I recently had a very informative e-mail exchange with an old friend of mine back in Ireland. My friends name is Peter and he had just written a piece about the Juan Peron disaster at Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard, which is famous the world over for its building of the doomed Titanic. It is a remarkable story of tragedy, love, death and survival. It is a remarkable story because it is true story.
The Juan Peron Disaster — by Peter Jordan:
“On his return home after World War 2, my great grandfather was made Chief Diver at the famous shipyard. In the early 1950’s, Harland and Wolff was commissioned by the Argentine government to build a 24,000-ton whaler factory ship. Named after their famous president Juan Peron. The Juan Peron was the biggest vessel of its class in the world, custom-made to compete with British rivals hunting in similar waters. Yet the ship was to become known as one of the most cursed vessels the shipyard ever built.
It was a huge ship (pictured right) and its hull was very high out of the water – requiring a series of wooden gangways to the jetty. On the 31st of January 1955 as the painters and red-leaders huddled on the uppermost gangway waiting for the ‘knocking-off’ hooter to sound, the men claimed they heard a noise like thunder. They laughed and joked that the gangplank had better not break such were the numbers gathered on it.
It broke at the thirteenth step.
The men fell eighty feet into the water below. Some fell on the quayside, alive but crippled. Seventeen men lay dead, their cloth caps floating on the dark water. One man clung to the plating of the great vessel for five minutes before being rescued. His fingers bled with the sheer exertion of hanging on. In a newspaper account of the time, he said that the only thing that kept him from falling to his death below was the thought of his young disabled son.
One body was unaccounted for.
They came for my great grandfather as he sat down for dinner. Within minutes he was on the scene. Lunchboxes lay scattered on the quayside, a tragic reminder of the catastrophe. The ship was moved out into Musgrave Channel to allow my great grandfather to search for the missing body. The water was deep to accommodate such a large vessel, so Arc lights were brought in. But they could not penetrate far enough under the surface.
My great grandfather had to feel his way amongst the rubble on the bottom of the channel in almost zero visibility. He sensed some movement and realized it was an outstretched hand moving back and forth in the current, as if beckoning him. At 9.15 that evening he surfaced and was given first aid. He had found the body.
The man’s family could now give him a Christian burial.”
Peters’ story resonated more than he could have imagined for it was my great grandfather who had been hanging on to the side of the ship. My great grandfather, Davy Crawford, had lived in the Short Strand neighborhood (Altcar Street) and worked in the nearby shipyard. Growing up I had heard many family stories of how he fought in the Palestinian campaign against the Turks in WW1. I still remember when, in the early seventies, my mother took me as a child over to Andersonstown where he lay in an upstairs bedroom in his final days of life. The family spoke of how, after the war, he was on the scaffolding the day it collapsed at the shipyard. Indeed, on a recent trip home to Ireland, one of his only two surviving daughters (Patricia McKeating) told me how he held onto the side of the ship until his fingers bled. Davy Crawford had later told them the only thing that kept him holding on were the thoughts of his wee disabled son Paddy.
Naturally, I was amazed to read Peter’s article, as it served to confirm stories I had heard through purely anecdotal family conversations.
I was heartened to learn of this common thread in the history of Belfast that Peter and I shared through our great grandfathers, it put a human face to events, times, people and places that are gone.
Even though he lost some friends Davy Crawford survived the disaster. This picture of him and his grown children was taken in Belfast around 25 years after that fateful day and shortly before his death. Davy Crawford is pictured standing in the center behind his disabled son Paddy who can be seen in the foreground seated in his wheel chair. His daughter Catherine, my grandmother, is standing on the far right. Two of Davy Crawford’s daughters are still live in Ireland today, they are Margaret McLaughlin and Patricia McKeating, pictured standing 1st and 2nd from the left respectively. Margaret still lives in Andersonstown and Patricia lives near Portaferry.
To the memory of all those who died.by