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BETWIXT FIRE AND WATER

Adventure in the Arabia Sea

AUTHOR: Late Ahmed Ghulamali Chagla

Fire on any ship is a dangerous thing.  On a passenger ship it is disastrous.  I shall never be able to efface the memory of the incident described here.

It happened a good many years ago.  It was the month of April when the seas in Indian waters are usually calm and smooth.  I was on board a pilgrim ship bound for Jeddah (Red Sea) from Persian Gulf ports.  Those were the days when any old tub was considered good enough for the pilgrim trade.  Not like the present when well appointed and even air-conditioned modern liners have been placed on the run.

She was a former South American mail boat.  In her old age she had been sold to a Chinese company engaged in "coolie-trade" in Far Eastern waters.  Now, almost at the end of her days, a small foreign company (now defunct) had put her in the seasonal pilgrim trade, transporting Asiatic Muslim pilgrims going to Mecca.  Jeddah, the destination, is the port for Mecca.

This being the last sailing of the season, the ship carried a full complement of passengers.  All the cabins were full; even the saloon was converted into "cubicles".  The deck passengers squatted all over the ship - on the boat deck, on the first class saloon deck, down under the hatches numbers 3 and 4, and even in the closed, almost airless spaces on the two sides of the engine room, the boilers and the furnaces.  The only anxiety of the pilgrims was to get to Mecca in time for the Haj Pilgrimage.  Discomforts did not matter.

There were over a thousand pilgrims from Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chinese Turkestan, and Central Asia on board.  These usually come from down their distant inland homes to the nearest port, which may be over a thousand miles away, and there catch a pilgrim ship.  Most of these holy passengers had never seen the sea before, much less boarded a ship.

The seas were smooth but the heat of the pre-monsoon period was intense.  Three days out from the last port of call the heat increased.  There was not a ripple on the glassy surface of the water; not a whiff of breeze.  The cabin was stuffy and at eight bells, midnight, I went up on the deck for a breath of fresh air.  I was on a business trip going only as far as Aden, the next port of call.

The decks, as usual were over crowded.  It was not surprising to see a number of deck passengers from below, with their shirts off, walking about restlessly, fanning themselves and complaining of the unbearable heat.  Most of them were inhabitants of Central Asia and this damp heat was a new experience to them.

I was standing under the bridge peering into the darkness of the night.  From my position I soon saw a party of lascars led by a ship's officer un-batten hatch number 2, on the fore deck, remove the coverings and descend down.  In a few minutes the officer came up covered with coal dust and rushed up towards the bridge.  To my surprise a hose-pipe was led into the hold and the pump set working.

"What's up?" I asked the officer who had returned from the bridge and was rushing past me towards the open hold.  "Spontaneous combustion!" he shouted and disappeared.

A moment later the Captain followed him down the hatch.  When he came up I asked him if it was serious.  "It may be" was his guarded reply.

I learnt that cheap coal had been stored in the forward holds for the return voyage to save the cost of bunkering at Port Sudan or at Aden.  Bunkering in Port Sudan is always a costly affair.  Due to the intense heat the cheap coal was smoldering.  Fresh water was being played on it.  This was not an unusual occurrence in the tropics.  Just then a slight breeze sprung up on the starboard quarter and it was cooler now.  I retired to my cabin.

Next day and the next night the heat continued to increase.  Even the temperature was abnormally high.  Now a thin column of smoke could be seen rising from hatch number 2.  On the second night rather a strong breeze had sprung up from right ahead.  The column of smoke rising from the smoldering hold was thicker now.  As the smoke came up above it was blown right on to the decks, now over-crowded with panting and choking passengers.

As yet there was no panic.  Most of the passengers, though not used to sea travel, were hardened to travel by land in the mountainous and desert regions of Central Asia.  To their inexperienced eyes this was probably one of the many uncomfortable incidents of travel by sea which they had to suffer in patience.

We were still three hundred miles from Aden.  Though her registration certificate boasted a speed of 13.5 knots, the old ship burning cheap coal could hardly manage ten.  That meant at least a day and a half's run to Aden - and to safety.

That night I retired early.  When my eyes opened the next morning there was a bitter taste in my mouth and I felt choked.  A distinct smell of coal smoke pervaded the cabin.  Jumping out of the bunk, I looked around.  The bed linen, the mirror, and the white washing basin were all covered with a thin film of coal dust.  There were also some sounds of faint shouting overhead.  Something seemed to be wrong up on the deck.  Without waiting to dress, I rushed up in my pyjamas.  The scene that met my eyes was indescribable.

Pandemonium was let loose.  Men, women, and children of almost all races of Central and South-western Asia were rushing about the decks stricken with panic.  Smoke was belching out of the ship's forward hatches as from the funnel.  A strong wind blew the heavy smoke all over the ship.  The frightened pilgrims were all coughing, choked by the acrid fumes.  Tears were trickling down many smarting eyes.

The situation was alarming enough.  I had more than enough experience of sea travel to grasp what this unusual situation signified.  Just then the Captain came down the bridge, unkempt, unshaven, and disheveled.  He looked more like a stoker at the end of his watch before the furnaces than a spruce and clean captain of a passenger ship.

"Is it serious Captain?", I asked.

"Not very".  And then he added: "It might be - quite soon."  He looked a cornered man.  But the traditions of the sea were in his blood and he had not lost his inner poise under stress.  

"Can I do anything?"  He looked me up and down and asked: "Are you a seafaring man?"

"Almost one", I replied with a smile.  "Do you know their lingo?" he asked, pointing at the passengers.

"That's enough.  Try and keep this landlubberly crowd quiet if you can.  They're a  nuisance.  Anything might happen."

"Meaning?"

"Well, the S.O.S. has been put through.  A.P.&O and a City Line freighter are not far off.  I'm trying to make Aden which is quite near.  But anything might happen and in case I have to abandon ....."

He was not allowed to complete the sentence.  A burly Iraqian Arab, with a green turban and long flowing robes, rushed in between us.  With his powerful left hand he held the skipper by the shoulder; in his upraised right hand he flourished a dagger.  All along he was jabbering away in Arabic that I did not understand.  Soon he was overpowered by lascars who came at a run, but the man continued to shout at the crowd which was getting more and more excited.  Fortunately I was able to snatch away the dagger from his hand from behind.  Meanwhile an Iranian pilgrim, who knew Arabic, approached me.

"The Arab says", whispered the Iranian, "that he has seen covers of the lifeboats being removed.  He is telling the crowd that the Captain and crew are abandoning ship, leaving the passengers to their fate.  He is also urging them to kill the Captain and to take some boats."

When I had explained this to the Captain he burst out laughing.  So did the other ship's officers who stood nearby.  The interpretation of the situation seemed ludicrous to them, the trained seamen that they were.

The laughter of the Captain and officers broke the nervous tension of the crowd.  Up to this moment their attitude had been menacing indeed.  But if the skipper could laugh, they argued among themselves, the situation could not be really serious!

"Tell them", the Captain said in a withering tone, "the loss of my ship and of any lives while I am in command would mean more to me than it would mean to anyone in this blasted rabble of landlubbers.  You see it, don't you?"  So saying he rushed down the companionway on to the fore deck and thence down the blazing hatch.  It was a brave thing to do indeed.

After he had gone I tried to pacify the crowd as best as I could.  I would say something in Persian and it would immediately be translated into various Asiatic languages by different people in the crowd who understood Persian.  Each would shout at his own section.  Then the crowd would shout back questions in a babble of tongues that nobody could follow!

"O Muslims!", I harangued, "O pilgrims to the Holy Ka'aba, the House of Allah at Mecca; remember that you are in Allah's hands!  Surely He will protect you.  Calm down; keep cool; have faith; we have the finest Captain in the world in command of this ship!  He would rather die than let any harm come to you.  Above all, remember Allah, good people, remember the Great Allah!  ALLAH-O-AKBAR!"

An appeal to their emotion and religious sentiment brought forth a response and a mighty shout went up in the crowd: "ALLAH-O-AKBAR!"  But I continued to strike while the iron was hot!  And then came one voice over the others:

"He speaks the truth!  Allah is our protection!"

Very soon they were all reciting Arabic verses from the Quran and shouting "Allah-o-Akbar!" at the top of their voices.  Another willing worker took my place and I rushed to the starboard side to find out how matters stood there.

The sight that met my eyes would have been amusing had not the situation been so very serious.  A number of men and women had put on the white shroud in which the Muslims wrap their dead.  Every pilgrim carries one.  This kafan is not to be confused with the ihram worn during the pilgrimage.  They expected the ship t go down any minute and, in true religious spirit, many had resigned themselves to their fate.  It is only the time of stress that brings out the best - and the worst - in a person!  While on the other deck fear had turned men into veritable beasts, out for the blood of the Captain, on this deck the atmosphere was quite different.

While some were actually reciting funeral prayers others held the open Quran and read loudly.  A few sat aside in quiet meditation, with eyes closed, mumbling prayers.  They had done with this world; their eyes were already on the next world .....

Soon the Captain returned from the burning hold.  He was the very picture of a coal black nigger and his hair was singed.  Seeing the  question in my eyes he said briefly: "Number 1 is also smoldering; but we'll make Aden."  And so we did.

A couple of hours later the rocks of Aden were sighted.  The ship resounded with shouts of relief and prayers of thanksgiving.  The inexperienced pilgrims did not realise that the danger was not yet past.

The Captain was on the bridge.  I clearly heard his order: "Full speed ahead!"  The engine room telegraph twanged; a reply came from down below.  Soon the hard driven old ship was shaking as she made speed.  As the ship changed course the wind shifted and fumes and smoke were blown away to one side.  The situation became distinctly easier.  Very soon we were near the entrance to the outer harbour.

The skipper however was not taking any more chances with the "landlubber" passengers in his charge!  He signaled for the police!  Before even the pilot came aboard, a strong force of Aden harbour police came rushing in a fast launch.  They were soon in charge of the situation.

One wonders what would have happened if the month had not been the calm April, but June or July when monsoon is at its height!

There is nothing like the sea, especially at the time of emergency, to bring out the worst and the best in a man!

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