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A Warm Evening At The Rock
Captain Newton, immensely proud of his new steam frigate, was enjoying an excellent dinner ashore. Then a strange glow began to light the sky over Gibraltar
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
The Spanish coal-bargemen, their nerves frayed by the precipitate arrival of the Member from Clare in their midst, cried out, “Fuego, fuego!” “El buque esta encendido, perderemos el bote, larga!” “Corta!” “Corta!” Their voices rose in a hysterical crescendo. Cutting their barge loose, they rowed for their lives. The Missouri ran up emergency blue lights that the Rock answered by firing a signal gun. H.M.S. Malabar fired her forty-two-pounder. Nearly enough guns for the day, one might think, what with the governor’s salute, Prince Albert’s birthday, and morning and evening gunfire at the dockyard; but not quite enough—not yet. There would be two more. The crew of Captain Newton’s gig manned their boat and awaited orders. Someone even remembered to post a sentry over the liquor locker.
Lieutenant Bissell, senior officer on board, had been enjoying his ease in the officers’ wardroom. The O.D.’s messenger was just reporting “All galley fires and eight o’clock lights out” when Bissell, hearing the commotion, rushed up on the spar deck to see what was going on. The bell was ringing, the drum was drumming, and all hell was breaking loose. Bissell immediately saw that he might have to cope with not one but two eventualities: the ship burning up, or worse—if the fire reached the powder magazines—blowing up.
Trying to locate the source of the fire, Bissell ran forward along the spar deck, then down the hatch to the passage between the galley and the engine room, thence back to the open deck, and to the forward hatch where smoke was coming up. Here he found the forecastle sailors, who had assembled the unwieldy force pump, run out the hose, and were screwing on the nozzle—but so slowly that Bissell grabbed the nozzle and screwed it on himself.
Next Bissell turned his attention to the two powder magazines, one at each end of the ship, both full of black powder, the most explosive substance known. The keys for the magazines were in the Captain’s cabin at the other end of the ship. Bissell ran and got them, and ordered the gunner to unlock the forward magazine, which was closest to the fire, and flood it with water. With that peril over, the gunner was to go aft, unlock the other magazine, and await orders.
Meanwhile, Bissell went down to the engine room. There he saw Lieutenant Faron and his men dousing the fire with buckets of water that were being passed to the scene from amidships.
By this time the gunner had been gone five minutes, which seemed an eternity to Bissell, and still there was no report that he had been able to flood the forward magazine. When he did show up shortly, he brought the bad news that he had not been able to get there through all the smoke and fire. Bissell grabbed the keys from him and went to flood the magazine himself. On the berth deck a solid wall of smoke stopped him short and the fierce heat drove him back. He tried another route, lowering himself through a small hatch near the bowsprit, but quickly found that no man could survive there a minute. There seemed no hope. For the first time the enormity of actually losing everything confronted him—for most assuredly the fire would soon reach the magazine and blow the ship to kingdom come.
With this overwhelming thought in mind, Bissell went back to the engine room to consult with Lieutenant Faron. Was there any chance at all of putting the fire out? Faron replied,”I don’t know. I think it doubtful.” Bissell had to resolve that doubt. He considered that the most extreme measures were justified. “Open up the Kingston valves,” Bissell ordered with finality, “take off the handhole plates of the condensers.” Sea water would then rush into the boilers, thence into the condensers, and out through the open handholes into the ship. The ship would of course be flooded and would probably sink, but the black powder would be rendered innocuous and a fearful explosion precluded —or so Bissell hoped.
Seeing that there was no further need for him in the engine room, Bissell returned to the open spar deck—to more bad news. Lieutenant Hunter, in charge amidships, was standing on top of the paddle-wheel housing in order to better direct the bucket brigade; he asked Bissell if he didn’t think it would be a good idea to send the gig into the landing to pick up the Captain. With this shattering remark Bissell realized, twenty minutes after the fire started, that he had committed the cardinal sin of not informing the Captain of impending disaster.
At this moment Captain Newton was making his way along the streets of Gibraltar toward the waterfront, through excited crowds shouting, “El vapor del frigate Americana es del fuego!” The whole bay was in an uproar while Newton cooled his heels waiting for the boat that his second-in-command had forgotten to send in. It was no wonder that Rodman Price thought him “highly excited.” At long last he found himself in his gig. While six expert oarsmen strained to get him back, his once-beautiful ship was burning up before his very eyes. Finally the gig pulled alongside, the quartermaster was hailing, in age-old custom, “Boat ahoy!” and the gig’s coxswain was replying, “ Missouri ,” meaning that the Captain was returning. It was 9:00 P.M. The ship had been on fire for an hour.