Coastal cities around the world are accustomed to facing a variety of threats ranging from hurricane and tsunami to rising sea levels. But perhaps none face one so unusual–and potentially sudden–as those surrounding the Thames Estuary.
1944: The American-built “Liberty Ship” SS Richard Montgomery ran aground and partially sank while ferrying some 7,000 tons of bombs and other munitions to the UK. While the bulk of the explosives were removed, her cargo holds gave way and the ship broke apart, making it too dangerous to continue. Some 1,400 tons of TNT high explosives remain on board.
As the casings continue to rust and corrode and the explosives themselves chemically destabilize over time, experts have repeatedly warned that the entire cargo could detonate at any moment. External factors like collision, tide, a shifting of weight or even terrorist attack would only exacerbate the risk.
It’s not the first time the UK has dealt with a similar crisis. In 1967 salvors inadvertently set off the cargo of the sunken Kielce in the English Channel. The resulting explosion measured 4.5 on the Richter scale and created a 153 foot long crater in the ocean floor. Some believe that the Richard Montgomery poses a far greater threat, and could throw debris some 10,000 feet in the air and send a 16 foot high tsunami-like wave racing towards nearby towns.
While the wreck remains under 24-hour radar surveillance and is ringed by warning buoys, the site is far from shore. Last year a paddleboarder approached the wreck and was photographed touching one of the exposed forward masks. Authorities will continue to conduct regular inspections, but the official policy remains one of “Wait and See.”