Fire in the Bilges

By Ken Smith


A young sailor learns the duties of a fire watch at the Curtis Bay, Maryland Coast Guard Yard.............................

After my first weather patrol, the HUMBOLDT went into a shipyard for repairs. No, not for something I did! It was routine overhaul work. One of the projects was to fabricate storage shelving for the electronic spare parts boxes, a project to be performed by a group of civilian welders. And a happy-go-lucky group they were. In the past, these heavy boxes were piled willy-nilly in a compartment deep in the bowels of the ship, right down at keel level. It was a three-man job to locate and retrieve one of those heavy boxes from amid the jumble.

Being the low man on the ET totem pole, I was assigned the fire watch while the civilian welders shot sparks all over the place. All went well for a time. When the civilians found I was interested in learning to weld, they were more than happy to let me don a welding face shield and have at it while they did the heavy supervising.

One day, when I wasn't welding, there was a mighty S-W-O-O-S-H, then a sudden bilge fire flamed up. The brave welders said, "Get the hell out of here!" and left me to deal with the problem. As they disappeared up the ladder and out of the compartment, I yelled after them, "Get some help!"

The fire was under the deck plates in the bilge spaces, and I quickly found out that they were welded in place. By now the flames were shooting up from many of the small places between the plates, but none were big enough to get the horn on my COČ extinguisher to fire. Flames were squirting up where the deck plates met the bulkhead, and it suddenly dawned on me that on the other side of the bulkhead was the powder magazine. That put a sobering new slant on the problem.

One or two of the deck plates, I found, had apparently come loose in the past and had been repaired by screwing them down. Taking one of the welder's crowbars, I pried up the edge enough to get the COČ horn in there and let 'er rip. It was working, and a good thing, because by now I was really scared.

The problem was that the ship had fore and aft ribs and I was only getting COČ in one alley. So I started prying other plates up and doused those spaces, too. About this time, I had things pretty well under control and was dealing only with flashbacks. Now, of course, the fire brigade showed up to tell me how to put the fire out.

It all ended well. I saved the HUMBOLDT, didn't get a medal, and nobody even said 'thank you.'

Go figure!

From Coast Guard Stories by Don Gardner


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