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Could a World War II Shipwreck Cause the Next Beirut-Like Explosion?

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"An American cargo ship that accidentally sank off the coast of London during World War II could cause a major explosion rivaling that of the devastating blast in Beirut earlier this week.

In August 1944, the SS Richard Montgomery, a ship ferrying supplies back and forth to Europe after the D-Day invasion, sank at the mouth of the Thames River on the sea approach to London. Authorities are prepared to cut the ship’s mast to make the ship safer, but even that might cause the ship to explode—with devastating consequences.

The Richard Montgomery was one of 2,711 so-called “Liberty Ships” constructed in American shipyards during World War II. Simple to build and capable of carrying more than 10,000 tons of cargo, Liberty Ships became the backbone of the supply war against the Axis powers during World War II, supplying Soviet, British, and American forces around the world.

Before she sank, the Richard Montgomery was awaiting a convoy heading to France and had taken up position at the mouth of the Thames River. She was loaded with 6,000 tons of supplies and munitions waiting for the U.S. Army in France when she suddenly ran aground. Stevedores managed to get 4,500 tons of equipment off the ship before she snapped in two and sank, but another 1,500 tons remained.

The ship has sat virtually untouched for the last 76 years. Although it's considered stable, authorities warn that attempts to interfere with it could cause it to explode. The remaining 1,500 tons of munitions could cause an explosion even bigger than the one in Beirut.

While the Richard Montgomery is more than a mile from shore, Forbes warns an explosion would cause a mini-tsunami between 4 and 16 feet high, shatter windows for miles, and have a devastating effect on passing ships.

Authorities in the past have said the wreck is relatively stable, but a recent survey points to a new danger. They now believe the ship’s mast, sticking out from above the water line, is straining the wreck and could cause it to explode. Plus, attempts to shorten the mast to relieve some of the strain could cause the ship to explode." - https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/navy-ships/a33536611/richard-montgomery-shipwreck-potential-explosion/

general-view-of-the-wreck-of-the-ss-rich

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What scares me to be honest is a scenario with Richard Montgomery blowing up while something like a tanker or  ship with dangerous cargo passes. The environmental damage on an already polluted river could be devastating.

Also, if not wrong, there are some fragmentation bombs and cluster munitions that are especially dangerous. 

 

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So then is this lesson learned? "Don't let munition supply ships lay round for 75 years. They could go boom."

Glad it's not my watch on harbor patrol. GL Englanders.

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Unfortunately there are probably a number of similar "time" bombs scattered across the globe, tho probably none near as potentially impactful as this one.  All the tankers sunk during the wars that are sitting on the bottom off the coast of the US, gradually rusting away ready to loose their oily cargo at some point, or other munitions ships that were sunk, or the abandoned tanker presently sitting off the coast of Yemen....

 

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It really depends on the munitions that were in the cargo.  Many WW 2 era explosives are chemically less than stable.  That is, they breakdown over time and lose their potency.  Others are prone to moisture degrading them.  Most are also relatively insensitive to things like shock since they have to be fired from a gun or cannon.

So, left undisturbed they are likely to degrade to impotence over time.

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"London"

As for whats in it still, apparently they did a survey of it: 

Quote

286 × 2,000 lb (910 kg) high explosive bombs

4,439 × 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs of various types

1,925 × 500 lb (230 kg) bombs

2,815 fragmentation bombs and bomb clusters

Various explosive booster charges

Various smoke bombs, including white phosphorus bombs

Various pyrotechnic signals

As for why it wasn't dealt with sooner, it seems to have been a combination of cost, and the fate of a similar sort of ship, which detonated, and still hit 4.5 on the richter scale, all whilst having less explosive on board and in deeper water. 

 

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On 8/7/2020 at 2:19 PM, warheart1992 said:

What scares me to be honest is a scenario with Richard Montgomery blowing up while something like a tanker or  ship with dangerous cargo passes. The environmental damage on an already polluted river could be devastating.

Also, if not wrong, there are some fragmentation bombs and cluster munitions that are especially dangerous. 

Well, she's the wrong era for cluster munitions, so that's not an issue.

As far as the danger the bombs pose, it's hard to say, WWII fragmentation and general purpose bombs have thinner cases than modern general purpose bombs, and more explosive filler. Once the cases rust through, saltwater will aid in breaking down the explosives. Also, in WWII, much like today, bombs were not stored or transported with fuses. and the fuse wells are plugged, If water pressure has forced salt water past the plastic caps that are meant to keep rain water out, it will also hasten the bombs demise.

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The worst part is that if the Montgomery were to explode, due to its location in a narrow and heavily populated stretch of water, the damage would be even more catastrophic. The explosion in Beirut was at least partially mitigated by the fact that the Mediterranean was on one side, whereas the Halifax Explosion, the largest man-made explosion until the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and the closest historical comparison to what happened in Beirut, happened in the narrows of Halifax Harbour. Because there were buildings on all sides of the Mont-Blanc when she detonated, 2,000 people died and a further 9,000 were injured. I don't know how many people live at the mouth of the Thames, but I can only imagine that the death toll would be severe if/when the Montgomery finally blows.

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just to put things into perspective, she is ~1.75 miles off the nearest bit of coast, and the estuary is about 5.6 miles wide at that point, she is 22.8 miles as the crow fly's from the M25 motorway that circles London, 32.7 miles as the crow fly's to the Themes Barrier (flood defence +5m above normal daily hightide to cope with storm surge with spring tides), and 37.3 miles as the crow fly's to Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, and the eastern edge of The City of London (the small historic city within the much larger London), immediately to her east the estuary opens up into the southernmost part of the North Sea or the north easternmost part of the English Channel just beyond the straight of Dover and the headland at Margate.

 

If it were to fully explode it would be significantly less devastating than the explosion in Beirut, simply as it is much more removed from people and buildings.

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On 8/7/2020 at 3:55 PM, Murotsu said:

It really depends on the munitions that were in the cargo.  Many WW 2 era explosives are chemically less than stable.  That is, they breakdown over time and lose their potency.  Others are prone to moisture degrading them.  Most are also relatively insensitive to things like shock since they have to be fired from a gun or cannon.

So, left undisturbed they are likely to degrade to impotence over time.

^^

That is the issue though. Not all WW2 era explosives breakdown and lose potency. Some could actually become stronger.

USS Forrestal received a shipment of COMP-B bombs during the Vietnam war. They had been stored in less then ideal conditions post WW2 and were brought out to the carrier because they were literally running out of bombs to drop. They were rusting and in a few cases, leaking. Several people on Forrestal were worried a cat-launch might set the things off.

Now everyone recalls the fire that occurred on the Forrestal. It was these bombs that cooked off. The bombs exploded with greater force due to their aged condition.

 

What will happen to this ship is hard to say. If left alone, in all honestly nothing could happen. An out of control ship, one lost in fog, or even in the darkness could accidentally hit it and set it off. The ship itself could collapse under it's own structure and set off the bombs itself.

There have been several massive ship explosions in the past that could show what could happen.

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On 8/9/2020 at 10:41 AM, mr3awsome said:

"London"

As for whats in it still, apparently they did a survey of it: 

As for why it wasn't dealt with sooner, it seems to have been a combination of cost, and the fate of a similar sort of ship, which detonated, and still hit 4.5 on the richter scale, all whilst having less explosive on board and in deeper water. 

 

From the numbers given in this post above, a rough calculation gives somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 tons of actual explosives on the ship.  Using one of the nuclear blast calculators for a 2 kt blast you get:

 

Quote

 

Peak overpressure:20 psi
Distance from the explosion site: 0.3 Kilometers
Damage and injuries:Heavily built concrete buildings are severely damaged or demolished

Peak overpressure:10 psi
Distance from the explosion site: 0.4 Kilometers
Damage and injuries:Reinforced concrete buildings are severely damaged or demolished. Most people are killed.

Peak overpressure:5 psi
Distance from the explosion site: 0.6 Kilometers
Damage and injuries:Most buildings collapse. Injuries are universal, fatalities are widespread.

Peak overpressure:3 psi
Distance from the explosion site: 0.8 Kilometers
Damage and injuries: Residential structures collapse. Serious injuries are common, fatalities may occur.

Peak overpressure:1 psi
Distance from the explosion site: 1.8 Kilometers
Damage and injuries: Window glass shatters Light injuries from fragments occur.

 

 

https://nuclearweaponsedproj.mit.edu/nuclear-weapon-effects-simulations-and-models/nuclear-weapons-blast-effects-calculator

So, while it would certainly be a very big bang, it really wouldn't do much damage to nearby structures.  The resulting tsunami might be a bit dangerous to structures on the river banks for several miles causing some flooding, but on the whole it wouldn't be that devastating.

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On 8/12/2020 at 11:31 AM, Lord_Slayer said:

^^

That is the issue though. Not all WW2 era explosives breakdown and lose potency. Some could actually become stronger.

USS Forrestal received a shipment of COMP-B bombs during the Vietnam war. They had been stored in less then ideal conditions post WW2 and were brought out to the carrier because they were literally running out of bombs to drop. They were rusting and in a few cases, leaking. Several people on Forrestal were worried a cat-launch might set the things off.

Now everyone recalls the fire that occurred on the Forrestal. It was these bombs that cooked off. The bombs exploded with greater force due to their aged condition.

 

What will happen to this ship is hard to say. If left alone, in all honestly nothing could happen. An out of control ship, one lost in fog, or even in the darkness could accidentally hit it and set it off. The ship itself could collapse under it's own structure and set off the bombs itself.

There have been several massive ship explosions in the past that could show what could happen.

One note:  Those bombs could have any of several fillers including tritonal, TNT, Comp B, or amatol.  SAP and AP bombs usually got Comp D because of its resistance to shock.

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