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Ship alight - 1972 Newcastle dockyard fire


WDA Resolution at berth, image from the NSW State Library 1974
WDA Resolution at berth, image from the NSW State Library 1974

On 11 November 1972 at 10:53am, Newcastle fire station received a direct line telephone call from the nearby state dockyard. A suction hopper dredging vessel, the WDA Resolution, had caught ablaze whilst sitting in the harbour of the state dockyard. The vessel, built only earlier that year, was one of the largest produced dredging ships in Australia weighing over 5400 tons, measuring 116 metres in length and 18 metres wide. Suction dredges were used throughout the area to maintain and establish navigable waterways and canals. The vessel operated by utilising large suction hoses which could lift silt, clay and sand, depositing the debris into the large hooper which was situated in the centre of the vessel.


Upon receiving the call from the dockyard, Newcastle fire brigade with a crew of 9 and their salvage motor, Tighes Hill with a crew of 8 and its pumper, and Carrington with a crew of 6 and its pumper were the first responders to the scene assisting the dockyard firefighters on site. When the district officer Bob Mclean, who attended the incident as a part of Newcastle’s crew, witnessed the intense billowing black smoke, the necessary call was made for further assistance from additional crews. As a result, two extra stations responded, those being Hamilton with a crew of 10 and Merewether with their crew of 6.


The inferno with its incessant smoke choked the air as it emanated from the ship’s hopper hold, threatening to spread across the vessel. Unfortunately, the deep 4600m3 hopper hold had filled with hydraulic oil which fueled the intensity of the fire. To combat the flames, Newcastle’s fire engine suctioned water from the harbour and relayed this water supply to Tighes Hill’s engine. From there, Tighes Hill’s engine had two lines of hose which projected a combination of water mixed with foam to settle the ferocity of the inferno.

WDA Resolution on fire, image from Fire News Autumn 1973 Edition [Museum of Fire Collection]
WDA Resolution on fire, image from Fire News Autumn 1973 Edition [Museum of Fire Collection]

Simultaneously, crews assisted those members of the ship still trapped on board. Cut off from the gangway, fire crews had to utilize ladders which they extended across the stern of the vessel which assisted in the safe evacuation of those trapped. Additionally, Carrington’s fire engine operated as a suction supply, providing water to Newcastle’s engine who projected water to the upper decks and bridge of the ship to prevent the spread of the inferno and cool down the vessel.


Unknown ship fire, Museum of Fire Collection
Unknown ship fire, Museum of Fire Collection

The quick actions of the firefighters meant that the fire was reduced to be contained to the hopper hold where hydraulic oil previously drained from the rams had been emulsified by gamolin, however, remained highly flammable. The use of foam by the firefighters assisted tremendously in the subduing of the flames and with the ship’s crewed rescued from the vessel, the inspector on site, inspector Young called a stop at 11:47am.


Whilst the blaze was significant, due to it being contained in the hopper hold the vessel was salvageable and able to be repaired. The ship would continue to be used in NSW from 1972 to 2004. From 2004 the vessel fell under new ownership after being bought by a new company receiving a new paint job and new name, the La Arenosa where it served for 10 years before being decommissioned in 2014

La Arenosa (formerly WDA Resolution), image sourced from: https://www.dredgepoint.org/dredging-database/equipment/la-arenosa
La Arenosa (formerly WDA Resolution), image sourced from: https://www.dredgepoint.org/dredging-database/equipment/la-arenosa

- Story by Museum of Fire Heritage Team

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