The strange disappearance of Lars Mittank

With the increase in the numbers of CCTV cameras in public places around the world, there are many examples of footage of people caught on camera shortly before they disappear. A lot of this footage is mundane – people walking down the street, or entering a shop, and then leaving again, and acting normally. The CCTV footage of German tourist Lars Mittank is far from normal, and has become one of the most popular, infamous and disturbing pieces of CCTV footage taken in recent years.

Lars Mittank was 28 years old, and worked at the Wilhelmshaven Power Station in northwest Germany. In the summer of 2014 Lars decided to take a holiday to Bulgaria with some friends. The group travelled to Golden Sands, a sea side resort on the coast of the black sea in Bulgaria, a popular and relatively low cost holiday destination for those in nearby European countries who want to take a break and soak up the sun. They arrived at their destination on the 30th of June 2014, after a 2 hour plane trip from Germany, and checked into their hotel.

The group enjoyed themselves until the 6th of June, when they got into a confrontation with a group of locals, which lead to Mittank suffering injuries, which included a ruptured ear drum.  Mittank visited a local doctor, who suggested that surgery needed to be performed to repair the ear drum. Mittank was reticent about having surgery in a foreign country, and asked if he could be given some medicine or antibiotics. The doctor prescribed 500mg of Cefuroxime, which is used to treat bacterial infections. Because of his injury, he was unable to fly back to Germany with his friends. They offered to stay with him till he recovered, but Mittank said that they should go home, and that he would stay in Bulgaria until he had recovered, and would then fly home. Mittank’s friends left Bulgaria on the 7th of June, they day after the altercation. Mittank purchased the Cefuroxime from a local pharmacy, and then booked a room at a new hotel.

The following day Lars started acting strangely. At 11.50 pm Lars called his mother using his cell phone and told her that he felt scared. He asked her if she would contact his bank and freeze his credit card. He also called her again at 3.00 am and told her in a low whisper that he was hiding from a group of men who had been following him. He then checked out of the hotel with his belongings, and caught a taxi to the Varna airport. Lars shared the cab with a fellow passenger, who said that Lars appeared to have dilated pupils, a condition known as mydriasis, which can be caused by drug abuse or severe trauma. Once at the airport he again called his mother who advised him to visit the airport doctor before boarding his flight home. Lars visited the doctor who examined him and would later describe him as being nervous and erratic. While the examination was happening, the doctor was interrupted by a construction employee, who wanted to chat to the doctor about doing some renovation work on her office. At this point Mittank ran out of the doctors room, leaving his belongings behind, and then continued running outside of the terminal. Once outside the airport, he was seen climbing a fence, running into a meadow and disappearing into the woods. He has not been seen since.

The following CCTV video shows Mittank acting normally when arriving at the airport, followed by his rushed exit out of the terminal, and then climbing the fence into the woods.

The footage is very confronting – what happened to Mittank to cause him to flee the terminal without his belongings and then run randomly into the woods? There have been several theories that could explain his actions:

  • Mittank was suffering from side effects of the Cefuroxime, which has caused him to act in an unstable manner.
  • As mentioned by the passenger in the cab, Mittank may have been suffering from mydriasis, which may have been caused by the injuries he received in the altercation at the hotel on the 6th of June. As well as the ruptured eardrum, Mittank also received a jaw injury.
  • Mittank mentioned to his mother that he believed that he was being followed by a group of men. Could they have been the same group that he had the altercation with? Could they have followed Mittank to the airport, and were waiting for him, which caused Mittank to flee hurriedly?

    Only Lars Mittank knows the answers to these questions, but as there has been no confirmed sightings of him for over 4 years since he disappeared, these questions will probably never be answered.

 

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The disappearance of David Eason

More than 600,000 tourists visit Queensland’s lavishly tropical Fraser Island each year. The world’s biggest sand island, covering 184,000 square kilometres adjacent to the coast, seldom seems crowded. With its sweeping beaches, towering dunes framing freshwater lakes, and horizons of coloured sand, the island is infused with the primal hush that stilled the lips of the earliest white settlers.

Named after Eliza Fraser, whose ship “Stirling Castle” foundered on the Great Barrier Reef in 1836, the island has long been characterized by poets and novelists as a place of mystery. Perhaps the greatest mystery of all was the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of an English tourist named David Eason. Police, who conducted massive and prolonged searches for the missing man, described the total absence of possessions, clothing or other clues as ‘bizarre’ and ‘beyond belief’.

Eason, aged 46, was an art director of a British advertising company specializing in pharmaceutical products. On the 29th of March 2001 he visited the island as part of a 4WD tour group. Around lunchtime, following several hours of sightseeing, the group’s leader announced that everyone should now head for Lake Wabby, two kilometres inland. From there they would proceed to Kingfisher Bay on the other side of the island, where they would board a tour bus at 3.00 pm and then leave the island.

MapFraserIsland
Map of Fraser Island – Lake Wabby is approximately halfway on the eastern side.

David Eason hadn’t yet experienced enough of the island. Fresh from a grey London winter, he was entranced by the wild crashing surf, endless stretches of dazzling beach, kauri pines and gigantic ferns, and the sting of the tropical sun. He told his companions that he would sunbathe for 30 minutes and before following them on foot to Lake Wabby.

When police individually interviewed the other members of the party the next day, they all shared the same recollection. As they departed, Eason, who was wearing a green singlet, shorts and sandals, had laid back smiling, against a dune and placed a cigarette in his mouth. He seemed relaxed and carefree. Beside him on the sand lay a leather bag containing his expensive camera gear. The time was approximately 1.00 pm.

The tour group waited an extra 30 minutes at Lake Wabby, but with no sign of Eason, they decided to continue to Kingfisher Bay to meet the tour bus. At 6.00 pm, when there was still no sign of him, the tour’s organisers alerted police and park rangers. That night, police officers and volunteers search the island, using spotlights and torches. The next day helicopters and lights places scanned the island from the air – the first of many searches over the following days and weeks.

Particularly puzzling were the results (or lask of them) obtained by 80 State Emergency Service workers who picked painstakingly over an area of two square kilometres surrounding the spot where Eason was last seen. They found nothing: no tracks, no scraps of clothing, no cigarette butts and no leather bag – Eason had vanished off the face of Fraser Island.

Police printed flyers and posters, asking for information from the crowds who had been on the island during the Easter holiday break. No-one could help. The missing man’s sister, Janice Eames and her husband Harvey flew to Queensland from England. They told reporters that they were ‘dumbfounded’ by David’s disappearance- and dismissed suggestions that he might have drowned or committed suicide as ‘just not on’.

EasonPressClipping

According to his sister, David was financially secure and was in a stable and happy relationship with his girlfriend Jo. There was absolutely no reason why he would have harmed himself – and if he had done so on the island, there would have been evidence left behind. Detective Sergeant Bruce Hodges of the Queensland Police force summed up the bafflement of his colleagues. ‘People have gone missing – but usually there is some sort of trace’, he said.

One months after Eason’s disappearance, a nine year old boy, Clinton Cage, was mauled to death by dingoes on the island. Could David Eason have suffered a similar fate? According to police, it was extremely unlikely. Dingoes would have left traces: body parts, bloodied clothing, and they would have not eaten either the leather bag or the camera in it.

After debating and exhausting a broad range of explanations, David Eason’s family was left with only one theory – that he had been murdered. Why, by whom and for what reason they could not begin to imagine. They asked police to treat the case as a homicide enquiry. But with no body, no belongings, no tracks no idea of Eason’s movements, police admitted it would be almost impossible to find the murderer.

For two years there was no new information or leads until the 14th of April 2003, when English tourist Arwen Heaton discovered near Lake Wabby human bones and personal property that was identified as belonging to David Eason.  The scattered bones and personal property were found along the sides and at the bottom of a steep slope.

A coronial inquest was held, with the State Coroner rejecting the theories of homicide (personal belongings were found with the bones) and suicide (stable financial situation and personal relationship). The most plausible theory advanced by the coroner was that Eason was returning to the rendezvous with the tour group when an event occurred which caused him to stumble down the slope, where he died. The Coroner’s best theory was that Eason suffered a fatal heart attack when walking back to the rendezvous, although the possibility that he was suffered a snake bite or other paralysing injury could not be discounted. The Coroner also made recommendations regarding future searches for missing persons, as well as better signage for the walking tracks around Lake Wabby.

While this sounds logical and reasonable, I am still intrigued as to why Eason’s body wasn’t found immediately after his disappearance, especially if the SES volunteers had gone over that area with a fine-tooth comb.

The basis for this blog post was John Pinkney’s book “Great Australian Mysteries” (Five Mile Press, Melbourne, 2003, p. 232-235), along with the exhaustive and thorough inquest of the Queensland State Coroner.

The strange disappearance of Private Gerry Irwin

I have always had an interest in UFO’s or Unidentified Flying Objects, and have read reports of some of the more famous sightings, as well as the claims that humans have been abducted by the beings on these craft before being returned to Earth. Unfortunately, despite all of the thousands of reported sightings and details of abduction encounters, physical evidence has always been lacking. Also, many of these encounters seem to take place in country locations in the middle of the night – if the aliens are so keen to make contact with us, why don’t they land one of their craft in the centre of a busy city in the middle of the day in front of multiple witnesses? Also, with the explosion of mobile phones and other personal recording devices, the amount of new, well-focused footage of possible sightings hasn’t exploded.

Despite my skepticism, I still like to read about such cases. One of the more unusual ones that I have just come across was the experience of US Army Private First Class Gerry Irwin on a winter’s night in Utah in the late 1950’s.

Gerry Irwin was a Nike missile technician at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. On February 28, 1959, he was driving back from Nampa, Idaho, where he had been on leave. At Cedar City, Utah, he turned southeast on to Route 14. About six miles from the turnoff, he spotted a glowing object that seemed to come to earth in a field just off the road. Thinking he had seen an airplane crash, or at least a forced landing, he stopped to see if he could give assistance. He wrote a note and placed it on the steering wheel of his car:

“Have gone to investigate possible plane crash. Please call law enforcement officers.”

Then, he wrote STOP in large letters on the side of his car.

About thirty minutes later, a fish and game inspector happened to being driving past, and stopped at Irwin’s car. He saw the note, and took it to the Cedar City Sheriff’s Office, where Sheriff Otto Pfief gathered a party of volunteers and returned to the site. When they searched, they found no trace of a plane crash, but they found Private Gerry Irwin unconscious in a field by the side of the road. . Ninety minutes had passed since he had first seen the glowing object.

Irwin was taken to the hospital in Cedar City, where a Dr. Broadbent could find nothing physically wrong with him. Irwin was merely asleep, and could not be awakened Dr. Broadbent could find no explanation for this, so his diagnosis was “hysteria”, meaning that his condition could not be attributed to any organic disease.

When Private Irwin eventually awoke, he felt perfectly well, but he was mystified by the glowing object he had seen. He was also confused by the fact that his jacket was missing. The sheriff’s search party stated that he was not wearing it when they found him.

Irwin was flown back to Fort Bliss and placed under observation at William Beaumont Army Hospital for several days, after which he was released as fit to return to duty.

The episode was not over yet, though. Some days later, Irwin fainted on base, and a few days after that he fainted while in the city of El Paso. He was taken to Southwest General Hospital where he was found once again to be asleep and unwakeable. About twenty four hours later, he awoke asking, “Were there any survivors?” He behaved as if he had lost all memory of the period between seeing the object on February 28th in Utah, and waking up on March 16th in El Paso.

Once again, he was taken to William Beaumont Army Hospital, where he was placed under observation by psychiatrists. After one month, extensive testing could find nothing wrong with him, so he was released on April 17. The next day, Irwin was seized by a powerful impulse that made him take a bus from El Paso to Cedar City, arriving on April 19. He then walked back to the field in which the Sheriff’s party had found him. He found his jacket on a bush. There was a pencil stuck in one of its buttonholes with a piece of paper wound tightly around it. Irwin burned the paper and then seemed to come out of some kind of trance. He could not recall the path back to the road or why he had come there. He made his way back to Cedar City and turned himself in to Sheriff Otto Pfief, who told Irwin about his first encounter on the 28th of February. Once again Irwin returned to Fort Bliss and was given psychological examinations. On July 10, he again entered William Beaumont Army Hospital. He was discharged again, but on August 1 he failed to report for duty, and one month later he was listed as a deserter. After this Private Gerry Irwin disappears from the public view, and his current (if he is still alive) whereabouts are unknown.  This case poses some interesting questions:

  • Irwin had been on leave in Nampa. Had he suffered some traumatic event while on leave, which caused him to have a hallucination or some other experience?
  • Was Irwin visiting family in Nampa? Wherever they lived, have they ever been located and contacted to help explain Irwin’s behaviour?
  • The US Army doesn’t usually let “deserters” just walk away. Did they ever locate him, and find out what actually happened?
  • What did Irwin mean when he said “Are there any survivors?” when he was in hospital?

The following books were used for this blog post:

Kevin D Randle, “The UFO Dossier: 100 Years of Government Secrets, Conspiracies and Cover-Ups”,  Visible Ink Press, 2015, pp 134-141

Richard M Dolan, “UFOs and the National Security State: Chronology of a Coverup, 1941-1973”, Hampton Roads Publishing, 2002, pp-312-313

Damon Wilson, “The World’s Greatest Unsolved Mysteries”, Barnes and Noble Publishing, 2004. pp. 34-36

Kelly D Bell, “A New Look at UFOs”, iUniverse Publishing, 2007, pp 63-64

 

The disappearance of Andrew Carnegie Whitfield

One of the more interesting examples of a person disappearing while in an aircraft is the case of Andrew Carnegie Whitfield over New York city in April 1938.

Whitfield was the nephew of the famous steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and had graduated from Princeton University. He was working as a businessman, and had recently married Elizabeth Halsey.

1938-photo-andrew-carnegie-whitfield-society-clubman-bridegroom-missing-ny-rare-5619981dd6e70f8d547a3435664f1918
Andrew Carnegie Whitfield, who disappeared in the sky above New York City in 1938.

 

Whitfield was a keen pilot, and had logged over 200 hours of flying in his Taylor Cub monoplane. On the 17th of April, Whitfield departed in his small plane from Roosevelt Field on Long Island. He planned to land at an airfield at Brentwood, approximately 22 miles away. The weather was perfect for flying, and Whitfield’s plane had more than enough fuel for a flight that should have taken approximately fifteen minutes. Whitfield never arrived as scheduled and has never been heard from again. An extensive search for him and his plane produced no evidence as to his whereabouts. There were unconfirmed sightings of Whitfield after his disappearance. The most bizarre was in August 1939, at Council Bluffs, Iowa. Railway police said that an unkempt Whitfield, still wearing his flying suit, was seen in a freight car on the outskirts of town. Whitfield saw the police, grinned and held out a bundle of money, before the train disappeared down the tracks.

 

rooseveltfield_1933
Roosevelt Field, Long Island – the starting point of Andrew Whitfield’s final flight.

 

After Andrew had disappeared, it was discovered that he checked into a hotel in Garden City on Long Island under the alias Albert C. White on the day he vanished. He paid $4 in advance for the room and never checked out. His personal belongings, including his passport; clothing; cuff links engraved with his initials; two $6000 life insurance policies in his name listing his wife, Elizabeth Halsey Whitfield, as the beneficiary; and several stocks and bonds made out in Andrew’s and Elizabeth’s names; were left behind in the hotel room. Phone records also indicated that he called his home while his family was out looking for him, and a telephone operator says she heard him say over the phone, “Well, I am going to carry out my plan.”

Based on this alleged comment, police and other investigators believed that instead of travelling to Brentwood, Whitfield had turned the Cub over the Atlantic Ocean, and committed suicide by crashing the plane into the water. However, despite an extensive search, no wreckage was ever found. There was also no evidence that at the time of Whitfield’s disappearance that he was having any personal or business problems, which may have lead him to consider taking his own life. Whitfield was planning on moving to Pennsylvania with his new bride later in the year.

I think that based on the evidence found in the hotel room and the comment overhead by the telephone operator, that Whitfield had decided to take his own life. With the amount of fuel that the plane had, I think that Whitfield would have flown west until he was in a mountainous and inaccessible area, and then crashed the plane. There are several examples of planes which disappeared in remote and uninhabited parts of the United States – is Whitfield’s plane one of those?

The source for this blog post was Jay Robert Nash’s book “Among The Missing: An Anecdotal History of Missing Persons from 1800 to the Present”, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Maryland, USA, 1978, pp. 333-334.

 

 

The mysterious disappearance of the Bermagui Five

Late on the afternoon of Sunday, the 10th of October 1880, farm worker William Johnston was riding his horse at Mutton Fish Point, near the coastal New South Wales town of Bermagui, 100 kilometres south of Sydney, when he noticed something ‘shining’ on the rocks. He dismounted, tied his horse to a tree and walked closer, discovering that the ‘shining’ object was a fishing boat, painted green with its mast and sail lashed.

Mystery Bay
Mystery Bay, near Bermagui, where the abandoned boat was found in October 1880.

In his subsequent statutory declaration Johnston wrote:

I went over to the boat and judged from her position that she had been wrecked. I did not touch or in any way interfere with anything…..I returned to my horse and only noticed my own tracks going out to the boat. I mounted my horse and rode away. After going about 100 yards [90 metres] it struck me to look at my watch, saying to myself, ‘as this is likely to have been a drowning match they will want to know the time I found the boat’. I saw that it was about 4.20 pm.

Johnston galloped to a nearby property owned by dairy farmer Albert Read. Both men returned to the boat and inspected it more closely. It was obvious to them that the vessel had been deliberately damaged. Someone had dumped a pile of boulders, along with pillows, blankets and piles of clothing into the stern. Read reached down and retrieved a book. It was a geology text, and written in copperplate on the flyleaf was the name ‘Lamont Young’.

 

Tall, bearded Lamont Henry Young was a 29 year old geological surveyor with the NSW Department of Mines. He was highly thought of by his colleagues, both for his considerable expertise and his modest demeanour. In October 1880 Lamont’s superiors instructed him to survey the newly-discovered goldfields north of Bermagui with a field assistant named Maximilan Schneider, who had recently arrived from Germany. Young and Schneider reached the goldfields on the 8th of October, and after pitching their tent, introduced themselves to Senior Constable John Berry, officer in charge of the police camp at the diggings. The three men lunched together, and then Schneider excused himself, saying that he was returning to the tent. He was never seen again.

Young spent the rest of the day examining the goldfields, and accepted an invitation from Berry to go fishing the next day. Young started the long walk back to his camp. Peter Egstrom, owner of a sly grog store, noticed Young near the local lagoon, walking towards Bermagui Heads. He a miner named Henderson spotted him again, shortly afterwards – the last time anyone was known to have seen Young, alive or dead.

On the morning of the 11th of October, Berry and Read, accompanied by goldfields warden Henry Keightley, examined the abandoned fishing boat. A second book signed by Young was found among the garbage. Why had Young been aboard the vessel? Who were his companions? And more to the point, where were all of them now?

Keightley noticed that someone had vomited copiously in the stern. Feeling sick, he ordered Berry to continue the examination of the boat. Berry produced a minutely detailed inventory of the boat’s contents, which included a pocket compass, several sacks of potatoes and pipe and coat belonging to Schneider, the other missing man.

Police determined that the boat belonged to a Thomas Towers, who two days earlier had set sail from his home at Bateman’s Bay, approximately 100 kilometres up the coast. He and his companions William Lloyd and Daniel Casey had intended to fish off Bermagui, and sell their catch, along with the sacks of potatoes to the goldminers.

In a report to his superiors, Keightley stated that there was nothing to suggest that anything of a unusual nature had taken place on board. There were no blood marks nor any sign of a struggle. A bullet had been found in the boat, but it had been used as a sinker for a fishing line. Senior Constable Berry was unable to continue the investigation, as he fell ill with a fever and vomiting. When he returned to duty nine days later he was told that the remains of a campfire and meal had been found close to the wrecked boat.

Keightley offered a reward of 10 pounds for the recovery of Young’s body, while the Metropolitan Police in London offered a 300 pound reward for information relating Young, Schneider and the boatmen Casey, Towers and Lloyd. Police, Mines Department staff and volunteers conducted an extensive land and see search for the five missing men – but found nothing.

Reward 2
The 300 pound reward notice issued by the Metropolitan Police of London.

A journalist writing in the Sydney Morning Herald described the whole affair as ‘a puzzle enshrouded in an enigma’ – adding,

‘I cannot conceive of any motive to account for the horrible suspicion that they were murdered …. But how could the murders (assuming they existed) have known where the men were to land – unless they were murdered by the first party they met? …. The idea is so dreadful and the motive so unintelligible that I cannot yet entertain it.”

Young’s father Major General CB Young wrote to the NSW Under-Secretary of Mines on the 31st of December:

‘The universal conclusion of all parties in this country is that the five men could not have drowned or been murdered without leaving some trace behind. I earnestly beg of you, my dear sir …. to take up this line, to see what the Governments, Imperial and local, have done in this direction, to look for the bodies.”

 

Young also raised suspicions about Schneider, his son’s assistant:

What sort of person and of what character was Mr Schneider? Where does he come from in Germany and to whom was he known in England?”

With the official searches and investigations appearing to have run into a brick wall, members of the public weighed in with their own investigations, searches and theories as to how the five men had disappeared. One man, William Tait, visited police headquarters and claimed that Lamont Young had spoken to him on the 13th of November, more than a month after the disappearance. Tait, a self-styled spiritualist, claimed that Young had appeared to him as a ghost, and revealed that he and his companions were murdered by three men who asked them for matches to light their pipes. After beating the five victims to death with oars, the killers buried the bodies in a deep hole near a black stump, about 50 metres above the high water mark, covering the makeshift grave with boulders. Police mounted a search, but found no black stump nor a cairn of boulders.

More promising to detectives was a small blue bottle, filled with a mysterious liquid, recovered from a saddlebag in the boat. There was speculation that the liquid may have been an exotic poison, but tests shows that it was the balm, oil of copaiva.

On the 11th of March 1885 the Melbourne Argus reported that Young’s bloodstained coat, ridden with bullet holes, had been found near Bermagui. Unfortunately for the Argus, the ‘report’ was a practical joke, and the paper was forced to make an embarrassing retraction.

On the 22nd of August 1888 the Bega Gazette announced that it had uncovered vital new evidence:

Though the police authorities have kept the matter a secret, it has transpired that during the past two months the police have had under surveillance a person suspected of complicity in the Bermagui murder, but that he has escaped their clutches. It appears that some time ago a man who is said to have lived with a woman near the scene of the alleged murder, came to Sydney and married a barmaid employed in one of the leading hotels. Shortly after their marriage, he gave way to drink and on several occasions uttered remarks which led his wife to believe he was concerned in the murder of Lamont Young and his companions. The detective police got wind of the affair and kept the suspect person under surveillance for several days. All at once, however he disappeared …. The barmaid has since returned to her situation in the hotel from which she was married and expresses herself as willing to aid the authorities in bringing the supposed murderer to the police.

Bega police checked with their colleagues in Sydney. There was no barmaid, nor a drunken husband who had confessed to the murder – just the writings of an imaginative journalist.

To this day, there is still no definitive proof of what happened to the five men, not has there been a credible explanation found for the abandoned boat and its contents. The inlet where the boat was found was renamed Mystery Bay. A park and road is named after Lamont Young, while a monument was erected in 1980 to commemorate what is still one of the most mysterious and unexplained disappearances in Australian history.

Mystery-Bay-Sapphire-Coast-Commemorative-Plaque
The memorial plaque erected in 1980, the 100th anniversary of the disappearance.

The source for this blog post is “The Five Missing Men of Bermagui”, by John Pinkney, from his book “Unsolved – Unexplained – Unknown: Great Australian Mysteries”, Five Mile Press, Rowville Vic, 2004, pp. 269-281.

 

The premonition in the bathtub

Claude Sawyer saw something in his bath that made him think his nightmare could come true. He’d had this bad dream that the ship he was on, the Waratah, the pride of the Blue Anchor Line fleet, had foundered and sunk in heavy seas. When the ship rolled, the bathwater slid to a steep 45 degree angle and stayed that way for an unnerving time before sliding back to horizontal. Sawyer didn’t like the way the Waratah pitched in high seas, either, sometimes ploughing through waves instead of riding over them. Sawyer had such strong misgivings, he thought it was time to leave the ship at the next port.

Claude Sawyer was the only one of the Waratah’s 212 passengers and crew who had a premonition that the ship was doomed. All but he were lost when the ship disappeared at sea. Nothing was ever found of them or the Waratah. Not a single piece of wreckage or flotsam was ever found. And not a single cause was ever satisfactorily advanced as to why she vanished.

Claude Sawyer
Claude Sawyer – did he forecast the loss of the Waratah, or was it just an eerie coincidence?

 

She was the pride of the Blue Anchor Line, a passenger-cargo liner built by a renowned firm of shipwrights and launched at the famous Clyde shipyards in Scotland in 1909. The Waratah could cruise more than 300 knots a day, had seven watertight compartments and 16 lifeboats. Her appointments were luxurious, the most expensive and lavish ever built for a Blue Anchor Line ship. Her maiden voyage from London to Sydney and back was a triumph. On her second voyage she left Adelaide with 10,000 tons of cargo, a crew of 199 and 93 passengers, almost all of them Australians from Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

Crossing the Indian Ocean, the Waratah ran into strong winds and the way she handled them caused Claude Sawyer to have his premonitory dream. On the 25th of July, Clan McIntyre when she reached South Africa, he disembarked at Durban and and sent Mrs Sawyer a telegram:
“LANDED AT DURBAN. THOUGHT WARATAH TOP HEAVY.”

The next day the Waratah headed for Cape Town, 790 nautical miles south. The following day, in heavy seas, she passed a tramp steamer, the Clan McIntyre, and they exchanged signals, identifying themselves. In the afternoon she made signal contact with the Union Castle steamer Guelph, and that was the last that was ever seen of the Waratah. Twelve days later, when she failed to arrive at Cape Town, there was no concern: heavy seas, in a day or two she’d be in. After a day or two they thought that perhaps her two sets of coal-burning engines had broken down, and three warships went in search of her. They came back reporting no sign of the ship.

In Australia the families of the passengers were praying when the news came through from South Africa. The vessel sighted a considerable distance out slowly making for Durban could be the Waratah. The news thrilled the nation. In Melbourne, the seat of the Federal parliament, the Speaker of the House was handed the cable, stopped debate and read it as members of the House sprang to their feet cheering. In theatres performances were stopped while the joyous news was announced. The sighting was wrong – the ship was not the Waratah.

SSWaratah
SS Waratah – disappeared without trace off the South African coast in mid-1909.

In the next three years numerous reports of sightings of the Waratah, its remains, or the bodies of its passengers, were investigated and found false. Search vessels were charted, criss-crossing the ocean for any trace of the liner. All of them were fruitless. In December 1909 a court of inquiry began a 14-month investigation that looked into the possibilities that she had been powerless and had drifted to her doom in the Antarctic; that she had been wrecked on reefs; that she had been hit by a gigantic wave that swallowed her and sucked her down into the darkness of the ocean floor. No definitive conclusion was ever reached. Claude Swayer testified at the court of inquiry – the behaviour of the water in his bathtub may have been a major clue as to why the Waratah disappeared without a trace.

The source for this blog post was “The bathtub revelation of Claude Sawyer”, in Paul Taylor’s book “Australian Ripping Yarns II”, Five Mile Press Publishing, Rowville, Victoria, 2005: ISBN 1741248620

 

 

The mysterious disappearance of the Patanela

One of the more recent and more mysterious disappearances at sea concerns the schooner Panatela, which disappeared just off the coast of Sydney on the 8th of November, 1988.

The voyage into oblivion began on the other side of the country, on the 16th of October 1988. The elegant steel-hulled Panatela, 20 metres long and lavishly equipped, set out from Fremantle’s harbour for Airlie Beach in Queensland. On board were the schooner’s owner, wealthy businessman Alan Nicol, his skipper, the commercial pilot and Admiral’s Cup sailor Ken Jones, Mrs Noreen Jones, daughter Ronnalee, and two young sailors, John Blissett and Michael Calvin.

The latter pair had so admired the magnificent boat moored in the harbour that they approached Nicol to ask if they could work aboard her. Nicol hired them as crew for the voyage to the Whitsunday Islands. Now they were enjoying themselves and accumulating a generous block of sailing time that would count towards their navigation certificates.

The Panatela was fitted with more than enough safety devices – radar, satellite navigation, watertight components, lifeboats and an electronic radio beacon that would signal the Panatela’s position for 48 hours in case of an emergency.

patanela

The first leg of the journey ended at Esperance, where Alan Nicol disembarked, as he had business committments back in Perth. Ronnalee left the yacht at Port Eyre, South Australia, also due to work commitments. Panatela continued eastwards, regularly radioing her position along the way.

At 12.57 am on the 8th of November, Keith McLennan, a radio operator with the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC), received the first of what would be three radio messages from the Panatela. In a voice which seemed relaxed and calm, Ken Jones gave the schooner’s callsign (Victor Mike Papa Tango), and reported their position was 10 nautical miles east of Botany Bay. He then said:

“I believe we’ve run  out of fuel…we’ve hoisted our sails and were tacking out to the east, tracking about zero-eight-zero…our intention is to tack out for a couple of hours, then tack back in. We may need some assistance in the morning to get back into Sydney Harbour.”

The night was overcast, with a light north-east wind and a moderate swell which the schooner would easily have been able to ride. McLennan subsequently testified that Patanela’s seemingly routine message set off no alarm bells. It was quite common for vessels to run out of fuel – and in calm weather like this, there appeared to be nothing to worry about. The schooner would have been within sight of the lights of Botany Bay.

Ken Jones made his second call at 1.58 am. This time he asked for a weather report, explaining that with the wind abating he didn’t want to be caught too far out before sailing into harbour. He then requested directions to the coastal town of Moruya. This was puzzling, as Moruya is located on the south coast of New South Wales, which was a few hours sailing time away from where the Panatela was. McLennan told Jones that there was a strong wind in the area, and recalled that there again appeared to be no sign of distress in Jones’ voice.

Just after 2.00 am, OTC picked up a third call from Jones. The skipper’s voice faded and crackled. He could just be heard saying “Three hundred kilometres south? Is it? South…”  His words were then drowned out in static. No further messages would be received from the Panatela.

When Keith McLennan ended his shift at 3.40 am, he mentioned the three calls to his relief operator. No-one at this stage was concerned, as it was not unknown for skippers to radio that they would be entering Sydney heads, only to change their minds and sail elsewhere – without advising the shore radio operators. No-one expected that Jones would need to contact the Sydney OTC station again.

Alan Nicol, the schooner’s owner, believed that Jones had made a late decision to bypass Sydney and travel up the NSW coast to Airlie Beach. However, as the days passed, Nicol, along with relatives and friends of the four people aboard, began to worry. Of particular concern was Jones’ son Peter, who had been unable to contact his father via ship-to-shore radio.

By the 18th of November, the day on which the Patanela should have reached Airlie Beach, a full alert was sounded. The families wanted the Federal Sea Safety and Surveillance Unit to mount a major search for the schooner, but it was too late. After 10 days the Panatela could have been anywhere. At least 100 aircraft would have been needed to scour 200,000 kilometres of coastline and ocean, and even then, the rescuers could have not exactly known where the schooner was. The Panatela could have sailed straight out sea, headed for another country, assuming that the schooner had not sunk.

If the Panatela has sunk off Botany Bay, it would have been impossible to find the wreckage, as the water 10 miles of the coast is 140 metres deep – way to deep for divers or a ship with tracking equipment to find anything.

The parents of the two young crewman, Blissett and Calvin, talked to the media, and two disturbing facts emerged.

On the afternoon of the 5th of November, Michael Calvin called his father, who lived in Taree, on the NSW mid-north coast. He uttered two words “G’day Dad”, before the line went dead.

In a remarkable coincidence Calvin had been employed as a set rigger on the Australian movie Dead Calm, which starred Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman. The film tells the story of a couple holidaying aboard a yacht in the Whitsunday Islands, who are terrorized by a crazed stranger. Some scenes of the movie were shot at Airlie Beach – the destination of the Patanella.

Peter Jones believed that something sinister had happened to his parents, and that his father was making the radio calls under duress:

“It’s certainly my father’s voice on the tape. But it doesn’t seem to be his words. I don’t think he’d ever say he ‘believed’ that he had run out of fuel. He’s too experienced to be so vague. I think his radio calls were veiled calls for help.”

Both Peter Jones and Alan Nicol believe that the Patanela was not short of fuel – the fuel tanks were filled to capacity at the start of the voyage, while additional diesel had been added at stops along the way.

A search was done in the area from where Ken Jones said he was calling from, but no debris were found. Authorities checked all 48 vessels that were in the area in the early hours of the 8th of November, and could find no damage on any them, which suggests that the Patanela did not collide with another vessel. Even if the schooner did have a collision, the watertight components would have made it very difficult for the Patanela to sink if her hull had been holed. A previous collision in 1958 with a submerged rock off the Tasmanian coast had ripped a 1.5 metre long hole in the hull, but the schooner was able to travel 200 kilometres to a port for repairs.

Police were skeptical about those three final messages. They speculated that the schooner may have been hundreds of kilometres away from Botany bay when they were transmitted, and that the messages were a ruse, designed to confuse rescuers while the schooner’s hijackers made their escape.

The first solid evidence of the possible fate of the Patanela came on the 9th of May, 1989. A fisherman at Terrigal, on the NSW Central Coast, just north of Sydney, hauled in a barnacle-encrusted lifebuoy. Seeing that there were words printed on the buoy, he scraped away some of the barnacles, which revealed “Patanela, Fremantle”.

Despite having some key evidence removed when the fisherman scraped away the barnacles, the buoy was examined by a marine biologist, who determined that the buoy could not have been in the ocean for more than four weeks. Based on this analysis, it seems that the schooner was afloat six months after her “final” radio message.

Hundreds of sightings of yachts that looked similar to the Patanela were reported from all over the world – Australia, South America and South-East Asia. Some of the theories regarding the Panatela’s fate included:

  • A Russian submarine on a spying mission collided with the Patanela, before fleeing the scene
  • Arms dealers, smugglers or drug dealers had seized control of the the schooner and killed all aboard. They had then refitted and renamed the vessel, and used it for their illegal activities far away from Australia.
  • The schooner had hit an uncharted reef or half-submerged container which had fallen from a freighter. It had then sunk, killing all on board.

The inquest at the Glebe Coroner’s Court in Sydney lasted for four days. As there was insufficient evidence to suggest that the yacht had been hijacked, a finding of accidental sinking was declared by the NSW Deputy Coroner, Derrick Hand.

There is an interesting postscript to the disappearance twenty years later.  On New Years Eve 2007, Sheryl Waideman, husband Gary and brother Doug had driven to a remote beach near Eucla at the West Australian-South Australian border for a swim.

Ms Waideman was taken aback when she found a rum bottle half-buried, upside down in the sand, with a note inside. It was only after returning home to Esperance, nine hours by car, that the trio carefully removed the note.

The crewmen's message.
The crewmen’s message.

The note read: “Hi there. Out here in the lonely Southern Ocean and thought we would give away a free holiday in the Whitsunday Islands in north Queensland, Australia. Our ship is travelling from Fremantle, Western Aust, to Queensland to work as a charter vessel.”  It was written by John Blissett, one of the crew members of the Panatela, and thrown overboard, a week before he, his fellow crew members and the schooner mysteriously disappeared.

The following sources were used for the creation of this blog entry:

John Pinkney, “Great Australian Mysteries”, Five Mile Press, Rowville, VIC, 2004

http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/rare-find-on-a-remote-beach-sheds-light-on-mystery-of-yacht-vanished-at-sea/2008/02/08/1202234169456.html