam pipes also pass through this space.
“ The fire was of considerable magnitude and the damage done to the vessel was of a serious nature. The shell plating was more or less buckled and the joints opened. The iron deck above is described as being in the same condition, and the wood deck upon it was burnt through in many places. On the other hand the wooden deck upon which the cotton was laid was but a little damaged, and, indeed, the fire seems to have been chiefly confined to the upper part of the cotton as stowed. Thus the wood sheathing of the boiler casing was entirely burnt at the tipper part, but remained nearly intact at the lower part, and in other parts the damage was more extensive at the higher parts. The wood sheathing of the fore end of the boiler casing was entirely destroyed, and the wood hatches of the filling hatchway were nearly burnt through.
“Mr. Laslett states that nothing was discovered which would throw any light on the cause of the fire, but this fact is not of such great importance, as it piay be taken for granted that cotton cargoes will, and do, at times generate spontaneously sufficient heat to produce combustion. No doubt if the cotton was always stowed in proper condition such an effect would not be produced, but a very small defect—that is small locally—may lead to a very big conflagration where the conditions are favorable to its spreading. The latter appears to be the point to which attention may be usefully turned—how to prevent these conditions from arising, and on this subject Mr. Laslett’s report gives us some useful information. The City of Richmond was fitted with a service for admitting steam to the cotton space, and this appears to have practically saved the vessel. It did not put the fire out, for as soon as the space was opened in dock the fire broke out again, and it was found necessary to fill the space with water ; but had it not been that steam could be applied, and had not the deck over the cotton been of iron, Mr. Laslett was of opinion that it would not have been possible for the vessel to have reached a port in safety. The moral here is obvious, but there is a still more important lesson to be gathered from this catastrophe.
“ In a subsequent report Mr. Laslett refers to the features which govern the admission of air to the cotton. He had since his first communication carefully examined the wood sheathing in the boiler casing. In this casing there were certain openings, and there were indications that the openings had had boards nailed over them. The chief officer of the ship stated that he had seen this done before the cotton was placed in the ship. There were certain indications—such as battens being in the way—that the boards placed over the holes could not have been tight, and in fact the job appears to have been done in a perfunctory manner. The chief officer also informed Mr. Laslett the wood boards or plugs had been lashed on the outlets at the top of the ventilating pipes, but if so, these boards had been burnt, and in that case the outlet and inlet would lead directly to the fire. Even in dock the flames reached the top of some of the ventilators. In addition to this the main steam pipe ran fore and aft at the middle line through the boiler casing and the hole was some two inches open all round the pipe, and there was also an open space round the smaller steam pipes. With the heat of the stokehold these inlets would admit of an indraught which, with the cotton on fire, • would increase the burning. After the fire was discovered it is stated that the openings were closed. There were also other small holes through the iron bulkhead at the fore part of the cotton space, and smoke was observed to come through these.
“ Mr. Laslett referred to these especially in order that attention may be directed to the question of inlet of air. It is, as the report points out, not unusual to land cotton bales which have been on fire. Under these circumstances few will be found to question the soundness of Mr. Laslett’s conclusion as to the desirability of exercising the most scrupulous care in stopping up even the smallest inlet for air into these cotton spaces. The importance of the matter is not to be over-estimated, especially when a large number of passengers are carried immediately over the cotton, as in the case of the City of Richmond.
“ It is possible, however, that further precautions might be taken. There are many ways in which a rise in temperature in cargo may be ascertained. Professor Vivian Lewes recently described a device which he had thought out for inserting mercurial thermometers in a cargo, the rising of the mercury making electrical contact and thus ringing a bell placed in a conspicuous position. The idea was adopted by Professor Lewes in connection with coal cargoes, but we see no reason why it should not be adopted for cotton. Professor Lewes also proposed automatic fire extinction as well as fire alarm by placing flasks of liqu’d carbonic acid gas in the cargo. These were to be closed by a stopper made of an alloy with alow melting point. As, however, the suggestion was made only in connection with coal cargoes it is perhaps but fair to the inventor to leave it there. Perhaps the apparatus devised by H. C. Carver of Manchester claims more attention in this respect from the fact that it has already been used for the purpose of subduing fires in cotton ships. The plan upon which Mr. Carver proceeds is to extinguish the fire by surrounding it with an atmosphere of the products of combustion drawn from the chimney of the vessel’s boiler. From this source there can he obtained a practically inexhaustible supply of gases incapable of supporting combustion and always ready for application. The ship’s funnel is connected to a valve-box which is in connection with a cooling chamber in which the gases are brought to a manageable temperature by means of a shower of cold water. This apparatus was described and illustrated by us in our issue of Februry 15, 1889, but it does not appear to have received the attention which its merits would seem to command. The Liverpool underwriters had a steamer belonging to the Liverpool Salvage Association fitted with it for the purpose of dealing with cotton cargoes arriving in a burning condition. It is astonishing how difficult it is to get shipowners to adopt appliances intended for the protection of their own property ; putting aside the consideration of people’s lives. There are, of course, many other steps that might be taken with a view to lessening the risks of fire on board ship, but we did not start with a view of writing a list of them, but simply to give some of the facts relating to the fire in question. We have mentioned these two inventions as coming most readily to mind.”