Search Wednesday December 31, 2003

Meanwhile: The mysterious demise of a grand ocean liner
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Wednesday, December 31, 2003

HONG KONG: The world's largest passenger ship, the 150,000-ton, French-built Cunard liner Queen Mary 2, is scheduled to be officially named in Southampton, England, on Jan. 8 - exactly 31 years, by uncanny coincidence, after the mysterious end of the vessel's aunt, the Queen Elizabeth.

In her time the Queen Elizabeth, at 83,000 tons, was also the largest passenger vessel afloat and the pride of the Cunard Line. Launched in 1938, she did wartime service before becoming empress of the Atlantic crossing. Her death in Hong Kong harbor in 1972 was no accident.

The ship, by then known as the Seawise University, caught fire in several places at once on Jan. 7, burned furiously and capsized and sank the following day. Who killed the queen? The murderers have never been identified, let alone brought to trial.

One person who must remember that day vividly is Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa. Then a young executive of Island Navigation, the shipping line owned by his father C.Y. Tung, he was having lunch on board the ship when the fires started.

The Queen Elizabeth, retired by Cunard in 1968, was bought by C.Y. Tung in 1970 and renamed the Seawise University - a pun on the owner's name and an indicator of its intended new use as a floating university. It had nearly completed a refit in Hong Kong when the arsonists struck.

A court of inquiry in Hong Kong concluded that several fires were set simultaneously using highly inflammable substances. It was a "deliberate act by persons or persons unknown." Otherwise, the court of inquiry found, no one was especially to blame for the disaster which, miraculously, claimed no lives but was a huge insurance loss. The police, it was revealed, received a tip-off about an alleged mastermind but it was anonymous and was disregarded.

After the court of inquiry, the case was handed to the criminal investigation department of the Hong Kong police. Thirty years later the public is still waiting to hear what they have found. There have been no arrests, no charges laid and there has been an almost total absence of follow-up discussion or press speculation. Historians and crime writers might hope that government archives would hold some clues. But if they do, they are still held too tightly to help.

Britain and Hong Kong both have rules under which, with a few exceptions, government records become available to the public after 30 years. With 30 years having elapsed, surely a search of the public records offices in London and Hong Kong would reveal some clues? I have searched, but in both locations there is scant documentation. Most of it was either published at the time or concerns technical details about salvage operations. It includes interviews with those on board at the time, every one of whom professed ignorance of how the fires could have started. But otherwise the trail leads nowhere.

At the time the most common speculation was that the fires had been set by Communists for political reasons, to spite C.Y. Tung who was closely identified with the nationalist government on Taiwan. Island Navigation denied that there was a political motive, but it remains possible. In which case, is it too late for Tung Chee-hwa to find out from Communists friends in Beijing? Or perhaps the British were involved in a cover-up. Public exposure of Communist involvement would have obstructed delicate efforts then under way to improve relations with Beijing.

If the motive was not political, was a business dispute behind the arson? If so, the late C.Y. Tung would surely have had a good idea who was behind it. Another rumor at the time related to insurance cover. As early as February 1971, the Far Eastern Economic Review had asked, concerning the ship: "Can even C.Y. Tung afford to keep it afloat?"

Soon after the ship's arrival in Hong Kong waters in mid-1971, the government's Marine Department wrote a critical analysis of its condition and even developed a contingency plan for tackling a major fire should one break out during the vessel's refit. But such preparations were no match for a well-planned arson.

The ship died, the mystery lives. May the Queen Mary 2 have a long life and a more dignified end than her aunt.