Revising: A tragic Night at Sea

This week, I have took some time to work on a little more revision in one of the pieces I intend on using in my thesis. Some of you have seen it, but for those that have not, It has been included in this post. Please let me know what you think.

   We were in the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. It had been a long and hot summer. The ships company was exhausted from busting our asses to get our vessel seaworthy. Every department had their own task while we were in dry dock. I was a part of the deck department. We had a motto of “work hard and play harder.” For many of us, we held to that motto. The deck department was responsible for overhauling the surface of the ship, her anchor and the refueling stations. The engineering department played a vital role and was charged with overhauling the ships propulsion system, including the engines.

   Our days would begin at 0600 and we would often work till sunset. For those of us in the deck department, we were working topside in the direct sun. The sound of needle guns being used to strip the paint and nonskid off the deck could be heard all around us. Disk sanders grinding the rust from the bare metal was also a very common sound. If you were like me, and were fortunate enough to have earned some rank, then you had your own crew of deck personnel. That meant I didn’t have to get my hands as dirty, but don’t think that I chose to sit back like many others Petty Officers and watch my junior enlisted. No, I had no problem jumping right in there to help them, but I had to manage three different groups of eight junior sailors. So, I really couldn’t stay in one spot for too long. If left unattended, they had a habit of slacking off.


   It was early September when the crew received an announcement from our commanding officer, Captain Reed. She had the officer of the deck assemble ships company in the hanger. It was there that approximately all five hundred and eighty personnel found out that our command was over budget in the yards and we had to stop with any plans for new projects. We were ordered to finish all current improvements within the next two weeks. We had to be out of the shipyards by the end of the month. The news came as a shock to most of us. As she finished her announcement, she opened the floor for questions and boy did she regret doing that.

   Without skipping a beat, everyone heard the deep and raspy voice that was known to be of one person. One of the saltiest sailors to be a part of our crew. It was the kind of voice that commanded respect and silence when speaking. The voice was that of our Chief Engineer.

   “It is going to be impossible for my men and I to complete the overhaul of the starboard engine. Parts are on back order and the old parts are not salvageable. It is going to be at least sixty days before our parts arrive!”

   Banter began to fill the room when he was done speaking. My shipmates from the engineering department knew that what was being asked of them by the commanding officer was impossible. I could overhear the conversations amongst them confirming what the Chief Engineer had just exclaimed.

  Captain Reed hesitated in her response and when she finally replied, her comment was alarming.                                

  “We have to do it! There are no other options at our disposal.”

   As I looked around the room at my shipmates, I could see the hopelessness and anger in their faces. They knew that what was being asked of them was not going to end well.


   Over the course of the next couple of weeks, all of the deck apes had their ‘hands-on deck’. Meaning everyone, regardless of rank or position, had a direct job of completing a task. Not just supervising the completion. Our days became longer and more strenuous. Our workdays turned into sixteen-hour shifts, seven days a week. The day before our scheduled departure, my crew of junior sailors and I completed the installation of the ships anchor. This may sound like nothing, but it was very labor intense.

    Our anchor had one hundred and twenty shots of chain and a five-thousand-pound fluke anchor. Each shot of anchor chain was twelve feet in length and an individual shot weighed six hundred and fifty pounds. We had cranes assist us with the lifting of each shot, but we had to connect each shot with detachable links and maneuvering those into place took a lot of brute force. Lucky for me, one of my junior sailors was a gym rat. During his off hours, you could always find him working out. He was strong like an ox.  It was no easy task, but my crew accomplished a task that normally would take three to four days of work.


   At the end of our last day in the yards, our crew was beaten, and morale was at an all-time low. Being the sailor I am, I invited my crew out for one last night on the town in Philly. Of course, we had to hit up Tony Lukes for cheesesteaks, and then we went to South Street. South Street was our favorite area to hang out in during our off hours. For some, it was the variety of shops available through the area. For me, it was the variety of bars and food. During our time in the yards, I had become a regular at Fat Tuesdays. The endless wall of frozen concoctions satisfied my thirst, especially the 151 Octane. As my crew and I arrived that night, the staff of the bar knew we were leaving the next day. They threw us a bit of a going away party, but we knew it was really a gesture of gratitude for all our business throughout the past months. Afterall, our ships company would literally fill their bar on any given night we were there. There were even a few times that we drank the bar dry, causing them to close their doors early.

   While my crew and I were getting lost in the night, one of my shipmates from the engineering department stepped up to the bar next to me and ordered a round. Being mechanically inclined, I had to inquire about the status of the engine overhaul.

   “Hey gear head! How’s the engine overhaul coming along?”

 I will never forget his tone of voice. It went from that of one having fun and not a concern in the world, to a deep saddened and fearful voice.

   “Marlowe, it’s not good! We completed the reassembly, but it is far from being any better than when we pulled into the yards. It is actually worse now than before. We have valves are still inoperable. Gaskets that were removed had to be reused. Three of the gaskets are completely shot. Number six, eight and twelve cylinders have no compression because of the faulty valves. I do not want to be anywhere near the starboard engine when it is started.”

   I don’t know why, but his message put me into a deep thought of what could possibly go wrong when the engine is started.

   As the bartender announced last call, I was still sitting there in a state of concern.  The bartender came over to me and asked if I was okay. It was clear to her that something was on my mind. I thanked her for checking on me and told her that I was just reminiscing on the memories that I will forever have because of that place. Afterall, I couldn’t disclose to her what was really bothering me. When I asked for my check, she said it was on the house and asked if I needed a ride back to the yards. Unfortunately for me, I could not stop thinking about what my shipmate had told me that night and I refused her offer and took a cab back.


   “Reveille! Reveille! Reveille! All hands heave out and trice up. Reveille.”

   The 0600 wake-up call marked the start of what I knew was going to be long day. It was a rough night and I didn’t get an ounce of sleep. I had way too much on my mind. Yet the day had finally come. We were leaving the shipyards six months ahead of schedule. All our hard work in the past few months surely meant that we were going to get some down time once we got to sea. I grabbed my uniform of the day, a pair of paint stained and oily coveralls. Getting the ship underway was often a dirty job. That’s why we never wore a clean uniform for getting underway. Mooring lines had to be heaved in by hand. That meant they were cast off the bollard of the pier and into the water. As you pulled the lines in, the water would soak you and your uniform.

   It took us several hours to get pulled by the tugboats, out of the channels and into the open sea. By 1500 hours, the U.S.S. Detroit (AOE-4), was finally back at sea and on her own power. Captain Reed came onto the ships 1MC, our announcement system, and made an announcement.

   “Good afternoon Tigers! I want to take a few moments and update everyone on our status. As you all know by now, we are sailing on our own power. Only our port side engine is running at this time, but I’m confident that by the end of this evening, we will have our starboard engine up and running. The Chief Engineer has given me his word that we will be on full power later tonight. I also want to thank the department heads from each division for their dedication over the past few weeks. It was their drive and determination that allowed our ship to leave the repair yards.”

   She went on for a few more minutes, praising the officers for all their hard work, and she commended several senior enlisted members that played vital roles in ensuring task were done on time. The junior enlisted members knew that it was our work that made it possible, but the officers and senior ranking members always get the credit for the work being done. Captain Reed was so pleased that she ordered all departments to knock of ships work and have the rest of the day as a stand down time. Only the crew on duty had to be working. The rest of us could relax. Fortunately for me, my duty rotation didn’t begin until 2000 hours. That gave me a few hours to go shower and take a power nap.


   When my time came to report for duty, my first station was on the bridge as the helmsman. As I took over the watch, one couldn’t help but overhear a bunch of chatter amongst the officers on the bridge. They were talking amongst themselves and I could tell that there was something wrong. It was just unclear to me what it was they were referring to, so I just focused on my duties and responsibilities of keeping the ship steered in the right path.

   As my time on duty progressed, the officers chat and banter were becoming more and more alarming. By the time my duty was over at midnight, I knew that something was not right, but still had no clue as to what was wrong. All I kept thinking about was the conversation that I had with my shipmate at the bar from the previous night. Was the officers dismay over something happening in the engine room? Maybe they were not happy with the captain for her inability to manage the funding of our ship repairs in the yard. There was a lot that could be speculated, but I just didn’t know. So, I took a long hot shower and turned into my bunk for the night.


   It wasn’t long after getting into my bunk, a loud explosion was heard through the silence of the night and the sleeping crew was immediately awakened as the explosion was also felt with force. Alarms were immediately going off across the ships 1MC. A message soon followed the alarms.

“Fire! Fire! Fire! Class bravo fire in the starboard engine room. All hands report to your battle stations!”

The crew, including myself went into panic mode. As I was running to my battle station, I had to pass by the entrance to the engine room where the explosion had just occurred. I could hear cries for help and screams of bloody horror coming from my shipmates down in the space. I wanted to forget about running to my station and I wanted to help my shipmates that were crying out in agony. Yet I knew that reporting to my battle station was priority at that time. I couldn’t just run into a fire without the proper gear on. So, I proceeded to report to my station.


   Upon arrival to my station, I immediately began to don my fire fighter gear. In the midst of preparing for the worse, our repair locker officer began to receive report of what had just occurred. The Chief Engineer was on the scene and was reporting.

   “We have three men down. We need the medical response teams deployed immediately. Two are in critical condition. The fire has been contained. Number two bravo boiler has exploded and has a six-foot-wide gash in her. We need exhaust fans deployed to remove smoke from the compartment. Stand by for further damage reports.”

   As I listened to the report, I knew that this happened because of the negligence by our captain. All of this could have been avoided had she listened to the needs of the chief engineer. Now she has blood on her hands.

   Our repair locker officer began to give orders to the teams:

 “Away medical response team! Away smoke team! All others stand-by for further orders!”

    I was on the medical response team. Each team member had undergone at least one hundred hours of training for first aid, C.P.R. and other specific situational awareness courses. Our team grabbed the first aid gear and rescue gear. The stretcher that we had was designed specifically for shipboard use. It did not have your traditional legs or wheels on it. It was more like a long basket made of metal and wire. The basket has connecting point on each corner. They were designed that way so someone could be hoisted up out of deep spaces that would require steep ladder wells to gain access to and from. Ropes with hooks would be lowered from the entrance to where the basket is, and the hooks would connect to the basket. Then a team of at least six people would pull the rope through the overhead pulley to hoist the basket to the top.


   As my team and I arrived at the entrance to the engine room, we had to activate our oxygen mask and tanks. There was a lot of smoke pouring out of the space. The ladder well was steep and dropped down approximately fifty feet. Once we reached the bottom of the steps, the smoke was a lot lighter due to the smoke rising. We instantly began to look around to assess the safety of the scene. I could hear the screams for help from our injured. Even with our mask on, there was two distinct smells hitting me. The first was that of fuel. The second is one that I’ll never forget, it was burning flesh.

   I immediately went to the first injured shipmate that was in sight. He was standing upright and was screaming in agonizing pain. While triaging him, it was clear that he was not one of the critical injured that was reported earlier. He was mobile and had a clear airway. He had severe burns on the right side of his face and neck. I looked over to my most junior team member and gave him an order.

   “Get this man up to medical right away”

   The rest of my team and I moved on to the next casualty. He was lying on the deck, he had severe burns on his entire body. The front of his uniform had burned and appeared to have melted onto his body like wax being dripped from a candle and molded onto the shape it lands upon. I immediately began to assess his vital signs. He had a very strong pulse but was having difficulty breathing. One of my team members tried to communicate with him.

   “Can you hear me?”

   The injured shipmate responded by shaking his head yes but did not verbally respond.

   “Do you know where you are”

   No response

   “Do you know what day it is?”

   No response

   I then made the determination that we needed to get him to the doctor as fast as we could, but I knew there was one more injured shipmate that we have yet to triage.

“We need to get him bandaged and prepared for transport!”

   I had two team members stay with this injured sailor as the other two members of my team and I began to search for the other reported injured.

   We began to hear yells from the far side of the compartment. It was the voice of our Chief Engineer.

   “He’s over guys! Get over here immediately!”

   The area still had smoke pouring from the side of the boiler. It was hard to see where the voice was coming from, so we just followed his voice.



   We followed the voice through the smoke-filled area until I finally noticed a light being waved through the air.

  “Over here guys! I see them!”

   When we finally made it to him, I instantly recognized the lifeless body lying on the deck, just eight feet from where the boiler explosion had occurred. It was that of my shipmate that had forewarned me about the condition of the ship’s engine repair at the bar. His uniform was still melting from the heat and smoke was coming off it. The entire front of his body was burned so bad, parts of his flesh was hanging from his face, neck and arms. I could see bones exposed through the burns. He was losing a lot of blood and we had to act quickly. Our primary focus was to check his vitals at that moment. His airway appeared to be open as he had shallow breathing. His pulse was very weak, and he was unresponsive to our questions and painful stimuli. I got on the radio and reported into the medical unit.

   “We have one critical patient. He is unresponsive and needs immediate evacuation. Begin preparations for flight transport to the fleet hospital.”

   Our ship doctor acknowledged my request.

   “Understood! I will meet you on the flight deck with the patient. What is your estimated time of arrival?”

“At least ten minutes doc! We need to secure the patient into the stretcher and apply measures to control his bleeding! We will then rendezvous with you on the flight deck”

   “Very well!”

    My other two team members had finished applying tourniquets where needed, all we had to do was get the patient into the stretcher. As we began to roll his body onto his side, he became alert and responded to the pain by letting out a scream of shear agony. His scream echoed through the room and bounced off the steel of the walls. He grabbed my arm and squeezed as tight as he could. I looked him in his eyes and assured him that I was doing everything in my power and ability to save him. He then gasped for air as what sounded like blood gargling through his mouth.

   We secured him onto the stretcher and carried it over to where the pulley was above the ladder. We hooked up the four corners of the stretcher to the ropes and gave the team above the ladder clearance to begin hoisting the patient up. As he was being hoisted into the air, my team and I rushed up the ladder well so we could continue our transport to the flight deck. As we were going up the ladder, I could hear the team above us as they were pulling the ropes.


   They were pulling our patient up faster than we were able to climb the ladder. When we reached the doorway, our stretcher was there with our patient waiting on us. We quickly recouped from our climb and took ahold of the stretcher. We had another long five minutes ahead of us. Carrying the stretcher through the tight passageways and doorways was not an easy task. The passageways were about three-foot-wide, and the doorways were about two-foot-wide. Each doorway required us to stop and allow for one person at a time to go through. That is what slowed down our journey the most. 


   When my team and I arrived at the flight deck, the ship helicopter was out of the hanger and was warming up. The doctor greeted us and asked me;


   “Vitals are the same sir! He had a moment of painful stimuli when we moved him, but that is it. One tourniquet is on the right arm and another on the left femur. Time applied is marked on the straps.”

   The doctor wasted no time in assessing the patient himself. I could hear the rotors of the helicopter running at full speed. The pilot gave word that he was ready for medical transport. The doc finished his assessment and cleared us to load the stretcher onto the helicopter.

   As we began our approach to the aircraft, the force of the wind generated by the rotors made it difficult to carry our patient. I looked at my team and yelled;


  Another ten yards and we reached the loading dock. There was a corpsman onboard to act as the flight medic. I passed report on to the corpsman and finished securing the stretcher inside of the aircraft. I looked down at my injured shipmate and tried to assure him that he was going to be okay.

   My team and I turned away from the aircraft door and backed away from the flight deck landing zone. We stood there and watched as the helicopter lifted off the deck and flew out of our sight.

   The doctor approached my men and I and praised us for our efforts. I then asked;

   “Doc! How is our other two injured shipmates doing?”

   “They are going to be fine. One will need skin grafts for his burns, but they are both going to be just fine.”

   “Thank you doc!”


   We gathered our gear and returned to our repair locker to await further orders. It was around 0800 hours when the orders came through to stand down. I stripped my blood stained gear off of me and proceeded to the shower.


         That somber morning, the ship and its crew was dead in the water. We waited for what seemed like days, but it was only eight hours until the tugboats arrived to pull us back to the closest Navy port, which happened to be Norfolk, Virginia. I was physically and mentally drained, yet somehow my men and mustered up the energy to pull off the towing detail. We had two tugboats. One off our bow, and one to the stern.

    To connect the tugboats to our ship, we had to cast a line from our ship to their vessel. The tugboats took our lines and connected through the eyes of their deck and onto a pair of bollards. After the lines were connected on their end, we gave them the slack they needed in the line and we tied off our end of the lines to our bollards. The tugboat off our bow had the most strain on the line as it was pulling us, while the one to our stern was essentially pushing us.

   The journey into port took the remainder of the day and night. The tugboats had to wait until high tide so it could pull us pier side the following morning. As we approached the pier, I instantly noticed more stars than I had ever seen in my career, waiting on the pier. There were at least a dozen admirals and many other high-ranking officers standing there waiting for us to be docked.

   The moment we were docked, the officers and inspectors boarded our ship. Needless to say, a few weeks went by and our Captain was relieved of her command. As for those injured, all but one, the critically injured, survived. I stay in contact with many of my shipmates through social media to this day. We are planning a reunion for next year and we will be holding a memorial for our fallen shipmate from that night, along with the many others we have lost through the passing years.

   As for me, this tragic night at sea constantly haunts my mind. The smell of burning coffee, the blast of explosions such as fireworks, are triggers that take me back to that night. It is a moment from my life that I’ll never be able to forget.