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Come the hour; A tragedy to bring forward heroes.


THE dread of any firefighter is a shipboard fire. Ships are full of nooks and crannies, electric cables and tons of metal which can rapidly heat to melting point.

It is so easy to get trapped in the wrong place in a ship fire and that's what happened to two shipyard workers on October 23, 1964, aboard the newly launched Southampton Castle on the River Tyne.

It had been all pomp and ceremony for the launch only two days earlier when thousands of Tyneside shipyard workers and their families gathered at Wallsend in the Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson yard.

The Journal had reported workers "perched as thick as starlings on the beginnings of a new vessel at the side of the Southampton Castle".

The report went on to say a mixture of wolf-whistles, cat-calls and more ordinary forms of appreciation greeted Princess Alexandra as she began her walk across the yard, stopping to talk to people in the crowd. The reporter decided that she looked "not only regal and opulent, but also extremely chic in a subtly fitting mink coat".

Also present at the launch was future prime minister Edward Heath, then President of the Board of Trade, and Ernest Marples, the controversial Minister of Transport - this was a majority Tory Government.

Princess Alexandra stepped forward and pressed the button, no response, Her Highness pressed the button again and there was a mangle of froth, broken glass and damp red, white and blue ribbon smashing against the bows of the great ship which, almost imperceptibly, began to move down the slipway, gathering speed on the way. The crowd clapped and cheered, with as much relief as congratulations.

Two days later the tragedy struck.

But tragedy sometimes brings forward heroes and this was one of those times.

Robert Lackenby, a 31-year-old foreman welder, from Heaton, was on deck when he heard shouts of fire and saw smoke belching out of the forepeak.

A quick check made him realise at least one of his workmates was missing.

He said later: "I asked about Ernest Clewes but no one had seen him."

There was a small hole, 21in by 12in as the only way into the forepeak, but the firemen couldn't get through because of their oxygen bottles.

Robert Lackenby didn't hesitate: "I got a small respirator from a fireman and went down with another fireman.

"I really didn't know whether anyone was down there. I went down because I was frightened there might be someone. I was hoping I wouldn't find anyone."

They struggled through a series of manholes and internal decks, putting out a couple of blazing cables on the way. Thirty foot down in the ship they found one body, so Robert returned to the top deck and led firemen back down to where they found the other body. The dead were Ernest Clewes, 43, of Wallsend and Thomas Alexander Wilson, 21, of North Shields.

Another welder who risked his life in a rescue attempt that day was James Hunter. Robert Lackenby helped firemen search through to the bottom of the vessel where dense smoke made further search impossible.

He had been in the vessel nearly two hours when he collapsed and had to be pulled out - workmates said he was as 'black as coal' when they saw him. But he made a full recovery.

Firemen, also acting in disregard for their safety, cut through the decks, their breathing equipment being passed down as they went.

The 13,000-ton Southampton Castle was to be the first of a new breed of cargo ships. She was so powerful she could outpace all but a few of the world's liners and would run from Southampton to Cape Town.

She plied her trade until 1978 when sold to Italy's Costa Crociere shipping line and her name was changed to Franca C. She was scrapped in 1984. Robert Lackenby was later presented with a certificate by the Society for the Protection of Life for his efforts.


CAPE TOWN RUN: the mail ship Southampton Castle BEFORE THE GRIEF: Sir John Hunter and Princess Alexandra at the launch of the ship
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 19, 2010
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