The Yearbook Office
Writings on staying alive

We had a fire in the engine room today. More of a smolder really, but lots of smoke and the smell of burning plastic.

It is only the second time in my entire history at sea that the ship's bells have rung for an emergency and it not been a drill. I support marine research at sea on a vessel operated by a West Coast university. The research changes, the scientists change but the boat stays the same. My role here is to support the shipboard equipment, act as a liaison between new scientists and our vessel's capabilities and train the science party in safety at sea.

The trip has been relaxing. We are transiting from one location to another to begin the next leg of research. The science party is down to two volunteers, Cindy and Joshua, as well as my counterpart, Ed. I sat at my computer, browsing Facebook, chatting with friends on shore and pretending to be busy.

First the bells started ringing. And I thought, "Weird, we already tested the bells today. And it's not drill day." Then the mate's voice came over the PA, "Fire in the engine room, this is not a drill, report to your muster stations." And the boat began to slow.

The boat slowing is surprisingly intense. It doesn't happen quickly, there is no stopping on a dime, but the ambient noise immediately changes. High pitched sounds deepen or disappear entirely and the rolling/pitching begins to slow down. It feels like someone hits slow-mo on everything around you, while you speed up. And your heart rate goes through the upper deck.

In an emergency scenario, my role is to muster in the main lab, account for the science party, report to the bridge, stand by and assist the assistant cook with watertight doors if necessary. I've drilled it a million times.

I was "working" beside my muster station when the alarm was raised and in 5 steps, I was where I belonged. It was a little smoky already. Cindy was already present. Should she head to her stateroom to pick up her emergency gear, a life vest and immersion suit, as per our drills? Her stateroom was next to mine and it was directly towards the engine room. Once I knew where she was and safe, I didn't want that status to change, so I told her to stay put. As soon as Joshua and Ed were in sight with their own gear, I went to my room and grabbed two sets of gear, one for her, and reported back to the main lab.

Next, I called the bridge to report the science party present and accounted for. No rescue parties were necessary today, at least on our behalf.

I opened the water tight doors at the aft end of the lab so that I could see and hear the crew on deck gearing up for the fire and to clear them a passage into the ship and toward the engine room.

I've been through the STCW* safety training. I've donned the gear myself for a simulation. I extinguished a real fire in a burnt out husk of a boat that was now a controlled environment of gas flames, found a "victim" in the smoky dark and aimed a fire hose at the base of an inferno. My experience was in Seattle, in snow and I was a bucket of sweat.

We are in the tropics. I can't imagine standing in the sun today and waiting at 28 deg celsius and 76% humidity with 40lbs of head-to-toe protective gear. Not waiting to take it off and be relieved, but waiting to rush into cramped spaces filled with heat and smoke.

I grabbed a radio, across the hall in the computer lab, but not more than 10 feet away. Then we could listen and wait for further instruction. It took a few minutes to account for all the engineers that were on watch. For a moment, no one knew where Shaun was. Let me rephrase, for an eternity, no one knew where Shaun was. And the chief engineer's voice comes over the radio, "I'm with Shaun."

And breathing resumes.

It was practically contained and over before we finished mustering. The fire crew never had to go to the engine room. Power was cut to whatever had caused the problem, it was hit with an extinguisher and the engine room vented of smoke. While we all stood by and waited to hear that it hadn't reignited, that it really was out.

And then, it was over. Just like that. We were dismissed, while the fire crew undressed and went below to check out the scene as a learning experience for the future.

The entire event was over in 20 minutes. But my adrenaline, wasn't going anywhere. My brain tossed around things I did wrong. Things I did right. Things I could do better.

The only other emergency I've been apart of at sea was a late night fuel leak in another time, on another vessel. We mustered merely as a precaution, in case it resulted in bigger problems. It was on another boat. I was a guest, I had no responsibility for anyone but myself. This was the first time I wore responsibility. It was heavy, and hot.

I went back to my computer to write about this and the avatars of my friends and family were staring at me with the solid green orbs that indicate availability in each of my chat clients. Moments ago I was responding to an emergency at sea, with my heart beating out my chest, worried about the safety of those on board while my own little avatar smiled at my friends. I didn't realize before how that green light comforted me. My friends were there, waiting for me. But anything could be happening behind their keyboards. Anything! So could you all check in now and tell me you are OK?

* I do not have any idea what STCW stands for. ^