Loongana is an Aboriginal word meaning to be swift, or to fly. There would come a time when this ship would desperately need to live up to its name.
The Loongana was built in 1904 on Scotland’s River Clyde. She plied the Bass Strait for many years as a cargo and passenger vessel, mainly between the ports of Launceston and Melbourne. She was the first ship to be equipped with steam turbine propulsion operating in the southern hemisphere. Almost every Tasmanian has a relative who travelled aboard the Loongana in pre air travel days, including me.
DISASTER ON THE WILD, WEST COAST
On the morning of October 12 1912, fire broke out in a pump house on the 700ft level of the Mount Lyell copper mine in Queenstown, on Tasmania’s remote west coast. 170 men were in the mine at the time, and on the first day only 73 managed to reach safety. The others were trapped at various, much lower levels. No emergency warning system had been installed, so many men were unaware of the fire and the deadly carbon monoxide gas until it was too late.
The only hope for the entombed miners was to bring specialized fire-fighters and their apparatus, plus other safety equipment, from the mainland……principally via The Loongana.
A report in The Examiner stated that the ‘Straits Express’ would leave Melbourne at 4 o’clock in the afternoon of October 14. It was expected to dock by dawn next morning at Burnie, on the north-west coast, rather than Launceston. Unloading personnel and equipment that much closer to Queenstown would make an important difference in the rescue operation . All four boilers were to be employed on the trip, working at full capacity.
From Burnie a special train made a record run to Queenstown.
The mercy dash by the Loongana had been made in 12 hours 46 minutes, another record that stood for many years.
Firemen were able to descend to the 1,000ft level, and to provide food and drink to those trapped. Efforts to rescue them lasted for four days, with the final survivors having spent more than 100 hours underground.
A Royal Commission was held into the disaster, but no blame could be attached to either the mine owners or any of their employees. There was an open finding, for the saddest of reasons;
FAREWELL TO AN OLD FRIEND
After thirty years of almost trouble free service the Loongana was sold to a Japanese ship-breaker in 1936.
From the Melbourne Herald, October 31 1936;
LOONGANA LINGERS – The Bay seems reluctant to release the veteran Bass Strat steamer Loongana for her final journey to the East. For the third successive day, Captain Y. Konno of the former collier Kanna, which will tow the Loongana, postponed his departure today because of the uncertain weather. Is it now expected that the Loongana will be towed away from Gellibrand Pier, Williamstown by the tugboat Tooronga, at 5am tomorrow. The two ships will meet the Kanna outside the heads and when towlines have been run from the Kanna to the Loongana, the long voyage will begin.
THE FULL STORY OF THE MINE FIRE WAS RECOUNTED AT THE ROYAL COMMISSION. TO READ ITS SUBSEQUENT REPORT, CLICK HERE.