The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
British Whig (Kingston, ON), 25 Apr 1905

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In The Gas Buoy Explosion Inquest.

The coroner's jury to enquire into the circumstances surrounding the death of the late Frederic Mullen, met Monday afternoon at four o'clock in the police court room. Proceedings were delayed by the lateness of two of the jurors, who were reprimanded by the coroner.

George Lessard, first engineer of the Scout, was the first witness. He was standing beside the gas compressor when he heard the report and planks were hurled about. He saw nothing of the manner in which the accident happened. It was not his duty to look after the gas or pressure, but the captain told him how much pressure to put on. He (the captain) had told him to put on twelve atmospheres pressure. This was the witness' third season as engineer on the Scout. He had filled buoys two years previous, and had put the same pressure on some and a little more pressure on others. Twelve or thirteen atmospheres was the average pressure for that kind of a buoy. He started to pump on Tuesday at one o'clock and had filled two buoys and worked on the third for about twenty minutes when the accident happened. The gas man was looking after the guages on both buoys that day. The captain kept track of the pressure. He remembered well the pressure on the two buoys he filled as being twelve atmospheres in each. There was five and one-half atmospheres' pressure of gas from last year, but the total pressure was only twelve atmospheres when filled.

Steward Thomas McPherson, the next witness, was uptown on private business and knew nothing of the accident for half an hour after it happened. When he left the boat at two o'clock, Capt. Coulliard was painting a buoy and Frederick Mullen was scrubbing the side of the buoy with a wire brush; which was something he had never seen done before. Evan Guillard was gas man and would always connect the hose with the buoys. This would have been his (Guillard's) third season in that work. The witness used to help Capt. Allison with the records of the pressure and twelve atmospheres was the customary pressure.

Dr. W.L. Goodwin, director of the mining school, testified as to the qualities of acetylene gas. The gas is inexplosive under certain conditions. Under a pressure of less than two atmospheres it is not an explosive, but over two atmospheres it is explosive. The things which will explode acetylene under pressure are shock from a detonator, an electric spark, red heat and unknown causes which seem to operate rarely, for example, a steel cylinder filled with liquid acetylene that would be under a pressure of fifty atmospheres exploded when the stop-cock was suddenly turned and it is conceded that such action has caused similar explosions. Acetylene is safe to use in the same sense that dynamite is safe and probably much safer. If acetylene were used at a pressure of twelve atmospheres it would be safe if precautions are taken. The turning of a stop-cock with acetylene at that pressure is ordinarily safe. In making experiments with acetylene at very high pressure, all tanks have been made of steel or iron, not copper or brass as these might give rise to the explosion. Purifying the gas rendered it less dangerous. The only danger which might arise from the old gas being in the buoy during the winter would be the effect on brass parts, if any. Various experiments were cited which showed the unreliable characteristics of acetylene, especially in liquid form at pressures in the neighborhood of fifty atmospheres, no special illustrations being given of the gas at twelve atmospheres pressure. Unknown causes have caused acetylene to explode even when carefully handled. He gave it as his opinion that the explosion might have been caused by imperfect welding. The heat caused by the tearing apart of the iron might have caused the bursting of the buoy by explosion of the acetylene, but the bursting of the cylinder and the escape of the unexploded gas could account for the violent explosion. The results of the explosion tally exactly with the explosion of a high explosive and would not have been caused by a mere bursting of the buoy.

Capt. Rochefort, of the Idlewyld, was there a few minutes before the explosion, talking to mate Mullen. The latter had warned a small boy to stay away from the gas buoy, saying they were going to make a test and it was no place for him. He gave him (the witness) no idea there was going to be anything dangerous. Frederick Mullen was painting at the time. Capt. Couilliard was the other painter.

The next witness, Thomas L. Wilson, electric chemical engineer, Ottawa, who has been producing carbide from which acetylene gas is made, has had special experience in the buoy system. He examined the evidence at the scene of the accident and ascertained the conditions of charging prior to the accident. The two red buoys had been charged to about twelve atmospheres. The only possible cause for an explosion of the acetylene in the buoys under the conditions under which they were filled was from the rupture of the metal of the buoy. This would under rapid tearing apart, produce heat enough to have started the decomposition of the acetylene into its component parts, carbon and hydrogen. He claimed the accident was due to the defective weld. Under normal conditions, such as obtained in these buoys, acetylene gas was safe at the pressure of twelve or fifteen atmospheres.

The evidence of this witness differed materially in parts from the testimony of Dr. Goodwin. The buoys are annually inspected, externally for rusting and decomposition. Railways are privileged to use the gas at ten atmospheres' pressure in small tanks.

John R. Arnoldi, mechanical engineer and Canadian general manager of the Commercial Acetylene company of New York, agreed with testimony of two previous expert witnesses. The system followed in charging these buoys, and also those on C.P.R., is the Max-Toltz system. He considered the system perfectly safe at ten atmospheres pressure. From examination of the remains of the tank on the wharf he claimed that the metal was not solid, differing as he claimed, to the extent of a quarter of an inch in thickness. He claimed that when the buoys were filled, the frost was still in the metal. Frost has a bad effect on steel. His opinion of explosion was that it was caused by charging the buoy with frost in the metal. The witness was evidently opposed to the Max-Toltz system, and put forward the system of his company in somewhat the manner of an advertisement. Mr. Wilson corrected several statements made by him in regard to the system used in filling the buoys by the Canadian department.

Charles Burnett, gas man, was the next witness. He explained his duties in making the gas, which he had done for two seasons. He did not know what exploded.

Samuel Delaney, another of the crew, repeated the story which he has told on previous occasions.

The other members of the crew also repeated their former stories. Peter Belanger was sure there were two explosions at close intervals. G.J. Smith, the other fireman, also heard two explosions.

H. Youlden, who was recalled, was the last witness, and gave evidence along similar lines to his previous testimony.

The coroner summed up, saying that he felt the jury was not in a position to judge very much as to the virtue of acetylene gas, but felt that they could judge as to whether negligence was shown in not having the buoys tested each year. He felt that some means should be taken to have such a test and lessen the danger. He thought also the buoys should be charged in some sparsely populated district. The coroner then retired.

The verdict rendered was that the evidence does not definitely show the cause of the explosion. "We are strongly of the opinion that the buoys should be thoroughly inspected each year and subjected to a sufficient pressure test. We would strongly urge that all such buoys should be filled at some place where the safety of the general public would be least imperilled."

p.5 Navigation Now Open - Port Arthur, April 25th - Navigation at the head of the lakes will likely be opened this afternoon, as one of the steamers which has been outside of the ice field, has forced her way through thirteen miles of ice and is now inside of Welcome Island. The Neepawah will be the first steamer to load grain this season. She broke her way through the ice to the elevator dock this morning. The Neepawah was the first boat to load last season.

"Tenders for Dredging" - at Bayfield, Belle River, Beaverton, Collingwood, Kincardine, Matchedash Bay, Meaford, Owen Sound, Trenton, Penetanguishene, Point Edward, Sarnia, Port Stanley, Rondeau, Port Burwell, Saugeen River, Thornbury and Wiarton. Board of Works

p.8 The Scout Inquiry - The steamer Scout enquiry will conclude with the evidence of Captain Fraser, who will be examined as soon as he returns here from Ottawa. It is expected that the report of the board of investigation will be in the hands of the minister of marine before the end of the week.

The steamer Pierrepont, now at Coteau, was to go into the government buoy service today. She will do service first from Coteau to Montreal, and then come up the river.

The Day's Episodes - The schooner Acacia, from Oswego, is unloading coal at the asylum wharf.

M.T. company wharf: tug Thomson cleared for Oswego with two light barges; tug Emerson arrived from Charlotte with one coal-laden barge and cleared for Charlotte and Oswego with three light barges.

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25 Apr 1905
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  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 44.22976 Longitude: -76.48098
Rick Neilson
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Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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British Whig (Kingston, ON), 25 Apr 1905