Beg pardon, sir, the ship's on fire
There was an air of contentment aboard City of Evansville when I joined her
at Dublin on a warm and sunny Thursday morning in mid June within a few hours
of her arrival from India. Her voyage was near the end, there would be leave
for her officers when she reached London and in the meantime the prospect of
a few says in Dublin was a pleasing prospect. I was to relieve the Second Officer,
the only officer who - on compassionate grounds - had been granted immediate
leave. As I had been in the ship only six months earlier the hand over was
swift, a walk round the weather deck - where stevedores were opening the hatches
- a look at the cargo plan, a brief check of navigation equipment and charts,
a run down of voyage repairs as they effected the Second Officer's part of
ship and a few comments on the deck officers who had all joined the ship since
I had left her in Antwerp.
"The Old Man is super, The Chief Officer is OK, bit set in his ways
but OK and you'll find the Third very good, a nice chap and on the ball. I
expect you won't see much of the seniors, both wives were waiting on the dock
when we arrived"
I was introduced to the Captain who told me that he expected me to keep ship
on the following weekend as he and the Chief Officer had planned their days
ashore. "The cargo discharge is straightforward so you won't be stretched
and we should be ready to leave for London early next week." This
arrangement suited me for I had applied to join the Royal Naval Reserve and
was to attend the interview board in London in two weeks time.
The Senior Officers had departed with their wives in a hired car bound for
the hinterland soon after breakfast on Saturday and were not expected to return
until late in the evening. The discharge of cargo was going smoothly, we had
seen the stevedores remove the covers and beams from number six hatch just
before midday in preparation for discharge of jute from the upper tween deck
when they turned to in the afternoon. The Third Officer and I were in my cabin
having coffee after a leisurely lunch, the steam winches were at work again
destroying the summer peace, and all was as it should be. There was a polite
but positive knock on the bulkhead outside and the duty Quartermaster put his
head round the curtain. " Beg pardon, sir," he apologised
"But I think you ought to know, the ship's on fire."
We were on our feet in a flash,
"There's a lot of smoke coming from No 6 hatch."
By the time we reached the scene, seconds later, flames were shooting out of
the hatch; stevedores had a fire hose attached to a hydrant and trained on
the fire. The Indian crew, whose quarters were just aft of the tween deck bulkhead,
were making for the gangway to abandon ship in good order and the Engine Room
Bhandary contributed to the fire fighting by throwing a fire extinguisher bodily
into the flames as he passed.
There seemed to be little point in rallying the crew at that moment - the stevedore's
efforts were more effective. I asked if the fire brigade had been called. Apparently
not! On hearing this; the Third Officer shot off to find a telephone. The stevedore
superintendent had rallied more men and had another hose run out but the pressure
was pitiful. I sent a man to find the duty engineer to get him to increase
the pressure on the fire main. Off duty quartermasters appeared and began running
hoses from more distant hydrants. Our efforts were making little impression
on the fire; which was spreading faster than it could be contained. I had studied
the cargo plan in sufficient detail to be aware that there was more jute as
well as two cars in the lower tween deck and that the lower hold was full of
tallow. The Fire Brigade arrived surprisingly quickly, even before the Third
Officer returned to report that he had contacted them. They wasted no time
before turning two high-pressure hoses on the fire. It quickly became evident
that the situation was not improving. In a hasty discussion the senior Fireman,
the stevedore superintendent and I decided that we had best cover the hatch
to smother the fire while the flames in the centre had subsided and were reaching
out to the wings. The fireman directed their hoses on the fire while the stevedore
gang fitted the hatch beams and boards and pulled a soaked tarpaulin over them.
While this was going on I told the Third Officer to go to the Chief Engineer
and tell him to put the steam smothering system on.. I then went aft with two
quartermasters carrying a hose to ensure that the bulkhead dividing the Indian
crew quarters from the burning tween deck was not overheating. At that time
there was no sign of excess heating on the bulkhead - the seat of the fire
being at the forward end of the hatch - but I set the quartermasters to removing
the bedding from the bunks closest to the bulkhead.
By the time I returned to the upper deck, the Chief of the Fire Brigade had
arrived. He had ordered more appliances and suggested cutting a hole in the
deck and ship's side to give access to hoses while the hatch was covered. We
agreed to wait and see how effective the steam smothering would be before undertaking
such drastic action.
The elderly Chief Engineer arrived on the scene, he had been roused from his
post lunch siesta and was in warlike mood. "I'll have you know, young
man." He wagged a finger at me "I need twenty four hours notice
in writing before I turn the steam smothering on."
"Right," I replied "Then I would like immediate notice
in writing telling me that."
He must have seen amazement and disbelief on the faces of the fireman because
he became less belligerent "I'll do my best for you', but I can't guarantee
how long it will take."
While the firemen kept their hoses playing on the hatch cover I returned to
the crew quarters adjacent to the tween deck bulkhead in company with the senior
fireman. Though the bulkhead was hot there appeared to be no more heating than
on my last visit. The firemen, however, suggested that the removal of all the
bedding from the spaces would be advisable. The crew showed little inclination
to return on board until it was emphasised that they would need something to
soften the surface of the quayside on which they were squatting as they would
possibly be there for quite a while. The two Serangs detailed a number of the
more stalwart members of their departments to accompany them on board to collect
their meagre mattresses. Having achieved this with some success, the Serangs
then declared that they were prepared to sacrifice their respective bhandarys
to provide sustenance for the majority from the crew galleys which were on
the main deck aft of Number Six hatch.
With domestic matters settled for the time being I was pleased to be told that
the Chief Engineer was filling the upper tween deck of number 6 hold with steam.
At the same time the fire brigade produced cutting equipment with which they
prepared to cut a small hole in the deck to direct a hose at the seat of the
fire. The stevedores were still in attendance and their supervisor, who had
been so helpful, introduced me to a smartly dressed man who had been watching
events with some interest from the quayside and had just ventured on board.
He was the Harbourmaster who, after exchanging a few pleasantries, asked if
the ship was in danger of sinking. The thought had not occurred to me until
he mentioned it but I stoutly assured him that she was certainly not going
to sink. In retrospect his view may have been due to the haste with which the
crew had left the ship. He nodded, " She'll be alright," he
said " But if you do think she is going to sink I'd take it kindly
if you inform me in plenty of time. She's occupying a valuable berth and I
would have you towed away." With that he shook hands and made his
way to the gangway.
On the advice of the senior fireman I sanctioned the cutting of two holes on
the deck to direct hoses into the tween deck and this was in progress. The
Third Officer reported that from the dockside he noticed that paint on the
ship's side was blistering. This indicated rather more intense heat low down
in the middle of the starboard side of the upper tween deck. As the area was
not accessible from above the answer appeared to be the cutting of a small
hole in the ship's side in order to get water hose close to the area of maximum
Before long water from three hoses was flooding the tween deck and I became
aware that the ship was listing towards the quayside. Not totally au fait with
the stability situation now that some cargo had been discharged I promptly
called a halt to the operation. The firemen covered the holes they had made
and I fervently hoped that the steam smothering would be effective. The Third
Officer went to the Chief Engineer to discuss the matter of counter flooding
with aim of reducing the list, which was by that time about five degrees. No
sooner had he gone than a very Senior Fire Officer boarded the ship. He told
me that he had a great deal of useful equipment on board and he would appreciate
warning in sufficient time to land it should the ship capsize! He added that
his fire crews were vulnerable too! I said, with as much conviction as I could
muster, that I had no intention of allowing the ship to turn over and had,
indeed, stopped the flow of water into the ship.
The excitement began to ease and the situation was settling into a waiting
game. The stevedore gang was dismissed, two fire crews maintained watch on
board, the Third Officer called on the Chief Steward to organise sustenance
for them. When the Goanese officer's Steward impeccably dressed in a white
jacket brought a tray of tea to me I realised how quickly the time had passed
since the Third Officer and I had hastily abandoned our post lunch coffee.
A sudden thought occurred to me - I had not informed the Ellerman office in
Liverpool. Until that moment my mind had been fully occupied with other matters
and, as I considered the matter, it seemed unlikely that the office would be
inhabited on a Saturday afternoon and I had no knowledge of an emergency telephone
number anyway. Developing concern over the matter was speedily resolved by
the arrival of the ship's agent who, having been told of the fire by the Fire
Brigade and the Port Authority, had been in touch with Ellermans who were sending
an Assistant Marine Superintendent to Dublin post haste.
The fire, smouldering beneath the deck on which we stood, was becoming less
exciting and becoming something of a social event. There was little to achieve
while the steam smothering was depriving the fire of air, one of the two fire
appliances had been sent away, the firemen remaining on duty were relaxed,
a newspaper reporter was intercepted by the agent on our behalf, various ship's
officers who were not involved in the fire fighting strolled on deck to discuss
and pass opinions and remember other maritime fires they had known. The Third
Officer and I, having been on deck for some hours were becoming weary and I
considered that there was no need for both of us to keep an eye on deck. I
suggested that he take a break for his dinner, then give me a brief relief
before turning in to take a watch at midnight.
The firemen, delighted when food and tea were provided by the Purser and served
by the Goanese stewards, commented that this was one of the best fires they
had attended. "We go to a lot of factory and shop fires,"
said one "but hardly ever get service like this - and the weather is
so good too." It was, thankfully, one of those peerless summer days
with no cloud and no threat of rain. Had it been otherwise our Indian Seamen
and Firemen, still camped out on the quay, would have created problems. I was
still reluctant to permit them to return to their quarters so close to the
burning tween deck while at the same time I wanted them close at hand in case
any further situations developed.
I had just finished a hasty dinner when the Marine Superintendent arrived.
By reputation he was a jovial, red-faced man noted for a bluff and noisy manner.
He introduced himself briefly "I had to leave home without a meal"
he barked, intimating that I was the cause of his hunger "You might
get the Purser to fix some food and a bottle of whisky." Once satisfied
that sustenance had been arranged he mellowed. " You have had a bloody
awful afternoon." He said, as we walked aft to view the fire "Tell
me all about it."
He made a fairly cursory inspection of the weather deck at Number Six hatch
and suggested that we adjourn to the Dining Saloon to discuss the situation.
"You seem to have done all the right things." he said generously
"There's nothing more that I can do other than phone our lords and masters
and put them in the picture." I expressed my concern about the crew still
bivouacked on the dockside, privately wondering whether I should have arranged
accommodation ashore for them - indeed I was not sure that I had the authority
to do so. I was relieved when he considered that the subject should be the
concern of the Captain when he returned. It was nearly dark by the time the
two Senior Officers appeared. The Chief Officer looked distinctly alarmed but
the Captain paused briefly at the foot of the gangway before boarding. The
ship was leaning drunkenly on the quay with wisps of smoke emanating from a
hole cut in the ship's side, fire hoses curled from hydrants on the dockside,
fire fighting equipment was parked alongside and the bulk of the ship's company
had made a temporary home in the shelter of the cargo shed. It was not a comfortable
return for a Captain after a pleasant day ashore but he dealt with it calmly.
"It looks as though you've had a busy day, Second Officer" he
said before I had an opportunity to say a word.
The Captain and The Marine Superintendent made few comments as we inspected
the visible damage but seemed content with the action that had been taken.
We inspected the crew quarters and it was decided that as there was now a permanent
watch being maintained and no immediate threat the crew could return to their
quarters. The senior fire officer, joining us for an assessment of the situation,
considered that now the fire was under control it was best to leave things
as they were until the morning. I was left to maintain a watch until midnight
when the Third Officer took over and I could relax and sleep until six the
following morning. The two of us kept deck watches, six on, six off, for the
next two days. Despite the effect of the steam smothering denying air to the
tween deck the fire was obviously smouldering and far from extinguished. In
an attempt to assess the situation the fire brigade cut a small hole in the
deck where the heat was at its greatest and, proving that to open the hatch
would cause a further outbreak, hastily covered it once more. There was more
jute in the lower tween deck and the lower hold was full of tallow so the risk
of a hazardous spread of fire into decks apparently unaffected by fire up to
that time was considerable.
We all gathered on deck on Tuesday morning, by which time the temperature in
the deck below us had diminished sufficiently to allow an inspection. A hole,
large enough to admit a fireman was cut in the after end of the deck and the
smallest member of the fire brigade was lowered down. He was able to call out
that the fire was out before being overcome by lack of oxygen and passing out.
Speedily pulled out, he soon recovered. One of his colleagues volunteered to
go down "I've never known Tommy faint like that." he said "I'll
go down myself and see what made him pass out." He was ordered to
stay where he was. The hatch was uncovered revealing comparatively little fire
damage to cargo furthest from the seat of the fire. Every item was wringing
wet from the effect of the steam smothering, the paintwork of a car stowed
in a corner furthest from the fire was streaked and discoloured and the leather
seats had changed from brown to dirty white.
The Marine Superintendent returned to Liverpool, the Fire Brigade thanked us
profusely for our hospitality and left the ship and a gang of stevedores were
soon at work in number 6 hold. It was necessary to discharge the entire cargo
from number 6 to ascertain any further damage on the decks below. There were
repairs to be carried out where the weather deck and ship's side had been pierced
to gain access to the tween deck; these and the fire damaged areas would have
to pass survey before the ship could leave Dublin.
The following Saturday, by which time the ship should have been in Tilbury,
I was invited to join the Captain and his wife for a day out in the countryside
of Wicklow. The June weather was superb and an enjoyable break from the ship
was a wonderful tonic. Departure from Dublin was still uncertain and I was
becoming concerned about my interview scheduled for the next Friday.
Though intact, the tallow in the lower hold of number 6 hatch had suffered
from the heat and become a solid mass and had to be cut out before it was discharged
causing more delay than was anticipated, so it was not until the evening of
Tuesday that City Of Evansville sailed from Dublin. If there were any delays
my Admiralty interview would go for a Burton! Fortunately the weather was idyllic
and the ship made good time, passing Lands End on Wednesday afternoon, embarking
the pilot off Dungeness twenty-four hours later and docking at Tilbury at 0800
on the morning of my interview. I was dismissed from mooring stations as soon
as two lines were made fast, changed into plain clothes and was first down
the gangway. There was no chance of reaching Queen Anne's Mansions in time
for the board but my father had telephoned the Admiralty to tell them I would
probably be late for the interview and gave the reasons; so, though I arrived
breathlessly an hour late, I had not been disqualified. My memories of the
interview are indistinct but. In retrospect I consider that as my tardy arrival
was due to the delay occasioned by the fire, the interview was quite relaxed
for the board expressed a good deal of interest in the event. There were three
on the board, a Captain and Commander in uniform and another, introduced as
a Commander, in a tweed suit. I had anticipated some of the questions. Why
did I want to join the Naval Reserve? What experience had I in naval matters?
Others questions, introduced in a conversational manner, required careful answers
and were posed to gain information about attitudes and opinions. My views were
sought on the current crisis in Iran where Mossadegh was hammering at the gates
of the oil refinery at Abadan and I was then asked if I had visited the Festival
of Britain and what I thought of it. My leisure interests were probed as was
my choice of daily paper. After no more than half an hour I was told to wait
outside while they reached a decision. The subsequent few minutes were the
most nerve-wracking of the whole event but were speedily ended when the Captain
emerged and told me that I had been accepted subject to passing the medical.
I was sent to another department, where I was put in a room, told to take all
my clothes off, and given a white dressing gown to wear. Clad only in this
garment I waited until a clerk appeared with more papers in his hand and directed
me to another room miles away along a labyrinth of passages., I passed numerous
people, some in uniform, most of them carrying files or clutching pieces of
paper and seemingly important. None of them appeared to be disconcerted by
the sight of a stranger dressed only in a flimsy white gown parading in the
hallowed centre of a government building. The medical took longer than the
interview as I was shunted from room to room while experts in different parts
of the human frame examined me with varying degrees of interest and scribbled
on forms before despatching me to the next exam. At the end I concluded that
physical attributes were the least important part of an exercise designed to
determine endurance, stamina and reaction to stress. I was finally told that
I had passed all the tests but must have three teeth corrected before I was
fit to chew the food provided by His Majesty. I lost my way twice as I sought
my clothes and had to ask for directions. This was obviously something of a
routine as none of those I approached expressed surprise. Once dressed, I wished
I had the common sense to take a ball of string as Theseus did before entering
the lair of the Minotaur.
I returned to Tilbury where my relief had arrived, collected my gear and went
home. Keeping my promise to the naval dentist I spent the next week having
dental treatment. My request for an appointment to a ship on the South Africa
run had been granted and I was to join City Of New York a month hence and in
the meantime to go as relief Second Officer to Empire Spartan at Liverpool.
At last I was on my way - subsequent events form part of another episode.
By Joe Chapman
Add your comments
Please note: this is not an email facility, all comments are placed on
this page and on our Forum