By Shane Winser
Last updated 2011-02-17
On 8 September, following frantic last-minute preparations, the Great Easternstarted its maiden voyage to Holyhead, but there was another disaster just four days later. As the ship steamed along the south coast, an explosion destroyed the forward funnel and filled the boiler room with scalding steam. Five stokers were killed and many others were injured.
'The forward part of the deck appeared to spring like a mine, blowing the funnel up into the air. There was a confused roar amid which came the awful crash of timber and iron mingled together in frightful uproar and then all was hidden in a rush of steam. Blinded and almost stunned by the overwhelming concussion, those on the bridge stood motionless in the white vapour till they were reminded of the necessity of seeking shelter by the shower of wreck-glass, gilt work, saloon ornaments and pieces of wood which began to fall like rain in all directions ...
'It was said that only two or three men were below, and that these men were but slightly injured, though it was, unfortunately, soon found out that there were not less than 12 more or less hurt. Two or three of these poor fellows walked up to the deck almost, if not quite, unassisted, and this may have held to the belief that their injuries were slight.
'Their aspect, however, told its own tale, and none had ever seen blown-up men before could fail to know at a glance that some had only two or three hours to live. A man blown up by gunpowder is a mere figure of raw flesh, which seldom moves after the explosion. Not so with men blown up by steam, who for a few minutes are able to walk about, apparently almost unhurt, though in fact mortally injured beyond all hope of recovery.
'This was so with one or two, who, as they emerged from below, walked aft with that expression in their faces only resembling intense astonishment, and a certain faltering of the gait and movements like one that walks in his sleep. Where not grimed by the smoke or ashes, the peculiar bright, soft whiteness of the face, hands or breast, told at once that the skin, though unbroken, had been boiled by the steam ...' Extract from The Times, 13 September 1859
Having collapsed from a stroke just before the ship left London, Isambard Kingdom Brunel lay ill at his home in Duke Street. The disastrous news about his greatest engineering achievement was relayed to him and he died just three days later on 15 September 1859.
Although Scott Russell came under suspicion, a later inquest at Weymouth failed to apportion blame, and found only that the cause of the explosion was a stopcock mistakenly closed during the testing of the engines.
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