- Historic Sites
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
Newton climbed up to the top of the starboard paddle-wheel housing, and from this vantage point took hold of the situation with long-accustomed assurance. His first command, “Silence!” brought some semblance of order out of the chaos of noise and confusion. Next, he ordered all the hatches closed in an effort to contain the fire. Then he sent fresh men to relieve the weary pumpers forward. All around him buckets passed in rapid succession, but he could not fail to notice that no water was coming from the aft force pump, and. that the hose from the forward pump was too short. There were no other pumps, and the new India-rubber hoses he had brought from Washington had no couplings on them. There was not much else he could do.
Around him the harbor was alive with boats either rushing to the rescue or simply moving to get a better view of the fire. At the Waterport Gate the Governor himself sent off a relief expedition from the Royal Irish Sappers. Sir George Sartorious personally led them out to the ship. A British officer brought out thirty-six convicts from the dockyard as volunteer firemen. Captain Graham, from the American bark Pans , came over to help the sailing master save his navigational equipment. Gushing rushed out in time to save his diplomatic papers and the letter from President Tyler to the Emperor, but he could not save his gorgeous uniform for the Dragon Throne audience. The Malabar’s pinnace, carrying men equipped with portable fire pumps, axes, and fire buckets, pulled up directly under the Missouri’s fore chains and pumped a steady stream of water into the hull. At ten minutes to ten the Locust came within fifty yards of the Missouri to tow her out farther. It was too late. The frigate, filled with sea water from pump and bucket, valve and boat, was already resting on the bottom in that shallow spot the Locust’s crew had viewed with disapproval yesterday evening.
By ten o’clock the flames had nearly penetrated to the sixty tons of coal that had been loading all day. Lieutenant Faron and his gang of engineers had to abandon the engine room. Unable to stand any longer on the hot decks of the forecastle, they had to abandon that too, together with the forecastle force pump. Only buckets and the portable pumps of the relief expeditions now stood between the Missouri and ultimate disaster, and considering the immensity of the fire, these puny efforts seemed, said a man in the Locust , like “spitting on it.”
It was as light as midday in the harbor. Never had there been such a sight at Gibraltar since the day in 1704 when Admiral Sir George Rooke wrested the Rock from Spain with red-hot shot. From her station at the maintop, Bess could see the sheets of flame spreading from the hatches to the hammock nettings, licking up through the rigging toward her. She started down to the deck.
The Missouri was in extremis .
It was now eleven o’clock. Captain Newton, only short hours ago at the pinnacle of his career, in command of the greatest, newest warship in the U.S. Navy, entrusted with the safe passage of an important minister of state, now stood on another kind of pinnacle, the high housing of the starboard paddle wheel, in stark relief against the flaming wreckage. The flames would soon engulf that pinnacle—but first there was an inevitable decision, a final order only he could give. He called a final officers’ conference up there on the paddle-wheel housing. They had to move fast, for the decks were about to cave in. The decision was made. Newton gave his last order: “Save yourselves!”
Men jumped overboard from all manner of places—through portholes, off the rigging, from yards and masts—before the fascinated eyes of watchers along the yardarms of the Malabar , on the deck of the Locust , and in the scores of boats of the sightseeing flotilla. Seven Missouri crewmen crawled along the lower studding-sail boom waiting their chance, and were thrown bodily into the water when the topping lift parted. Hitherto reluctant for fear of explosions, boats closed in from every direction to pick up survivors, many of whom were very poor swimmers.
At 11:15 the Captain climbed down the Jacob’s ladder to his gig, which this time was waiting for him. In the tradition of the sea he was the last to leave the ship. But no—there was a movement aft, on the tip of the spanker boom where it jutted out over the stern. A boat moved in to the rescue. Arms reached up. It was the bear. The upstretched arms scared her. She fought back like a drowning person, broke away, waddled along the burning decks in a last desperate effort to regain her station on the maintop. Then Bess, the Missouri ’s amulet against accident, was swallowed up by the flames and roasted alive.