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Part Sixteen - Fire on the Water

The first warning of trouble comes from your sense of smell, for burning oil has a distinct aroma that sets off near panic within your brain. You turn your head in the direction that seems correct in time to see the coming smoke, like fog engulfing a harbor, but in super-fast motion. The smoke is dark and heavy on the lungs. Your first reaction is to locate the source of the combustion and then send out the alarm. Time slows down to split second questions and decisions. Where and how large is the fire? Is there time to try to fight it? At what point should you pull out before the fire doors close and the dry chemical from the fire protection system is dispersed and displaces the oxygen and suffocates the fire along with all living things within the compartment? As you rush to grab the nearest fire extinguisher more questions enter your mind. Is the fire near anything that could be explosive? Where are all the other workers? Are there any who are injured? Does the fire block any of the avenues of escape? Is the fire in or around the ventilation system? If so, should you first close some dampers or maybe shut the whole system down? This last question is important for two reasons. First, the system could be feeding the fire by blowing air on it or making it burn faster by sucking air out. Second, if the grease in an up-take of a ventilation system catches on fire, it could spread the fire throughout the ship.

In trying to fight the fire you must first locate the major hotspot and then try to analyze how the fire is spreading. Then you must decide where and if you are going to fight it. In deciding where to place yourself to fight the fire, you must not allow the fire can cut off your escape route. In most cases you fight a fire at the base of the flames, but as you are doing that you must keep an eye on the smoke, because you may have to climb up through the smoke to get out if you cannot reach the escape hatch, or if the escape hatch is full of smoke.

What should be obvious in a situation like a shipboard fire is that experience and training will make the difference between worker's deaths and saved lives; between a small contained fire and a ship sinking. Regularly the papers are full of stories of shipboard fires, and these incidents are increasing. The trend of the New Economic Order is to find labor as cheap as possible and to produce cheap products and cheap maintenance at the expense of safety, quality control, wages, working conditions, and environmental protection.

The point of this writing is that to face the problems and dangers of industry, as radical unionists, we need to develop an experienced and well-trained working class. We need to do this so that when a crisis situation comes about it can be dealt with in such a way as to minimize any harmful effect; we cannot depend upon the employing class because their only real concern is their profits.

We need to develop accident prevention methods. To make my point even stronger, think about it for a moment, (those of you who know little about ships), what would happen if you were placed in the middle of an engine room fire? The same thing that happens to those inexperienced and untrained crews. You would find out that the only thing you are qualified to do is to run like hell, and, even then, you may have to be told which direction to run. There was a cruise ship a while back that had what started out as an engine room fire and they ended up having to have the passengers form bucket brigades, later the ship sunk. In other words the situation got so bad that the inexperience crew lost control and panicked, tried to use inexperienced passengers that meant that they were willing to put these people and themselves in harms way just to try to save the bosses moneymaker.

To effectively fight such a fire, you need to not only know the questions you must ask yourself, but you must also be able to answer those questions yourself, for you could find yourself cut off from those who are more knowledgeable than you. You also must be able to overcome your fear. With the situation around you deteriorating quickly, smoke and fire racing towards you and you feel that gut level fear begin to surge through you. The only way to overcome such fear is in the confidence that the knowledge you possess will tell you how to react to the situation. It may be a bit too easy to think about what you may do in such a situation from the outside, but take it from someone who has been through a number of shipboard fires, you don't want to be caught there without knowing what to do.

The worst of the fires I experienced was down in New Orleans on an old ship that serviced the Panama Canal. We were on the ship to do some repairs when the Port Engineer asked one of our crew to burn some bolts off for him. The worker who did the burning was new to ships and he took the Port Engineer's word that all was safe to burn. The bolts were right below a ventilation up-take. Not knowing any better they did not close the damper on the vent, and a spark was drawn up into the vent setting the grease in it on fire.

Since the up-take sucks air by mechanical means, the fire raced up through the vent. I first smelled the burning grease and looked up to see thick, black smoke poured out of a vent. By the time I could stand up burning grease was falling out of overhead vents. The burner, one level below me, was not aware of the fire and was still burning. One crewmember was sent to sound the alarm, while another went off to warn others working in the engine room. That left two of us to try to fight the fire.

We gave up the fight after the smoke forced us to our knees, and we had to crawl to the bottom of the ladder way. Then, taking a deep breath, we ran two levels up the ladder way, through the smoke, to the only hatch we could reach. What saved our lives was that the upper fire door did not work and was still open Had that door been closed there would have been no way we could have opened it before we were overcome by the smoke. Once out that door we made our way off the ship. From the time the fire started in the lower level of the engine-room to the time we made it off the ship, no more than fifteen minutes had pasted. Once I was on the dock, I looked back at the ship and saw flames shooting out of the stack, some ten feet into the open air.

When thinking back on it, what saved five workers was that the ship's fire protection system did not work. Like most industries, the bosses think only of the protection of their capital investment, worker's lives are thus sacrificed on the altar of capitalist greed.

Most engine room fires are the direct result of two things, the lack of proper maintenance and greasy engine rooms. Most ships are only repaired in designated ports where the cheapest labor can be found. This means that needed repairs are put off. Because time is money in the capitalist system, engine-rooms are not cleaned as they should be, grease accumulates from the bottom of the bilge all the way up to the overhead deck and throughout the ventilation system. I have been on ships that seemed as if they had never been cleaned. Of all the horrors of the modern world, shipboard fires are one of the most preventable. The only thing that stands in the way of this is greed.

In this limited area of far reaching industrial problem, it can clearly be seen that capitalist greed is the direct cause of death, injuries and environmental damage. Using low paid, untrained and inexperienced workers to sail greasy death traps all over the world should be viewed as a crime against the working class, the passengers and the environment, and, like many other similar situations, the only power to change this is the organized power of the working class. Unfortunately much of the unionized working class is misorganized by business unions that hinder or suppress workers from taking on the struggle of health, safety end environmental protection. Though we do not yet have the organized power to deal with these situations, we should still develop solutions to these industrial problems. In the case of shipboard fires the solutions would include the following:

  • 1. The design end construction of ships should place safety, environmental protection and the working conditions of the crew over any other consideration.
  • 2. All ships should be outfitted with ell possible safety equipment end that equipment should be well maintained.
  • 3. All crews should be well trained in fire protection, including both prevention end fire fighting.
  • 4. All crews should be made up of experienced crews with apprentices in training.
  • 5. All ships should undergo inspection and maintenance programs that would include e degreasing program end monitoring of any possible source of combustion.

Such demands should have the power of organized labor behind them, end if e ship owner were to refuse then none of their ships would be sailed, repaired, serviced, loaded or unloaded. In other words those rust buckets would just sit. It will only be through the development of solutions to the industrial problems of health, safety, environmental protection and other such matters that the working class will be able to overcome the harmful effects of capitalism. For not only must the working class seize the means of production, but we must learn also learn how to use it safely.