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On This Day: The Queen Elizabeth Catches Fire in Hong Kong Harbor

Last updated: February 11, 2023

On Jan. 9, 1972, the British ocean liner Queen Elizabeth burst into flames and sank in Victoria Harbour. Although the fires were determined to be the work of arsonists, no one has ever been charged with the crime.

Queen Elizabeth Capsizes

The RMS Queen Elizabeth, a 83,000-ton ocean liner, was the largest ship in the world when it launched in 1938. It was retired 30 years later and subsequently purchased by Chinese shipping tycoon C.Y. Tung, who brought the ship to Hong Kong to be converted to a floating school called “Seawise University.”

On the morning of Sunday, Jan. 9, 1972, while the Queen Elizabeth was anchored in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour, a series of fires suddenly broke out aboard the ship, forcing hundreds of visiting shipyard workers and their families to evacuate the ship.

John A. Hudson, an Englishman who had sailed his own boat into Hong Kong Harbor, describes watching the fire: “What caught our attention from a distance across the water was smoke coming from the ship's portholes; not just one or two portholes but from almost all of them from stem to stern on one side. … What had started as puffs of smoke from portholes turned into a raging inferno in the upper superstructure generating huge volumes of smoke. This, over only a three hour period.

Firefighting boats tried to extinguish the fire for the next 24 hours, but they could not prevent the ship from capsizing. “Next day, with her upper decks collapsed and her massive steel hull buckled like so much soggy cardboard, the ship, still burning, keeled over,” wrote Time. “The Queen had died.”

Analysis: Arson Suspected

Sources in this Story

  • Time: End of the Queen Elizabeth
  • Cruise Travel—Cruise Ships
  • The New York Times: The mysterious demise of a grand ocean liner
  • The Great Ocean Liners: Queen Elizabeth

There was immediate suspicion that the fire was an act of arson because it broke out simultaneously in at least three different sections of the ship. Time speculated that the arson might have been committed because Tung, the ship’s owner, was “an ardent Nationalist, while many workers on the ship [were] from Communist-dominated shipbuilders' unions.” Other theories proposed that Tung destroyed it for insurance money.

An initial court of inquiry in Hong Kong concluded that the fire was a “deliberate act by persons or persons unknown.” The matter was handed over to the criminal investigation department of the Hong Kong police, who have been unable to identify the perpetrators of the blaze.

Background: The Queen Elizabeth

Ship Sinkings

For more than 50 years, the 83,000-ton RMS Queen Elizabeth was the largest passenger ship in the world. Launched on Sept. 27, 1938, as a sister vessel to the Cunard Line’s Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth is emblematic of a period during which shipping companies vied to build ever bigger and faster trans-Atlantic liners.

The beginning of World War II prompted the British military to outfit both the Mary and the Elizabeth as troop carriers, a function both ships filled for the duration of the war.

On Oct. 16, 1946, the Queen Elizabeth finally made its maiden passenger voyage from Southampton, England to New York. From then through the 1950s, trans-Atlantic liners enjoyed their golden years.

The development of the air travel industry soon prompted a decline in travel by sea, though. By 1961, millions were flying across the Atlantic and fewer than a million were crossing by ship. The Queen Elizabeth was subsequently retired in 1968, and three years later was sold to Tung.

After it was sunk in the 1972 fire, the ship remained in the harbor for nearly two years before it began to be taken apart and sold for scrap. During this time, the wreck was used in filming for the 1974 James Bond movie “The Man With the Golden Gun,” which portrayed the ship as the MI6’s Hong Kong headquarters.

Rob A. Lightbody provides photographs and video footage of the Queen Elizabeth.

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