Hope Bay fire 1948

In November 1948 F K Elliot, B Jefford, J L O'Hare amd S St C McNeile were surveying along the Cape Roquemaurel/Cape Kater coast and had reached a point 1,500ft above sea level inland from Cape Kjellman. In the distance lay Cape Kater, apparently separated from them by a deep valley glacier.  Vivien Fuchs who was in the George VI Sound on a field trip from Stonington Island with J S R Huckle, C C Brown and R J Adie spoke on the radio to Elliot. They both knew that no one had contacted the base at Hope Bay for ten days and they were worried.  It was agreed that Elliot's party should return to the base to find out.

Sir Vivien writing in Of Ice and Men takes up the story:

"Elliott's party made all speed back to Hope Bay, covering eighty-five miles, in five days - thirty-nine on the last day. As the base gradually came into view they were surprised to see a tent, instead of a mound of snow with; chimneys standing through it, a large, gaping, black hole. This was a bad shock. The whole place seemed strangely silent, despite the noise now being, made by the few dogs that had been left behind. No one came out to met them, no puppies were bounding around, and even their own teams were quiet and subdued. On arrival it was clear that the tent had not been used for some time.

"Elliott walked straight over to the rookery camp which the doctor, Bill Sladen, always used for observing penguins, confidently expecting to find three men. But only a very strained Sladen came out, and with difficulty told him that the base had been burned to the ground. Both Dick Burd and Miki Green had died in the flames. He had kept his solitary vigil for sixteen days, unable to make any radio contact. He was in a state of deep shock, and that night it was mutually agreed that no one would talk about the fire.

"In the morning details of this terrible tragedy were gradually unfolded. The fire had occurred while Sladen had been working over at the rookery. It is best described in his own words:

"The first thing I saw was a dense cloud of smoke, most of which was coming from the north end of the hut. The snow was dark with soot on the leeward side . . . . I found the door with difficulty and tried to push my way in ... billows of smoke rushed out ... the door was half drifted up . . . . I just managed to scramble out again . . . .  I tried to force my way through the W/T window but was compelled to come out as the fumes were so hot and suffocating. There was no answer to frantic shouts made between breaths inside the window. As I ran round the south end of the hut I noticed a glow at the junction of the engine shed, back porch and main building. Snow was falling away around it and flames were being fanned by the gale. I tried pushing snow down into it but to no avail. . . . Smoke was coming out of every chimney . . . . .  the roof at the south end was ablaze and . . . . I had to give up all hope of rescue. . . .  The sinister silence; the dark smoke torrenting down to the sea, pressed low by the gale and drift; the feeling of complete and utter helplessness; worse still, the thought of Dick and Mike with no one to save them was the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced.

"The main roof collapsed at approximately 0300. . . .

"Between 0230 and 0300 I was moving all dogs at the east end of the spans to the west end. They were already blackened by the smoke.

"At 0300 a piece of burning wood set light to the store dump for the new base on Hut Point nearly two hundred yards away . . . .  I could do nothing as the sparks were rushing down in that direction. At 0345 the north extension of the hut was aglow and this roof fell in at 0400. At 0500 the hut was still burning and the store pile [fire] spreading rapidly. I went to investigate, but some ammunition exploded. I also remembered that there was a store of explosives on the Point.

"At 0600 the smoke was less and it was possible to go into the Tin Galley [`The Cabin', saved from the fire because it was buried under snow] for a short rest out of the wind. I did not stay long for fear of fumes. The floor beams [of the hut] were still burning . . . .  tins of condensed milk . . . . were bursting continuously. The stores on Hut Point were now burning with less vigour, but small ammunition was still exploding.

"At 0700 the temperature was 13°F . . . . the wind . . . .  was mostly gusting to 40-50mph with some drift. I walked around trying to keep warm until 0800 by which time I was satisfied that there was no danger of anything else catching fire. I rested for three-and-a-half hours in my observation tent at the [penguin] rookery."

"He pitched a tent near Andersson's hut at Seal Point and daily made unsuccessful attempts to contact Elliott on his field radio set.  In an effort to divert his mind from the tragedy he continued his penguin studies.

" . . . the heavy depression that seemed to well all around me; a feeling of great loneliness and deepest sorrow; the grim sight of utter desolation that greeted me every time I passed the still smouldering hut; the work we had struggled to do to the best of our ability under very trying conditions. Seven of us instead of nine (in 1947) . . . . the reports so carefully prepared and containing so much of interest and experience. All this seemed as nothing when my mind turned back to the two companions we would never see again. Their quiet and unruffled outlook on life had never ceased to impress me. I felt much in need of those qualities now."

"Eric Platt's death of heart failure and the deaths of Oliver Burd and Michael Green occurred on the same day. Fuchs wrote, "These two tragedies, which actually occurred on the same day, cast a sombre shadow over all the bases where we felt them keenly. At Hope Bay the remaining five men could only settle down as well as they might in their tents to await relief."

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