Tanker fire was scarey waterfront event

Seekonk3

If the word “Seekonk” means anything to you then you probably were in Charlottetown in June of 1963.

On 7 June 1963 a small Irving Oil tanker called the Seekonk was moored across the end Railway Wharf in Charlottetown getting ready to take on a cargo of gasoline for Stephenville in Newfoundland. A fire broke out in the stern section of the ship housing the galley and crews quarters. The fire quickly overwhelmed the crew and the Charlottetown fire department was called to the scene. Although the vessel had not yet taken on its cargo the potential explosion of the vessel was a serious threat. Owing to the extreme heat of the blaze, cramped spaces below deck and a number of small explosions it could not be extinguished and as the firefighters tackled the blaze Deputy Fire Chief Gordon Stewart ordered an evacuation of Water Street from Queen Street to Weymouth as well as Notre Dame Academy.

Not wishing to expose the firefighters to undue danger he called for volunteers and soon had enough single men to make a dedicated assault on the fire. Flames on the deck were extinguished but below decks it was a different story. The hull grew so hot that the water around the burning section was boiling. After an hour and a half no progress had been made and fearing an explosion the Chief stood down the firemen and asked the Department of Transport vessel Tupper, also in port, to move the Seekonk away from the wharves.  After a session of bureaucratic dithering permission to act was received. The Seekonk’s anchor cables were cut with acetylene torches, harbour pilot Jack MacDonald attached towing cables to the bow of the tanker, and the Tupper slowly turned the Seekonk and pulled her through the harbour mouth and beached her on Governors Island. The evacuation order was lifted and life in the city returned to normal.

Mettawee_class__schematicAt the time of the fire in Charlottetown Harbour the Seekonk was just twenty years old but it already had a service record which saw it journey halfway around the world and back as part of the U.S. war effort. It was one of thirty-four small, single-screw aft-engine diesel powered gasoline tankers which were constructed for the U.S. Navy as the Mettawee class of ships. The ships in this class were all named for small rivers, the Seekonk running through Rhode Island. Launched on 24 May 1943  the Seekonk  was 213 feet long and 37 feet wide but drew only 17 feet, making it ideal for shallow harbours and multiple small ports. It carried about 1200 tons of cargo, usually gasoline or aviation fuel. Its war-time crew numbered 62 men under command of a naval lieutenant and as it was destined for use in combat areas it carried a number of armaments including a 3 inch gun and several anti-aitrcraft gun stations for defensive use.  In spite of carrying dangerous volatile cargos none of the Mettawee class were lost during the war.  .

Seekonk in wartime. Not armaments on the vessel

Mettawee class tanker in wartime. Note armaments on the vessel

After fitting out and shakedown training the Seekonk’s first voyage was in convoy to Aruba in the Netherlands West Indies where it loaded its cargo – aviation gasoline, and departed on 2 April for the Panama Canal en route to the South Pacific war zone. It arrived in New Guinea on 1 June  For the rest of that year it operated off the coast of New Guinea where it came under attack from Japanese planes and managed to shoot down some of the attackers. Early in 1945 the Seekonk was part of the armada of ships liberating the Philippine Islands. It provided fueling services for a number of the amphibious landing craft and other ships for several of the Philippine landings. The vessel remained in Philippine waters until the end of hostilities providing support to minesweeping activities. She provided a similar duty in waters off Vietnam as part of a mine sweeping task force which cleared Haiphong Harbour and the Hainan Strait.

Seekonk awaiting sale in San Francisco

Seekonk awaiting sale in San Francisco

The return of the Seekonk to American waters was plagued by engine failures and it took from 21 December 1945 to 26 February 1946 (part of the time under tow) to cross from Hong Kong to San Francisco where she was decommissioned, disarmed,  and made available for disposal in August of that year. There was a post-war glut of vessels on the market and it was not until January 1949 that the Seekonk was purchased. The buyer was Newfoundland Tankers Ltd., a subsidiary of Irving Oil, and the ship was subsequently transferred to Irving Steamships Ltd.

Seekonk under Irving ownership

Seekonk under Irving ownership. This photo shows her in Toronto in the early 1950s.

Under Irving ownership she was first used in 1951 on the Great Lakes on charter to the British-American Oil Company but by the mid-1950s she was being used to supply Irving facilities in the Maritimes and Newfoundland.  She was a frequent visitor to Charlottetown and Montague. In 1955, for example, early onset of winter saw the Seekonk being used to transfer fuel to the Railway Wharf from the larger Irvingbrook, anchored off St. Peter’s Island, which had been  unable to enter Charlottetown Harbour owing to ice conditions.

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Seekonk aground at Governors Island

After the derelict ship had burnt its self out on Governors Island the hulk was towed to Buctouche New Brunswick where there was an Irving facility.  In May 1964 the Charlottetown Guardian carried a story that the fishermen of  Canoe Cove had approached Irving for the burned-out hull to replace a breakwater which had been carried away by the ice. The 14 boats fishing out of the Cove were at the mercy of the elements. While Irving agreed to the proposal the costs of towing it into position and dredging and filling the hull with sand were considerable and the plan was abandoned. A month later the Seekonk was towed from Buctouche to Sydney Nova Scotia where she was scrapped.

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