The dead sailors, three men and one woman, were engulfed in a fire ball that broke out in the engine room of the Australian navy's largest ship, HMAS Westralia, as it was taking part in an exercise off the coast of Perth, Western Australia, yesterday morning.
The fire started in the engine room when the crew were trying to repair a broken fuel line. Five more sailors were injured as they attempted to fight their way into the engine room to rescue their colleagues.
When the fire threatened to spread to the rest of the ship, the captain, Commander Stuart Dietrich, was forced to abandon rescue attempts, order the engine room sealed and flooded with carbon dioxide.
Commander Martin Campbell, commander of maritime operations at Stirling base in Perth, said: "It was clear that if he didn't take that action, the fire would have undoubtedly engulfed the ship. Commander Dietrich would have weighed up the risk to any survivors when ordering that the engine room be sealed."
Commander Allan Johnston, of the Stirling base, said all four sailors would have died "in the initial flash" of the fuel-line fire erupting. "Search parties were sent back into the flaming inferno in the engine room, but they were beaten back," he said.
The fire devastated the engine room's power system, which meant the sailors inside could not communicate with their colleagues. The five injured sailors were being treated last night in a navy hospital for shock, burns and smoke inhalation.
All the dead were single people aged under 30. It was the Australian navy's worst peacetime disaster since 1964. John Howard, the Australian prime minister, said: "It's a reminder that men and women who put their lives on the line in defence of our country are owed a special debt and a special understanding." The Australian government announced a full inquiry into the tragedy.
The Westralia is a 171- metre (561-foot) petroleum tanker built in 1979 and bought by the Australian Navy in 1994. It can carry 25,000 tonnes of fuel, including several thousand tons of aviation fuel for use by navy helicopters.
She saw active service in the Gulf war in 1991 and was used to refuel other ships during the rescue of the British yachtsman Tony Bullimore from his yacht in the Southern Ocean in January of last year.Reuse content