“Raise a glass to you all…”
Another sea story from Mars.
By Glenn Hendricks
So there we are. Steaming along nicely around 16 knots (70 turns if I recall correctly) middle of the night. I can’t recall but I hadn’t made 3rdyet so this was maybe 1974. Two boilers on line #1 and #2, # 3 is cold and in parts. It’s been a quiet watch and the oncoming guys are in the hole. BTs and MMs exchanging the status, bullshitting and getting ready to get out and hit the rack.
Now the Mars had a combined fire/engine room, the throttle board was in front of the engine and the water drum was forward of the throttle station. Just to set the stage.
I’ve turned the throttles over to my relief and started walking aft and port to the ladder out when a BANG followed by a huge roar from the lower level of the fire rocked the hole. Steam erupted from the fireroom lower level in a shriek I’d never heard before or since. The entire front of boiler #2 was engulfed.
I sprinted back to the throttle board and saw the steam pressure diving, the MMOW told me to trip the SSTGs and I ran over to knock them offline. The lights cut out immediately and all we could hear was that ungodly shriek of steam. In what seemed like a lifetime the emergency diesel started up and we had lights again.
The throttle man told the bridge that we’d had a boiler explosion of some kind. They hit the GQ alarm on the bridge and so we had that damn horn going off in counterpoint to the steam, shouting and swearing. The oncoming EEOW was the BT div chief, he’d gone down to the burner area, the off-going EEOW was the A div MM chief and he held the fort down till the Chief Engineer (Lt. Cmdr. Norr) took over for GQ.
The shriek slowly died away as the main steam went from 600 PSI to zero. As the sound diminished the steam cloud in the lower level dissipated until we could see the BT’s fighting the burner front of #2. We secured everything we could, at this point with no steam it was just a matter of closing valves and restarting a few cooling water pumps. The BTs had a fire hose deployed facing the burner front and nearly all of them were saturated with ND fuel oil. One of the burner plates was sprung and a fuel line had busted soaking everyone within range. The hose was only partially charged, we only had about 20 PSI on the fire main.
A downcomer tube had ruptured in the firebox. It had a splint on the long axis and peeled open for about 10 inches. The superheated steam snuffed the fire immediately, sprung one of the burners and poured all the steam in the system up the stack. #1 boiler was drug offline through the hole and had low water out of sight before they could trip it.
We were dead in the water. No fire main pressure, six inches of fuel sloshing around in the bilges and locked into the engine room. We were at GQ and Repair 5, knowing that we didn’t have fire main pressure dogged the hatches from outside to make sure any problem couldn’t spread.
Mr. Norr was a mustang, had served for about 24 or 25 years by this point I think and as he lit up a Newport he said “smoking lamp is lit’. He sent me up to the ‘sky valve’ on the O3 or O4 level to vent aux steam. Then, methodically directed us in getting the plant back online. He stood there, listening to the reports, cup of coffee in one hand, cig in the other, marking down items with a grease pencil on the board as the BTs put #3 boiler back together, got it lit off and up to pressure in near-record time. He had the electricians swap the loads around so we could get the electric fire pump up and running.
All during this time, the phone talker was reporting semi-panic on the deck. Guns were manned and ready to load, it apparently sounded like a bomb had gone off and people didn’t know what had happened.
Mr. Norr had us bringing steam online at around 400 PSI if I recall correctly, then we had enough steam to get the steam pumps going, then to get one SSTG up on minimum power. Slowly we brought the plant back up on #3 boiler. We were still dead in the water but we had lights, fire main and then the blessed blowers to give us some air.
My dungarees were soaked through with sweat, we all were sopping with it. Our hands shook from the effort and energy we’d expended, I honestly don’t know how long it took us, it felt like a lifetime but probably was a couple of hours at most. Once steam was restored and the lights were on we secured GQ. We had the entire division down in the hole for a while then Mr. Norr sent all but the watchstanders out to get some sleep. It was another hour or more ’til we could make headway.
We gathered at the base of the starboard ladder into our berthing compartment. BT’s were against the hull, the MMS in the racks next to them. We all sat around, smoking and talking in those slightly too shrill, edgy voices, reliving the past couple of hours, high on the jangle of adrenaline burn out.
We were damn lucky, the split could have faced the boiler wall and cut through filling the engine room with superheated steam. That would have been all she wrote. Fire in the bilges would have done for us as well. I asked the MPA (he was Repair 5 leader) later what he’d have done if a fire had started when we were in the hold. He said ‘raise a glass to you all’. He’d have had to keep the hatches closed to save the ship. We knew that.
We’d been in combat and survived. We fought fire and steam and survived. This wasn’t the kind of combat you get ribbons for; the enemy wasn’t wearing a uniform and didn’t use guns or bombs. The enemy was the power we harnessed. We’d made it.
It was at once the most frightening and exhilarating moment of my life to that point.
Eventually, we were able to sleep.