Launched in 1858, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s prototype for the liner, Great Eastern, was the largest ship in the world. Here, a passenger describes an explosion on board.
We had dined. It was six o’clock, and we were off Hastings, at about seven miles’ distance from the shore when the sound of a tremendous explosion was heard. The reverberation followed. Then came to our ears a tremendous crash, not hollow, as of thunder, but solid, as of objects that offered resistance. Then a sweeping, rolling, swooping, rumbling sound, as of cannon balls scudding along the deck above. The rumbling noise was followed by the smash of the dining saloon skylights, and the eruption of a mass of fragments of wood and iron, followed by a thick cloud of powdered glass, and then by coaldust.
To me, the crash was greater than the explosion; and I thought more of a collision, or of the fall of one of the huge funnels, than of an explosion; but my next neighbour cried out, `The boiler has burst!’ On gaining the deck I could at first see nothing but billows of steam rolling towards us. Then along the deck I saw the engine hose rapidly drawn along, and in another moment dozens of men were seizing it and carrying it forward. The wind was blowing tolerably strong, and when the steam cleared away a little in my immediate vicinity, there came an eddying shower of splinters, fragments of gilt moulding, shreds of ornamental paper, and tatters of crimson curtains. Several gentlemen now exerted themselves in the most praiseworthy manner to get the passengers to safety; the danger was evidently forward; a thick cloud of steam concealed all objects; but there was smoke as well as vapour, and I thought the ship was on fire. As men and passengers came rushing by I heard cries of `Fire’, `The boilers’, `The donkey engine has burst’; but these were more matters of question and answer than evidences of terror. There seemed to be amazement and curiosity, but among the passengers at least not the slightest panic.
But the effects of the catastrophe soon became lamentably apparent. One by one, borne on the shoulders or in the arms of their comrades, or, in one or two cases, staggering past, came by the unfortunate men who had been scalded in the stokehole. The face of one was utterly without human semblance, and looked simply like a mass of raw beefsteak. Another was so horribly scalded about the groin, that the two hands might be laid in the raw cavity, and scraps of his woollen undergarments were mixed up with hanks of boiled flesh. Another I saw had his trousers scalded away from the mid-thigh; his two legs, bare from thigh to heel, were continuous scalds, the skin and flesh hanging here and there. As they raised another man, the flesh of his hands came away in the grasp of those who held him, and he looked as though he had two bloody gloves on. There were some cases of severe contusions, and cuts from fractured glass; but curiously enough, not one instance of broken limb. Some of the sufferers were hysterical, laughing and crying in a pitiable manner. When in the hospital, or sick bay, the agony of some was so intolerable that, however gently and soothingly it was done, they had to be held down. The remedies applied were linseed oil and cotton wool, continuously renewed.
12 September 1859