Saint FM recalls fire at sea, 40 years ago

The story of a near-disaster aboard a ship bound for St Helena has been retold in a 40th anniversary radio programme – by the presenter who covered it at the time.

Tony Leo revisited interviews he recorded with survivors of the 1973 fire aboard the Good Hope Castle, as well as talking to people who remembered their involvement. His colleague Ralph Peters spent hours searching out archive recordings.

The 40-minute programme was broadcast at lunchtime on 29 June 2013 – four decades to the day after the fire broke out, just as passengers had been sitting down to dinner.

Discussions will now taking place about how to make the programme available for download.

Eighty four passengers and crew took to the ship’s lifeboats as the fire on the Union Castle ship spread out of control. Noxious fumes meant the radio officer could not send a distress message, so the vessel’s position was unknown to other shipping.

But the ship’s failure to arrive in James Bay had already caused consternation in Jamestown, where Rodney Buckley played a small part in events.

“I was senior shipping clerk at the time,” he said, “but don’t remember too much except communicating with the London office and Ascension that vessel way overdue and no contact. Good Hope and the Southampton Castle were never late.”

The people in the drifting lifeboats were lucky: they were spotted from another ship and taken back to Ascension Island.

The fire broke out soon after the Good Hope Castle left Ascension on its run down the Atlantic from the UK to the Cape, on 29 June 2013. The fire eventually burned out and the ship was towed to Europe for repairs.

A number of St Helenians were on board the vessel when it caught fire – many of them expecting to sleep on deck.

Tony Leo covered the story for the five-year-old Radio St Helena when they finally reached home – and his interviews have survived, thanks to the archive that was carefully maintained over the station’s 45-year life.

It ceased broadcasting on Christmas Day 2012, and the archive – mostly old reel-to-reel tapes – was transferred to the museum in Jamestown.

The special programme was suggested after St Helena Online ran a feature on the fire, prompted by the return to the island of Jonathan Mercer, one of the junior officers who spent anxious hours in the lifeboats.

He came back as Master of the cruise ship Amsterdam in April 2013.

Tony Leo is also planning to stage a fund-raising marathon broadcast, starting at 7am island time on Saturday 6 July 2013, staying on air as long as he can.

Click here to hear a live broadcast stream from the new Saint FM Community Radio website (www.saint.fm). The station begins charging to listen online from today (29 June) in order to help meet the high cost of streaming on the internet.

SEE ALSO: We took to the lifeboats off Ascension – a captain’s story

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