I spent four years onboard a thirty year old destroyer. We never knew what was going to break next, we never knew when something was going to catch on fire, we never knew when we’d be called upon to do our job.
August 1987, somewhere in the Indian Ocean. We suffered a major fire in the aft fireroom. A gasket had blown out on a fuel oil pump and sprayed atomized diesel fuel onto the hot boiler casing. The Boiler Techs on watch shut the boilers down and evacuated the space. As the forward fireroom, my watch station, was shut down, the ship was dead in the water and floating towards China.
As the second nozzelman on the firefighting team, my first responsibility was to saving the ship. We strung hose and entered the space, secured the main fuel valve and put the fire out. Immediately after the space was secure and a fire watch set, I reported to my watch station in the forward fireroom where I was the senior burnerman. The person who was responsible for actually lighting the fires in the boiler. We attempted to get the electric fuel pumps working so we could light off the forward boilers and get steam back to the main engines and electric generators. But there was a problem. The emergency diesel generators had both failed. After ensuring the boiler was prepped for lighting, the watch supervisor, the upper-level watchstander and I all left the forward fireroom to assist the machinist mates in the forward auxiliary space. BT1 Carberry diagnosed the problem as being a loss of air pressure in the retaining tank (air pressure was needed to start the diesels)and since we had no electricity there was no way to start a pump to fill it. I inquired as to the possibility of rigging the CO2 fire system to the engine to crank it. After half an hour we had the system repiped and (much to everybody’s surprise) the diesel cranked over and after a few tries started.
We ran back to the fireroom and cranked up our electric fuel oil pump, shoved a torch in the boiler and proceeded to perform a very dangerous emergency pressurization of the boiler. Bringing a D-Type Boiler online is normally a forty-five minute to hour process. We had the boiler up to 1275 PSI in fifteen minutes and stable in another ten. Five minutes later the lines were purged, and steam was on its way to the main engines and the main generators. We were back under way.
I remember looking up at one of the 180 degree thermometers that hang about the boiler room. I remember it being topped out. I remember my division officer asking me how long I’d been down there… “the whole time” is what I remember telling him. The booted me out of the fireroom and onto the main deck. I remember opening the hatch to the main deck and being hit with the cool, 90+ degree air of the Indian Ocean. I sat down on the fantail, on the large capstan we had on deck, taking off my T-shirt and literally wringing the sweat out of it. Then, unfortunately, I remember Doc standing over me as I had apparently passed out.
We did what we had to do in the Navy, to save the ship. We put ourselves second, sometimes third, or fourth. The Hoel’s motto; Prima Inter Optimas translates as “First Amongst the Best”, and that’s what we were!