A Survivor’s Story (Lakonia 3)

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This is a Remittance Advice from BBC Radio (signed off by a certain Teresa McGonagle (Miss)) for a talk my grandmother, Rita Harris, gave on Woman’s Hour on 2nd July 1964, recounting her perspective on the Lakonia disaster (see previous two posts). I also have the transcript:

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What is striking about the account (for which she received the princely sum of 12 guineas) is the litany of safety failings from the moment they set foot on board the ill-fated vessel in Southampton. Here are some extracts:

“We arrived at Southampton and boarded the Lakonia. From the very beginning things seemed to go wrong. The corridors were still teaming (sic) with workmen, the gangways were still down, and the wind whistled around the ship. Eventually the workmen scrambled ashore and two hours late we were under way.”

“Next morning we received the ship’s newspaper with the programme for the day. At 10.15am there was to be a fire drill. So after breakfast we made our way to the promenade deck, where we waited sitting wrapped up in rugs. Some 30 minutes before the drill was to commence some passengers were already walking around wearing their life-jackets. As a result of the subsequent way the fire drill was carried out, at least two thirds of the passengers would have no conceivable idea of what to do if a real emergency arose. My husband was so disgusted that he wanted to complain to the Captain, as he said it was the biggest nonsense that he had ever taken part in. I am sorry to this day that I did not let him carry out this threat.”

In one section it is clear that my grandfather, Ian Harris, had his camera on him at the time of the tragedy because he was taking photos of the crowning of the King and Queen of the Tramps at the Tramps Ball that was taking place when the fire broke out. He was the only person on board who had a camera (although I believe another man may have had a movie camera). All the stills one sees taken on board during the disaster were by him.

“To take the photos of the crowning, my husband made his way to the main entrance of the room [the Lakonia Room]. As he went a steward whispered something to the Captain who was at the next table – he immediately jumped up and ran out of the room. My husband returned more quickly than he’d left, and quietly informed our table that the ship was on fire and we should go to our cabins and get our life-jackets on. Simultaneously smoke started to billow in through the now open doors. As we made our way down to our cabin the alarm sounded, short and faint, then died away never to be heard again, for the tannoy system broke down almost immediately.”

“We rapidly made our way to the main dining room, where we had been ordered to go. Here we found many women and children barefoot and in their nightwear. We realised that we were two decks below the fire! Things now became chaotic. People were milling round the dining hall. Fire hoses appeared in the corridor which were so entangled they reminded me of spaghetti. Water was everywhere except coming from the hoses. Many people were crying – elderly people were wearing life-jackets but had no idea how to do them up and the tapes were hanging loose. I spent some time tying them up properly. When my husband could stand it no longer, he had an argument with an officer who was still directing people downstairs into the already overcrowded dining room. He argued that if there was a bad fire, everybody would be trapped below. The officer gave in and we all started for our life-boat stations. Half-way up the stairs we received a counter-order sent by the Captain to return to the dining room. People were now becoming really distressed.”

“Finally we received the order to make our way to our boat stations. In an attempt to reach the lifeboats, members of the crew were hacking with firemen’s axes at supposedly moveable partitions. These partitions were stuck fast with either paint or varnish.”

“We were not able to get into our lifeboat, which incidently tipped up [due to painted up ropes] and never reached the water. We went to the next lifeboat in which there were already about 40 people. The officer was about to cast off. After another argument my husband managed to get us aboard together with a further half dozen. This lifeboat had a capacity of 85 persons and so approximately 30 more lives could have been saved if it had been correctly filled. The next day we counted only 26 aboard another lifeboat.”

“Although the lifeboat wasn’t full to capacity it hadn’t been loaded properly and I spent the night sitting on a tiny space of about ten inches, while my husband stood, as there was no room for him to sit. Gradually the water started to rise in the bottom of the boat.”

The water had risen to knee depth by the time my grandfather and another man, both ex-navy men, spotted ship signals in the dark, about half an hour away. The Salta eventually rescued them, hampered by the swell. After a tumbler of Cognac and a sweet black coffee my grandmother was given a berth in the crew’s quarters.

“I found the corridor filled with women and children. A lady to whom I had previously no more than nodded the time of day recognised me and cuddled me like a long lost relation. Folk who seemed like strangers a few short days ago, now felt like family.”

Last night (19th December) was the night the Lakonia sailed, today was the first day at sea.

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