By Steve Dudeney
The Motor Vessel Rudi M was an 800-ton Panamanian registered liquid gastanker, and in the winter of 1979/80 it came into Regents Canal Dock off of the River Thames in East London to undergo a re-fit.
On Jan. 17, 1980, fire crews from the Green Watch at Poplar Fire Station, whose ground covered the Regents Canal Dock, had been called to a fire on the ship caused by workers using hot cutting equipment. The fire was quickly tacked by the crews and work on the boat continued throughout January until the fateful morning of the 25th.
The Red watch at F22 Poplar reported for Duty at 1800 on Thursday, Jan. 24. Stn O Tony Westbrook was in charge with Sub O DennisHurley, Lfm John Bailey and Leading Fireman Steve Maynard as the officers that night.
The rest of the watch on duty that night were Fm Dave Andrew, Fm Mick Brophy, Fm John Burgess Fm Carl Chughtai, Fm Steve Debenham, Fm Bill Downey, Fm Keith Herbert, Fm Barry Holmes, Fm Brian Jeffries, Fm Keith Leggett, Fm Keith Stimpson and Fm Paul Wickenden.
Typically for Poplar at that time they had a very busy night with a number of calls in and around Poplar and the pump, with Stn O Westbrook in charge, had spent a large part of the night fighting a 25-pump fire at Chelsea Flour Mills in West London.
Friday dawned a clear day, at around 8.30am a number of the oncoming Green Watch had started to appear, having had a long night a few of the Watch had decided to take an exchange duty so a few members of the Green Watch were now riding for Red Watch personnel.
At 08:55 that morning a call was received at Stratford Fire Control from workers on the ship. There was a fire in the hold; once again contractors had accidentally set alight to insulating material in the tank.
The bells went down at Poplar ordering the pump escape and pump along with the pump from F25 Shadwell to the fire. Upon the arrival of the crews, a fire was seen to be in progress in the hold of the ship and a 4-man BA crew consisting of Lfm Steve Maynard and Fm Steve Debenham from the Red Watch with Sub O George Thomas & Fm Gary Jones from the Green Watch were committed to the hold in BA with a firefighting jet.
The hold was very hot and smoky with visibility at zero. Steve Debenham withdrew to the jetty to get a pair of gloves but was ordered by Stn O Westbrook to go back down and get the crew to withdraw. Steve returned to the hold and passed on Stn O Westbrook's' order, Sub O Thomas and Fm Jones left first followed by Steve Debenham and Steve Maynard.
Upon reaching the top of the ladder Steve Debenham noticed Steve Maynard was not behind him.
He went back down the ladder and all of a sudden the hold of the ship erupted into flame and smoke. Steve Debenham was badly burned and Steve Maynard did not manage to escape, he tragically lost his life.
[Terry Dietman, a worker at the dock, told the East London Advertiser newspaper that day: “There was a sudden gush of smoke from the hold. It was awful. Everyone was so helpless.”]
The LFB lost a good officer and his family and colleagues mourned his untimely death at the age of 26.
Thirty years on from that day, Limehouse Basin is now almost unrecognisable. Members of Steve's family, retired members who attended the fire, local senior officers and principal LFB officers lined up at the side of the dock as a new plaque to commemorate the anniversary of Steve's death was unveiled by London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson.
'NICE AND DECENT BLOKE'
Recalling the fire 30 years later, Steve Debenham said in an interview with The Docklands 24 web site:
"It's so important to remember people like Stephen and to let his family know we've never forgotten about him
"He was the one who told me to go up the ladder on that morning and then there was the explosion. That shows the courage of the man. He was a thoroughly nice and decent bloke and had a great sense of humour.
"It was devastating for everyone and I still think about it all the time - it's very distressing to lose a friend and colleague."