John Newton's account of the fire on the Australis in 1968

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Hi everyone my name is John Newton. I was fascinated to read the history of the Australis, she certainly was a grand lady. I had the pleasure of her company twice, once as a 15 year old boy travelling in March 1968 voyage 13 southbound, and then again in 1975 when I travelled on voyage 51 northbound. I have many fond memories of the people and events I experienced while sailing on her, but on the sea, as on the land, life is not always plain sailing and one quickly realises when life itself is threatened how vunerable we are. Fortunately for us the captain and crew who sailed on this voyage were very professional, disciplined and brave to the extent that every man, woman and child on board were delivered safely to their destination. Some were delivered not the way they expected, others were better for their experience, and some I dare say vowing never to set foot on a ship again.

My mother, elder sister Heather and my younger brother and sister were boarding the S. S. Australis at Southampton, we were going to join our father in Austalia. En route our journey would be calling in at ports such as Dubrovnik and Greece to pick up immigrants who were going out to Australia to start a new life. It was then sailing on to Capetown, South Africa, then across to Mauritius and finally Fremantle.

It was a glorious day on deck, the ship cut her way through the South Atlantic ocean to the next port of call-Capetown. The familiar chime of the tannoy told us lunch would be served in the Atlantic dining room. I had arranged with my mother and sister to take in the first showing of the film "The sons of Katie Elder" starring John Wayne, straight after lunch. The cinema was situated on A Deck and it was here, when leaving the cinema just before the interlude, that I noticed something was not quite right. Firstly there was the smell of smoke and my first reaction, funny as it may seem now, is that the immigrants didn't like the food on board and must be cooking in their cabins. I turned left out of the cinema and travelled a short distance down the passageway, only to see a fire door almost closed again. I thought maybe it was a prank, after all you only had to be tall enough to throw the manual switch situated just above the door. As I got closer to this door I could see smoke, and I could also hear raised voices. I returned to the cinema thinking we can't be on fire, yet knowing we were.

As a young boy I had seen enough English films to know that an Englishman is always calm in situations like this, but at 15 years of age I could feel the panic rising. Nevertheless I made it back to where my mother and sister were sitting, and said to my mother in a low voice "we have to get out of here the ships on fire". She didn't have time to answer me as someone stuck their head around the door, and in a very loud voice screamed "fire!!". People got to their feet quickly and started to exit the cinema. Most of us were all standing when the helmsmen put the ship very hard to starboard, and I can tell you some thirty odd years later, I can still see and feel the extent of the roll, in fact I really thought we were going completely over.

The fire had reached the Upper Deck, and into some of the public rooms, when I believe the Captain put her about, out of the wind and then stopped the ship. We then moved up the stairway in semi darkness, we got caught up in a mass of people, all with the one objective to get out as quickly as possible to the open decks. In the push and shove of things I lost contact with mum and Heather. I remember quite vividly finding myself beside an elderly gentlemen in his late 70's trying to make his way up the stairs, and my instinct spurred on by panic, was to go on past him. He looked so vulnerable there among all this chaos so I turned to him and asked if he was ok and did he need assistance to get up the stairs. In a very calm reassuring voice he said "I am alright, get yourself up top son". I believe he must have been the calmest person on those stairs that day. All the ships alarm bells were now ringing, as we made our way on to the deck. I managed to find my mother and sister, and to our despair my younger bother David (9 years old) and sister Angela (7 years old) could not be found anywhere on the deck, so we assumed they must still be below decks in our cabin-170, on the Upper Deck.

Try to imagine the scene that day, especially those of you who have sailed on the Australis, the aft decks are absolutely full of passengers and a few had completely lost their composure. I could see a man crying, an officer with his lifejacket on, and a spare one in his hand. He addressed us from the Sports Deck and told us not to panic because about a mile off to starboard the liner Canberra was coming to our assistance. I bumped into my friend while frantically looking for my siblings, and his father who was an ex-Royal Navy man told me that if we have to abandon ship to go for the inflatables as they are safer. This filled me with even more urgency to find my brother and sister but the crew would not let me back into that part of the ship. So I tried to search the other side of the ship and got the same response. I decided to pretend to walk away and then ran back, jumping over the fire hoses as I dodged the crew, and entered the ship from the Promenade Deck. I stopped running when I reached the bottom of the stairs on Upper Deck, it was eerie, no one had followed me, and the passage ways were filled with acrid smoke which made me gag from thick phlegm in my mouth. The little red emergency lights fitted to the ceiling were on, there was complete silence and not a soul to be seen as I made my way along to the cabin. I remember thinking to myself "what if they are not here, where do I look for them, who can I get to help me find them among all this chaos". I finally reached Cabin 170, and when I entered my sister and brother were sitting on the top bunk. I'm not sure why, but they didn't seem to be aware of the emergency and the cabin had relatively little smoke in it compared to the passageways.

I quickly scooped up the lifejackets and all the warm coats for everyone and told my brother and sister we have to attend boat drill, I must have not been thinking clearly as it would become quite obvious once we went into the passageways that this was no drill. We made it safely to the top, to my mothers immense relief, and stayed there for sometime. Eventually the fire was put out and we were told a crew member had lost his life fighting the fire. I cannot remember how long we stood up on the deck, only to say it was a very long time. Most people on the aft decks that day would certainly remember an albatross circled above us, about the time we were getting the news of the fire being extinguished, it certainly was a sailors good omen. That night some of the lounges were used for the passengers to sleep on. I remember walking into the Smoking Room situated at the front of the ship, it was in the early hours of the morning at about 1.30 am, there were people lying down where ever they could. As I walked to the front of this room I noticed a lot of the passengers were not asleep yet, but the strangest thing was the silence, nobody spoke or stirred, it was as if the whole room was suspended in time. As I reached the front of the room I could hear the wind gently moaning as it passed through the opened windows, pushing the heavy gold curtains aside. I stood there for some time listening only to the wind, even the reassuring gentle vibrations of the ship's engines was absent.

It was such a surreal experience that even today, some 35 years later, I can return to that room as if it was only yesterday and stand there on the portside listening to the wind and be aware of the complete silence of the room behind me. I'm not quite sure if we were 1 or 2 days out from Cape Town, but I do remember seeing some of the damage the fire had caused to the ceilings in some of the public rooms. Most of the paint had been burnt off Australis` large funnel, and there was a lot of damage on her lower deck, as the fire had initially started in her engine room. When you cast your eyes to her forward bow area, the deck here was stacked high with every conceivable fire extinguisher, there seemed to be hundreds of them. My friend Danny who was a crew member, was busy painting the ships funnel the following day after the fire, and he told me he was very tired and had little sleep because he had been firstly fighting the fire for many many hours, then doing some of the cleaning up, and now the funnel had to be ship shape before the Captain would take her into Capetown. We did reach Cape Town safely and received quite a welcome. An ambulance was stationed at the side of the ship to take off a lady who had gone into premature labour, this later turned out to be a joyous occasion for Mr & Mrs L.Iokimidis who gave birth to a healthy baby in a Capetown hospital. They then rejoined the ship and sailed onto Australia. I remember eating with paper plates and plastic knifes and forks under make do spotlights in the Atlantic dining room.

# Many passengers were angry with these conditions, Chandris flew some of these people on to their destination in Australia, we decided to stay on the Australis while she was being repaired. It took about 5 days, and in this time we had a bit of a mutiny of sorts, when all the stewards walked off the ship. This was because the Captain wanted to sail before they felt that adequate repairs had been done. We finally did set sail, but many of the passengers, especially those from the lower decks would not sleep below, they slept on deck chairs up on Promenade Deck. As for me, that was quite an adventure for a young teenager.

I settled in Australia, married my wife Allison and in October 1975 introduced her to another fine lady the S. S. Australis. We honeymooned on board the ship on voyage 51 northbound, Fremantle to England via the Panama Canal. In closing this story I would like to say how fortunate I was to experience this fine ship, firstly as a young boy then as an adult. The ship, the people and the places are a part of my life, my father has sailed on her, my son was conceived on her. She brought so many people together and forged lifelong friendships and good will wherever she sailed.

Her oceans are now our mind her spirit sails on entwined.


*Many thanks to Ken Ironside for the use of his excellent site and without his encouragement I would not have related my story.*


John Newton.

29-03-03

View john's photos taken on the ship in 1975: John Newtons Picture Collection.



Thanks to John Newton for his above contribution.

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Regretfully I am "running down" the S. S. Australis website due to increasing family and health issues.

I may occasionally update the site if I receive a great story/photos from ex-crew only, if it is a new contact.

I know there are still stories to share from ex-crew all over the world, who haven't yet been in touch.

I am deeply moved by the interest and wonderful contributions from numerous passengers and crew over many years.

A HUGE THANK YOU.

Warm regards.

Ken.

You can send messages to me on this e-mail address:
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