Haunting Memories of Fire Disaster at Sea 45 Years on

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The Steam Turbine Vessel (STV) Royston Grange was carrying 61 crew members and 12 passengers. The Tien Chee Chinese oil tanker, operating under the flag convenience of Liberia collided with the STV Royston Grange in dense fog on May 11 1972.

It was bound from Buenos Aires to London, packed with a cargo of beef and butter. Although the ship did not sink in the collision, everyone perished in the fire which subsequently engulfed it.

The crew were made up of young men, from the age of 15 upwards – just like John Davenport, aged 69, of Wednesfield was then.

Mr Davenport, who is originally from Bushbury, Wolverhampton, joined the navy in 1964 at the tender age of 15. On March 31, 1967, he was sent aboard the STV Hardwicke, the sister ship to the Royston. He spent around 12 weeks aboard the ship, leaving on June 10 1967 as an un-established seaman.

Mr Davenport, who is now a grandfather of four, said: “It was identical to the Royston – the cabins were the same, the steering was the same, and of course our cargo was the same.”

“We carried general cargo on the way to Buenos Aires and beef and butter on the way back to London.”

“I often had to steer the ship so I knew how tricky it could be to negotiate the shelf that bordered the south of the channel.”

“The pilots would run the ship, though of course the captain would have final say. The pilots had little English and would often say ‘left’ and ‘right’ instead of ‘port’ or ‘starboard’. I can remember looking at my Skipper after a direction came in to go left, knowing that he meant right – it was quite tricky sometimes.”

However, Mr Davenport did not know that many of his former colleagues perished on the STV Royston till just a few years ago.

“It made me shudder” Mr Davenport said, “There would have been so many men and young boys on that vessel. I guarantee that I knew the majority of them, and it’s traumatic to think about what they went through.”

The remains of the victims of the collision were buried in urns in communal graves at the British Cemetery Montevideo. The company that operated the ship at the time Houlder Line, flew out all the relatives of the deceased to be part of a special service in Uruguay.

Now, Mr Davenport wants to extend a tribute to all the families that lost loved ones in the disaster, 45 years after it took place.

He said: “You know, I always had a premonition that I’d die at sea. When I left the Navy and the Army’s Maritime Regiment, I was happy to not be on sea again, and that feeling went away.”

“But when I found out about what happened to all those souls on the Royston, it came flooding back.”

“I could have easily been on board that vessel and that’s why I want to offer my condolences to those that lost family members out there.”

However, Mr Davenport said news of the disaster’s anniversary has given him space to reflect on his time in the Merchant Navy.

He said: “When I think about my eldest grandson, who is 17 – my life at that age was totally different.”

“You know, we keep an eye on him, drop him off where he needs to go and ask him to check in on us and call us when he can.”

“When I was 15, I’d just finished my Sea Training in Dover and was about to join my first ship. There were many happy memories. I always wanted to be in the Navy for as long as I can remember, and wanted to see as much of the world as I could.”

One of Mr Davenport’s wage slips from that time shows he worked more than 200 hours overtime for £60.

He continued: “I left at 21 and joined the Maritime Regiment in the Army, though I didn’t really want to be at sea again.”

“Now, I haven’t renewed my passport since 1980. When I hear about people going on cruises or at sea for holidays, I can’t believe it.”

“I just want all those lads that lost their lives to not be forgotten, not just because I could have been one of them, but because they were some of the best men I ever knew.”

The STV Royston Grange was the only British Ship since 1951 that was in a collision where all lives were lost on board. Cargo liners operated by the Merchant Navy ceased as containerisation was brought in, reducing the number of crew members needed from around 60 to just 15.

The ship was towed to Montevideo and then to Spain where her hulk was scrapped at Barcelona in May 1979. The Tien Chee was scrapped at Buenos Aires in August 1976.

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Source: Express & Star

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