s.s. Manapouri Tragedy 1886

Great excitement ran through Gisborne on the afternoon of Friday February 26th 1886 when the steamer Manapouri entered Poverty Bay flying signals for a doctor.

The vessel was expected on a routine call on her way from Auckland to ports south with about 250 passengers aboard. The tender Snark was awaiting her appearance and set off immediately on a reconnaissance mission while a message was sent into the town for Dr Pollen. As The Snark sped back to port to embark the doctor, the first of the crewmen to die breathed his last.

The Manapouri had left Auckland en route to Gisborne on Thursday afternoon at a quarter-past one in fine, calm weather. “..at half-past two, just as the steamer was off Tiritiri Island a part of the fore-hatch combings were taken off to oblige a lady passenger who could not find all the luggage she had intended to take in her cabin, and asked for a search in the hold for a missing package.” wrote The Poverty Bay Herald of 27th February 1886.

As soon as the hatch was opened, smoke issued from below, and the alarm of “fire” was given quietly so as not to alarm the passengers. The Chief Officer and carpenter were immediately let down by ropes, but could not stand the fumes in the hold. The fire crew then applied sufficient water to reduce the smoke, and once again the Chief Officer (Mr Morris) and the ship’s carpenter (Mr C. Stewart) entered the hold accompanied by other crew to bring the fire under control. It was nearly an hour before they found the seat of the fire – a damaged 3 gallon container of nitric acid. Despite the fumes which made it possible to only work in the hold for short periods, the jar and its crate were brought above deck where they could be dealt with safely.

The hatch was sealed again at about 5 in the afternoon, as the vessel continued its trip south to Poverty Bay. There were six boxes of nitric acid on the vessel, bound for a company in Christchurch. All had been correctly labeled and stowed in a special area on deck in Sydney, but it appeared that one had been accidentally moved into a sling and stowed below at a later stage.

Unknown to the men of the crew, the fumes from nitric acid cause severe lung irritations and a condition very similar to severe bronchitis. The onset is not immediate, but takes some hours, with the patient experiencing coughing fits and, in severe cases, slowly dying of asphyxiation.

During the evening of Thursday 25th, the men who had entered the hold began to fall ill, suffering severe chest pains and difficulty breathing. Between 6 and 7 p.m. the Chief Officer became unconscious and, although he was closely attended to, never regained consciousness.

The Third Officer (Mr Charles Laker) was the next to lose consciousness, as the condition of other members of the crew began to worsen. Alarmed, the captain ordered full speed to Gisborne in the hope of finding medical assistance.

The Manapouri arrived in Poverty Bay just after 1 on the afternoon of Friday 26th, and Dr Pollen was quickly aboard. It was too late for the Chief Officer who had expired as the vessel waited in the bay, but the doctor immediately sent four crew ashore to the hospital, and Mr Laker to a room at the Masonic Hotel.

While other members of the crew were attended to on board the vessel, the court sitting at Gisborne was interrupted to allow an inquest to be held. However, while the necessary police investigations were carried out the formal inquest was deferred until the Manapouri made her next port of call, Napier. Meanwhile passengers and luggage were offloaded along with another 7 of the crew who were suffering from the fumes.

At about 11 p.m. the second victim, a seaman named R.G. Lloyd, died at the hospital, having been unconscious for some hours. Soon after, the Manapouri left port bound for Napier.

During the night, many of the crew members in the hospital passed in and out of consciousness, and gravest fears were held for Mr Laker, the Third Officer. His condition alternately improved, worsened then improved again. However, he never regained consciousness, and died later on the Saturday.

A cargo stowage error had claimed three lives. The captain was criticised for not returning to Auckland, but the danger of nitric acid vapours was not generally known at the time. The overwhelming feeling of the passengers was that the captain, having dealt with the fire danger, had exercised proper judgement.

[Data from The Poverty Bay Herald was sourced through the National Library’s Papers Past website.]

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