If ever a fireman bore a charmed life it is Fireman William Clark, of the ill-fated liner Empress of Ireland.
An insatiable thirst for adventure has carried him all over the world. He has heard the thunder of big guns on the warships of Britain's fleet; he has been wounded by sniping Boers on the blood-stained veldt of South Africa; he has been given up for lost when suffering agonies on a sick bed in a military hospital; has been carried to almost certain death in the mighty Titanic; hurled from the torn deck of the Empress of Ireland when she plunged to her doom in the dark waters of the St Lawrence - and, fit and well in spite of it all, he still survives to tell the tale.
FLIRTING WITH DEATH
Ever since he came to man's estate, William Clark, the quiet, unassuming fireman of the lost Empress, has flirted with death. Not once in generations is it given to a man to face peril after peril in this way and come practically unscathed through it all. Yet, if you ask William Clark whether he has not tired of adventure and intends to settle down to a quiet life, he will answer you quietly: "I shall go down to the sea again when I am ready and as soon as I can get another ship!"
I found Clark at his home in Bootle yesterday. Let me describe him to you.
In appearance he is a typical Irishman, with the soft dark hair and big blue eyes which have earned for the lassies of his race a reputation for beauty that is known throughout the world. There is a look of fearless honesty in those blue eyes of his, and when you talk to him you get the impression of a calm, quiet man, calculated to keep his head and act with coolness even in moments of the greatest excitement and danger.
A full dark moustache hides the lines of his mouth, and he strikes you as being too kindly of disposition to be what one would describe as a "firm man." But there is an air of quiet courage about him, and you feel instinctively that this is a man you could rely upon in any emergency involving danger. He is about 43 years of age and unmarried.
When I saw him he was still wearing the clothes cut on the American style, which were supplied to him after the Empress catastrophe, in which he lost everything he had with him. He looks grotesque, and it is almost amusing to see him walking in the square-toed, dome-capped boots beloved of the Yankee - brown boots with soft felt uppers.
They are very small, and it is a strange thing about this remarkable man that one of his few vanities is an abounding pride in the smallness of his feet.
William Clark could tell of many hairsbreadth escapes on land and sea if he would, but though he has come safely through them all, the horror still clings to them and has left its mark upon him. He does not like to talk of these things, and it is with difficulty that one can persuade him to unfold the pages of the past.
Except in his appearance one can hardly call him a typical Irishman. He lacks much of that spontaneous gaiety and vivacity of bearing - that quick impulsiveness which has set a kind of trademark on Irishmen all the world over. But his looks stamp him as Irish beyond question, and that craving for adventure may also be counted among the attributes conferred upon him by his nationality.
THE LURE OF THE SEA
Clark was born at Greenore [sic], County Louth, about 43 years ago. What he did as a lad, I do not know, but the love of roaming, coupled with a passionate longing for the sea, asserted itself early in life and before he was twenty he left his native land and came to Liverpool to seek his fortune.
As may be imagined, he found his way down to the docks. The big ships called to him and the restless tides of the Mersey sang an eternal song of invitation, luring him out to stormy seas and strange lands. But he loved the sea not only for its own sake, it was the adventure, the excitement, and the change of a seafaring life which called to him with an insistent attraction that would not be denied, and before long he found himself on a British warship.
But life in the navy nowadays lacks much of the charm of olden time, and for the bluejacket of today there are no wild adventures on the Spanish Main, no exciting chases after French privateers in the Bay of Biscay, no gold to be wrested from the Indies, and no prize money. All that sort of thing belonged to the days of the wooden walls now gone for ever, and now the navy man gets plenty of discipline, not a little monotony and no fighting.
It was hardly to be wondered at that Clark's restless temperament soon tired of the necessary restrictions of a modern warship and before long he made up his mind to quit. He deserted and got clear away, but the lure of the sea still held him and he shipped as a fireman on board a merchant steamer.
A knock-about time in many oceans followed, and eventually Clark found himself on a ship in Durban port when South Africa was seething with the unrest which culminated in the war.
The thirst for adventure and excitement was too much for him. There was going to be fighting, and men were needed. He left his ship, gave himself up to the naval authorities as a deserter, and in the height of the war fever was let off lightly when it was understood he was anxious to volunteer for the front.
FIGHTING THE BOERS
He went to the military riding school in Pietermaritzburg and learned to ride like a cowboy. Then he joined Brabant's Horse and went right through the war in the army of Lord Methuen.
He had many exciting adventures, but shot and shell and bayonet, which laid so many of his comrades low, left him for a long time untouched.
At last his luck changed a little. During a fierce scrap at Blackfontein Clark was wounded; but here again he got off lightly. A bullet struck a bit of woodwork and one of the splintered fragments struck him arm and opened a nasty cut along the wrist. It was a little affair; Clark's time had not come.
The hardships of the campaign, however, did not altogether pass him by. Towards the end of the war he was stricken down with disease, and for eighteen months he lay in hospital hovering between life and death. But his splendid constitution stood him in good stead, and he was discharged from the hospital fit and well.
Again he took to seafaring, and eventually he shipped aboard the huge Titanic and helped to keep her fires going on that first and last voyage, the awful end of which remains one of the most terrible incidents in our history.
Clark went down in the ship when the mighty iceberg ripped her side open and hurled her to her doom.
How he escaped he does not know. He was caught in the swirl of waters as the vessel plunged down - dragged down into the ocean depths with the crippled leviathan as she sank to her last resting place. Even then his abnormal luck did not desert him. He never thought to come up again, but the force of the boiler explosion lifted him and rushed him up to the surface. He struck out vigorously; was pulled aboard one of the boats, and came home to tell the tale.
This awful experience did not cure him of his craving for the sea and he continued to serve in the stoke-hold of various liners, among which was the Empress of Britain, the sister ship to the one of which he has again had a miraculous escape from death.
TITANIC AND EMPRESS COMPARED
It was his first voyage on the Empress of Ireland. When the crash came and the vessel's stokehold filled with water, his thoughts instantly went back to his awful experience of the Titanic.
The scenes on the Titanic were the worst, he said, because there was more time to realise he full horror of the situation. On the Empress, death came more swiftly.
Clark was on duty in the stokehold of the Empress when the collision came. The water came pouring in, driving the firemen higher and higher up the vessel, like rats trying to escape rising water in a well. His lifeboat station was No. 5, and somehow or other he got there, but he cannot remember how she was launched. His mind is a blank concerning some of those awful moments spent on the canting decks of the doomed liner.
They had to crawl on hands and knees on the sloping hull in order to get the boat clear, and then their best chance of escape was to plunge into the water in the hope of being able to scramble aboard. Clark was drawn under several times before he got into the boat, and afterwards, he said, they were able to pull about sixty men into her.
And so this man who has faced death time after time was again snatched from the grave. He came home in the Corsican and is now once more in Liverpool.
In spite of all he has passed through he is still well, although he complains that sometimes he cannot sleep for thinking of the terrible experiences he has just come through. He is grateful for his good fortune and realises how close he has come to death.
HAD ALL THE LUCK
"If there is any luck on the sea, surely I have had it all," he says.
But he still intends to follow a seafaring life, and until he gets another boat he is spending his time ashore with old friends and comrades, in true sailor fashion.
Clark is a Roman Catholic and has a great regard for religious observances. Often after a heavy voyage he returns home late at night tired out; but he is up again first thing in the morning to attend Mass.
He is the luckiest sailor afloat.
He has come face to face with death on land and sea - but death has passed him by.