- Hicks, George
- Ship histories and stories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Tarakan I
- September 2007 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The dockyard’s general manager, Captain E. A. Good, realised now there was only one chance of rescuing the men. A hole must be cut into the ship’s side. However, before he could issue the order, two men trundling a hand loaded sari with oxy-acetylene bottles forced their way through the crowd of firemen and sailors. They were Frank Geddes, a 50 year old welder, and John McComas, a 22 year old boilermaker only recently out of his apprenticeship.
Coolly setting up their equipment on the wharf alongside Tarakan they crouched 18 inches from the burning ship’s side and started cutting a hole. Smoke swirled around them and often they were obscured from view, the diamond blue flame of the cutting torch the only proof they were still at work. The heat was unbearable. Within minutes their clothes were smouldering and the flesh of their faces was blistered. McComas’s curly hair was singed back to his scalp. Painfully, slowly, the torch cut a rectangular course through the tough steel. The two men crouched close together. The blue flame crept down the last side of the hole, a shower of sparks heralded the joining of the sides. A murmur from the onlookers and the jagged rectangle of steel splashed into the water.
But the murmur quickly changed to a groan of anguish. When the smoke cleared momentarily a solid steel bulkhead was revealed behind the newly cut hole.
Lesser men would have given up the task but Geddes and McComas were of a different mould. They knew the hope of rescuing the men alive was now remote. Pausing only to have their smouldering clothes drenched with a fire hose they moved along the ship’s side another 10 feet to cut another hole.
By now a large part of Sydney’s population was following the drama as radio stations suspended ordinary programs to provide a live coverage of the rescue.
Just as Geddes lit his torch to burn the second hole a blackened face appeared at the porthole and called hoarsely: ‘Over this way and you’ll make it’. The face disappeared as quickly as it appeared.
The heat from the ship was now so great that some of the plates had turned red. Soon after Geddes commenced cutting, McComas slumped forward, overcome by the waves of heat and the choking fumes. Onlookers saw the young man fighting against unconsciousness. He gulped a deep breath and hunched forward over his cylinders.
Escape door open
For five and a half long minutes all Sydney waited while the flame bit into the steel. Suddenly another shower of sparks hissed through the smoke. The burnt plate splashed into the harbour with a sharp sigh. The escape door was open.
The exhausted Geddes and McComas were dragged clear of the wharf and Fire Officers Griffiths, Edge and McGrath in asbestos suits and respirators crawled through the jagged hole. Their torches lit a scene from hell. Flames licked the white hot plates of the crushed bulkhead, the deck was slippery with chemical foam, water and blood.
They weaved their way through a tangle of fittings and furniture and at first it seemed there were no survivors. The beam of their torches moved slowly around the mess and suddenly stopped on a mound of tightly pressed bodies. The fire officers at first thought all were dead but a slight movement gave hope. Slowly arms and legs disentangled and the mound became bodies rolling in pain and agony on the deck.
Surgeon-Lieutenant Shepherd followed the firemen into Tarakan and was soon gently treating the more seriously injured. Suddenly the officer slumped forward over the bodies of his patients. He was overcome by the heat and fumes. The firemen dragged him unconscious to the opening and passed his limp body through to waiting ambulance men.
By 9 o’clock the first survivor of the explosion was brought out on to the wharf. At intervals of about a minute a total of 22 injured were lifted out. Two men were dead and one was missing. Of the injured, 10 were critical.
The search was now continued for the missing man His body was found later in the morning in the forward section of the ship. His name was Frank Manning. The young sailor had returned to the ship from his honeymoon 30 minutes before the fatal explosion.