Port officials in Beirut are reportedly under house arrest, as their failure to safely handle a vast stockpile of ammonium nitrate is blamed for the blast which devastated the city. Beirut is not the only capital city with a kiloton-quantity of explosive material gradually deteriorating over many years. A shipload of WWII munitions by the mouth of the River Thames in England is now becoming increasingly hazardous – but a new attempt to make it (slightly) safer could trigger disaster.
In August 1944, the Liberty Ship SS Richard Montgomery was carrying 7,000 tons of bombs from the U.S. en route to Cherbourg. While awaiting a convoy, the transport was instructed to moor off the town of Sheerness. This was a terrible misjudgment, as the water was far too shallow. The ship was caught on a sandbank, and, as the tide went out, it settled and broke in two.
An emergency operation removed as much of the cargo as possible, but the Richard Montgomery sank to the bottom with an estimated 1,400 tons of munitions still on board, a mixture of high explosive and fragmentation bombs. It now sits in shallow water, the masts still visible, just off Sheerness, a town with a population of 12,000. In 1967, attempts to remove another sunken munitions transport, SS Kielce, caused a massive explosion; fortunately this was much further offshore, but it discouraged anything similar with the Richard Montgomery.
The munition transport with its load of bombs has remained in place for over 75 years, with successive bureaucracies deciding to leave well alone. The wreck is marked and surrounded by warning buoys – a collision could be catastrophic – but its cargo remains live and dangerous.
If the munitions go off, the main effect will be a mini tsunami, variously estimated at between 4 to 16 feet high, resulting in considerable flooding. The blast would also shatter windows for miles, causing glass fragment injuries over a wide area. The wreck is adjacent to a busy shipping lane, and the impact on passing ships could be significant.
Regular surveys are carried out to assess the state of the Richard Montgomery as it corrodes. The latest, using multibeam sonar and laser surveying, gives a detailed picture, and it is not encouraging: “Subsidence of up to 60cm was seen in the collapsed deck plating around Hold 2, the bridge deck area has continued to show evidence of collapse with some debris falling onto the seabed below…”
The concern is that corroding detonators can become unstable. Any shock, such as part of the wreck collapsing, could set off a chain reaction and ignite the entire load.
According to the latest assessment by the U.K.’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency the masts sticking out of the water “may be placing undue strain on the rest of the vessel structure,” leading to the risk of a collapse. The agency plans to reduce this risk by shortening the masts, with bids for the work closing this week. The danger is that this work may itself accidentally set off an explosion.
When the issue was raised in Parliament last year, the government view expressed by Baroness Barran was that it was difficult to assess the possible effects of an explosion and “the cargo is likely to be stable if left undisturbed.” She also said that “we believe that the TNT is likely to be inert because the fuses have degraded over time” which suggests a lack of understanding – even if the fuses no longer operate, the TNT itself is far from inert and will explode if detonated.
Transport Minister Kelly Tolhurst has stated that “any work of this nature carries risk,” but says that the mast removal will be carried out with the help of military experts.
According to one early report, the fire that triggered the Beirut explosion may have been caused by someone welding a hole in the warehouse to make it more secure. Hopefully, the lesson has been learned and the U.K. will not see any explosive mishap.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Let's hope this remedy goes smoothly. Personally, we might think leaving the masts in place, lit, and with the associated warning buoys might be a better/safer plan. But no one at Maritime Maunder is a munitions expert.
Until next time,