JUNE 9 marked one of the saddest days in the life of South African shipping line Safmarine, once noted for its large ‘great white’ container ships and two cruise liners SA Oranje and SA Vaal.

For it was on this day, 50 years ago, that disaster struck one of its managed tankers en route to the Persian Gulf, and it had devastating consequences for one small family on the Island.

During the late 1960s, Safmarine had a small fleet of tankers all on charter to various oil majors, and the 50,000 ton Thorland was on charter to the American oil giant Mobil, from whom she’d been bought a few years before.

In 1969 and early 1970, a number of very large tankers had suffered tank explosions during cleaning maintenance, and this had sparked concerns in the oil industry.

The Thorland mainly carried crude oil, and the usual process was for tankers to clean their tanks en route to the next loading port, and a particularly thorough clean was required if changing the type of crude oil to be loaded.

A standard tanker construction then was ten rows of three cargo tanks, somewhat akin to an ice cube tray in a fridge.

Above the deck was accommodation, with deck officers catered for in the middle of the ship and engineer officers and crew in the aft.

Connecting the two was the flying bridge ­— a small walkway above the main deck allowing movement between the two quarters.

On the morning of June 9, 1970, the Thorland was undergoing tank cleaning.

At 9.35am local time, she was heading north about 435 miles off Mombasa.

The chief engineer was inspecting the port side aft winch which had suffered a malfunction, and he sent the third engineer to get some tools.

The chief officer was with a cadet in the vicinity of the after tanks, and the second officer was on watch on the bridge.

A few of the East Pakistani crew were assisting in maintenance and tank cleaning.

Suddenly, and without warning, the ship exploded.

Hundreds of tons of steel, over a distance of around 200 feet, were rolled back like a sardine can, crashing on top of the midship’s accommodation and crushing the bridge where the second officer was on watch.

Tanks exploded, too, creating a space six times the size of an individual tank.

Massive deck plates were heaved up and curled over, a 60ft by 30ft hole was punched into the port side, and the starboard side of the ship was severely damaged.

The Thorland started to burn.

The ship went to emergency stations, but soon the order was given to shut down engines and abandon ship.

She was steaming at around 12 knots.

In the race to abandon ship, the starboard amidships lifeboat would not fall correctly, and there was difficulty in getting the crew into one of the after lifeboats.

The ship’s butler slipped into the sea and was never seen again.

Officers and crew did their best to get away, and after a couple of hours, a Swedish ore-bulk oil carrier ­— the Bjorne Ragne ­— came to their assistance.

A headcount revealed that out of a compliment of 61, nine men were missing, including the ship’s chief engineer, Gordon Carr, who hailed from the IW.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, Kathleen Carr and her son Richard were settling into their new home in the village of Brighstone ­— a house Gordon had never seen finished.

That evening, Mrs Carr was outside brushing gravel off the driveway when a neighbour appeared with a telegram.

She showed it to Richard and he immediately broke down ­— he knew.

The following morning, Gordon was missing, but Richard had gone to school with the news that if anything had ‘happened’ his mother would come to get him.

Sure enough, at around 11am, the school secretary knocked on the door of the classroom and young Richard made the lonely walk from the back of the class to the door, knowing in his heart he would never see his father again.

In the Indian Ocean, a salvage tug was called in to assist, and the captain of the Thorland took some of the engineers and other officers back onboard to see if they could assist in restarting the engines, and because an unattended ship of that size would be a serious threat to navigation.

Fortunately, the fire soon burned itself out, and upon re-boarding the ship, the full horror of what had happened was revealed.

The bodies of the second officer and the deck cadet were found, as were those of two crewmen, who were all buried at sea.

The others were missing ­— presumably blown overboard.

The ship was in a parlous state, and over the next weeks, a pitiful drama played out as she was towed first to Mombasa and then to Tanzania and finally Mozambique ­— no country would allow her entry.

This was particularly traumatic for those relatives back home that had no body, and there was that faint hope that a relative, although gone, might be trapped somewhere.

Back on the IW, arrangements were made for a memorial service in the same church that Kathleen and Gordon had been married, 13 years before.

Richard was a choirboy and had to show some composure.

On July 25, the ship broke in two and the majority of the Thorland sank about eight miles south of Mozambique Island, some 22 miles offshore.

The stern half was beached and eventually went to sea again as the tanker Achillet, plying most of its trade to Canada.

But that day will live forever ­— the tragedy played out to families across the world.

Those who lost their lives that date are never forgotten.

Gordon Owen Carr, 37, Peter Leonard Lucas, 27, John Richard Meadley, 23, Robert Sinclair, 21, C P S Noronha, 57, Amir Sultan, 47, Faizullah Pumpman, 31, Kasim Jan, 29, and Zoor Mohd Shah, 22.