Aboard Atlantis

Wednesday, September 06, 2006


Among the misfortunes that befall ships at sea, none inspires more fear than fire. Storms, collisions, grounding - they're mere princes in the kingdom of hazards. Fire is king. One spark, one smoldering ember, one short circuit. An oily rag, a tuft of insulation, a greasy oven. It only takes a minute. And in that minute a fire can grow into an inferno hot enough to warp steel, boil paint, and incinerate anything it encounters.

That's why Atlantis holds weekly fire and boat drills. Regular emergency training, it is hoped, will instill a reflexive response to the smell of smoke. A response, that is, that diverges from the usual reflexive response - panic. Nothing seizes the attention like the smell of smoke. It stimulates the adrenal gland and stokes the imagination. It quickens the pulse and elevates blood pressure. Pupils dialate, hands shake. The mouth dries. The lizard brain stirs. Fight or flight, except there's no where to run.

Word of the drill spread. The crew gathered in the galley, dropping their life jackets and survival suits beside their chairs. At precisely 10:20 am, the general alarm bell mounted on the galley bulkhead erupted in a shrill, ear-splitting metallic clatter. Simultaneously, the ship's horn sounded a 10-second blast, the standard alarm for fire and emergencies. The captain's voice sounded over the intercom. "Fire, fire, fire. This is just a drill. Fire, fire, fire. Go to your fire and emergency stations."

The crew jumped to their feet, purpose guiding their movements. Atlantis' 22 crewmember (and 6 Alvin crewmembers) must quickly extinguish any fire or risk the loss of the vessel. Each crewmember is assigned a fire and emergency station. Each station has a designated meeting place - the bridge, for example, or outside the damage control locker - and each crewmember must perform a specific duty. Engineers start fire pumps and close the ship's water-tight doors. Cooks search all cabins for unconscious personnel. Electronics technicians send out distress signals. Able-bodied and ordinary seamen crew the emergency squads. Led by ship's officers, the emergency squads are the early responders. They must find and extinguish any fires.

Atlantis' damage control lockers contain a managerie of firefighting equipment, everything from firefighting suits and oxygen breathing apparatus, to fire extinguishers and extra fire hoses. Everything a squad of amateur firefighters needs to fight a fire. But without adequate training, they might as well just launch the life rafts.

And so we train. For our voyage's first drill, Atlantis' chief mate, Carl, volunteered me, fellow deckhand, Steve, and galley messman, Brendon, to don firefighting suits. While I peeled off my sweatshirt and kicked off my boots, other squad members unzipped the heavy canvas bags containing the suits.

My suit was the classic firefighter's ensemble - thick rubber boots, yellow insulated pants, red suspenders, and a heavy jacket with shiny metal clasps and leather elbow patches. The plus-sized pants hung from my waist like clown pants. Balaclava for the head and neck, check. Thick leather gloves and shiny yellow helmet with drop down visor. Check. Someone placed an oxygen breathing apparatus on my back, and hands guided my arms though its straps. I leaned forward, felt the weight, and pulled the staps tight.

A face mask filled my hand. Check the seal. Place mask against the face, hold palm across bottom of the trunk-like air hose hanging beneath. Inhale. Should create a vacuum. The mask sucked tight to my chin, cheeks and forehead. Good. An airtight seal. Unseen fingers pulled the mask's straps tightly around the back of my neck and head. The air hose is connected to the air tank, and the valve is opened. Cool, dry air floods my mask. I breathe deeply. I sound like a scuba diver. I put on gloves and a helmet. I'm ready to go. I feel empowered, capable, competent. I glimpse my reflection in a crewmate's reflective sunglasses. Oh well, you can't have everything. I look away. Standing men crowd the galley. They orbit Steve and Brendon like attendents dressing a Venetian courtesan. The two men, encased in their face masks, helmets, and silver, pseudo-aluminum fire suits, look like spacemen in a 1950's B-movie.

Meanwhile, in the main science lab, Atlantis' complement of 24 scientists gathered for an orientation. In the event of an emergency, you'll muster here in the main lab, a ship's officer tells them. Bring your life jackets and survival suits, as I see you've done. Good. Your primary job will be to stay safely out of the way. But if needed, you may be asked to relay messages between ship's officers and members of the emergency squads. Of course that means someone's probably died, ha ha. But no, seriously...

The horn and emergency alarm sound again. Seven short blasts followed by one long. Abandon ship. "Now hear this." The captain's voice again. "All hands, abandon ship. Go to your abandon ship stations."

If fire is the king of the kingdom of hazards, sinking is queen. The royal pair nearly always travels as a couple. While the crew dispersed to their assigned stations, science's orientation continued. The ship's officer fingers a cherubic University of Washington undergrad. Put on the survival suit? His cheeks redden, but he's game. He kneels and considers the "gumby" immersion suit.

Thick, orange neoprene adorned with strips of reflective tape. Flat, formless feet, and baggy, shapeless legs. Voluminous midsection bisected by waterproof metal zipper. Two shapeless arms terminating in two insensate gloves. Tight fitting hood, Velcro face flap. Inflatable floatation bladder behind neck. Ugly, distorted and unfashionable, the gumby suit nevertheless assumes a beauty that grows in proportion to the proximity of the invading sea.

Designed to be entered fully clothed, the survival suit's thick neoprene acts as a barrier between the human body and hypothermia. Cold water steals body heat. The body responds by drawing warm blood from the extremities and pumping it into the lungs and vital organs. Deprived of blood, the arms and legs stiffen and cramp. Staying afloat becomes difficult. Fatigue sets in. Respiration shortens into shallow gasps. Panic rises. Hard to breath without swallowing salt water. The end nears.

The cherub opens the suit and jams his boot into one of the legs. It catches on a fold and stops. He pulls harder, but it's no use. He tries again, aware of the eyes watching him. He pulls so hard his face grimaces. The ship rolls, sending him hopping one-legged across the deck. Sit down and try working the suit over your boot, says the officer. It works. Good, now the other. Good. The cherub stands, pulls the suit up to his waist and plunges one hand and then the other down into the suit's arms. He hops up and down several times. He stretches and reaches and swings both arms until his hands seat in the gloves. Good. Now the hood. He misses at first. He's working by feel, but he can feel nothing through the neoprene fingers. He succeeds finally and the hood swallows his head. He grabs the zipper cord near his crotch and yanks it upward until just his face is exposed. He closes the face flap over his mouth. Good. It's just that simple. Sympathetic applause rewards the wheezing student. Now everybody try...

Three short horn blasts and three rings of the general alarm signal the end of the drill. Fourty minutes have passed. The Atlantis continues at full speed on its westward course.

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