USS Hoel, DDG-13
USS Hoel, DDG-13

One night two decades ago, early in my naval career, I nearly lost my life at least three times. It was mostly sheer luck that I didn’t. That plus the fact that Heaven don’t want no boiler technicians messing up the place and the Devil’s afraid we’ll wreak havoc in Hell.

In 1987 I was deployed to the Indian Ocean aboard the USS Hoel, a guided missile destroyer out of San Diego. One night I woke up in my rack (bed) and the thought “something is wrong” went through my head.

I poked my head out of the curtains on my rack and noticed that two other engineers had their heads stuck out and more heads were joining them.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

After a couple of “dunno’s” and “it’s too quiet’s”, everyone shut up for about half a second and we could hear the waves lapping against the thin hull of our ship. I can still hear to this day, twenty plus years later Boiler Technician Second Class Stewart’s words; “oh shit…I can’t hear the generators.”

To this day, I find it amazing how attuned to our ship many of us were.  We’d play a game a the ladder leading to the fireroom, “what equipment is running?”  You might be surprised how many times the old-salts would be right.

Anyhow, Stewart had barely gotten the words out when the sound of rack curtains being thrown aside ripped through the compartment.  The Hoel’s off duty engineers were swiftly dropping out of racks, pulling-to, grabbing dungarees, getting dressed and telling the other engineers who weren’t so attuned to their ship’s heartbeat to get up and get to their duty stations.

That’s when General Quarters was called over the 1MC (the ship’s intercom). For me, it was the first time that I heard the words “General Quarter, General Quarters, all hands man your battle stations. Fire in the number two fireroom! This is not a drill!”  THIS IS NOT A DRILL!  You hear this phrase in movies all the time, you think you’re prepared for it. But in real life, those six words can shock even the most lackadaisical crew into fevered action, and we’d never been called lackadaisical!  But now our ship and crewmates were in danger and we simply were having none of it.

As a mass we were moving towards the ladder leading to the main deck out of the berthing compartment, still dressing as we went. Thoughts of fire and explosion going through our brains like knives.  It was scene of controlled chaos, and orchestrated ballet that we’d performed many times before, but only as a dress rehearsal.  Tonight, the house was packed and it was packed with critics! I had on my untied boots and my shirt but not my pants which were in my hands as I climbed the ladder.  I quickly realized the main passageway was crammed with sailors and decided for the sake of expediency to head to the starboard (right) side exterior deck and make my way forward to the Fireroom where I was the senior burnerman (the person responsible for firing the boiler).   This would prove to be a potentially fatal choice.

The Hoel, an Adams class guided missile destroyer had twin engineering spaces, two firerooms, two enginerooms, and two auxiliary rooms.  One each forward, one each aft.  Since we were in what was considered “safe” waters, the forward fireroom, had been taken off line for maintenance the day before leaving the chore of generating the steam which kept the ship’s engines and generators turning to the aft fireroom. We would learn later that a gasket on the fuel oil pump in the aft fireroom failed.  This caused the pump, which operates at about 120 psi to spray high pressure fuel all over a hot boiler. We were fortunate in that the GQ call was wrong. The on-duty fire-team was on the ball and hosed it all down with firefighting foam thus averting a fire and possible explosion. People, probably the five men on watch, very likely would have lost their lives if the fuel had flashed.

Anyway, there I was, at some ungodly hour of the morning, there was no sun, it seemed as if there was no moon, we were dead in the water, the ship was rocking port to starboard and I was making my way down the starboard side of the ship, hopping on one leg, putting my pants on when the ship took a hard, starboard (right) roll. Now, the only thing between me and Mother Ocean was a three foot tall wire lifeline. I knew that if I went overboard here the odds of being rescued were very, very slim for several reasons; 1. the ship is more important than I am, 2. I’m the only person on this side of the ship and 3. it is bloody dark out there. They say the past flashes before your eyes in an event of this nature, not true, no, this time I saw the future, and it was full of happy, well fed sharks. But I flailed out and grabbed hold of the ship’s crane, which swung out a ways, taking me momentarily over the brink (dum, dadum, dadumdadum – I swear I could see the fins) and then when the ship rolled back I was deposited ass first on the deck. With little time to deal with the panic that had set in, I put my pants on, shook for a minute and then headed for my fireroom.

Which was in chaos. The emergency lighting was on, which means the emergency diesel generators hadn’t kicked on like they were supposed to, which, was not entirely unexpected. Chief Barge (yes that was his name) was on the phone to the auxiliary spaces where we had two emergency diesel generators (one forward, one aft, both P.O.S.’s) and was reading the sailors the riot act.  Yelling is a lot of what Navy Chief’s do, that and drink coffee (and yes, he had coffee).

I grabbed the two sailors who I directly supervised at the boiler front and told them to get the boiler prepped for light off; I advised Petty Officer Carberry, my direct supervisor that my intent was the to use emergency light off procedures to bring the boiler to full operating pressure in fifteen minutes (a procedure which can be safely done in about an hour) the instant we had electricity and could start the electric fuel pump.  Afterwards we’d bring the second boiler online using standard procedures so we could bring the first boiler down and light it off properly.

Then we waited. A Navy ship, dead in the water, flounders. They are top heavy and not meant to sit still in the open ocean. Rumor was that if the ship had taken a 32 degree roll, there were sheer pins on the stacks and the guns that would…well…sheer… and the stacks and the guns fall overboard in a last ditch attempt to right the ship before she turtles (perhaps the most famous vessel to which this has happened is the German battleship Bismarck which after losing her battle with the British fleet, turtled. The ship’s main turrets, those nasty fifteen inch guns, fell out of their housings away from the main hull where they were found decades later on the ocean bottom).  Now I don’t know if the whole sheer pin thing is true or not, the way many of the bosun’s acted on deck that night, I suspect either it was, or they believed it was. We were in trouble. We had already sent an S.O.S. to the fleet and the USS Missouri was enroute. We would learn later that we had taken several 28 degree rolls.

After about an hour, one of the emergency generators was brought online. We cranked up the electric fuel pump and I grabbed the torch, lit it, shoved it in the boiler, confirmed that the torch had remained lit and I ordered my assistant burnerman to open “CRACK THE MAIN FUEL VALVE ONE QUARTER TURN!”… he was a little overzealous, or there was a back pressure, or there had been fuel leaking into the burner assembly, because when the burner lit  it back-flashed and shot a jet of fire out the torch port, and up the sleeve of the welding jacket I was wearing. Fire shot up through my shirt and over my chest and face. It was officially the first time I’d been on fire (though it wouldn’t be the last in my naval career). I jerked the torch clear at the same instant and a jet of flame shot across the fireroom and struck the other boiler front.  The third burnerman and one of the lower-levelmen dove out of the way. I was already stripping the jacket off and smoldering as a different lower-levelman (another watchstander with different duties) hosed me down with a CO2 fire extinguisher. I was fortunate, not only had the fire only singed me, the hair on my left arm, left chest, half my mustache and my eyebrow were…well…gone, but I had avoided being hosed down with fire fighting foam, a corrosive soap that likely would have been like pouring battery acid all over my body (but a damned sight better and somewhat less fatal than burning to death). So I carried on after going to the scuttlebutt (water fountain), getting a drink, and shaking for a couple of minutes.

I sent my assistants up to the main deck to cool off. We’d all been in a space with no ventilation and at least 115 degree heat (that’s as high as the thermometers went) for over an hour. I stayed down and made sure the boiler was functioning properly and prepare the second boiler for light off (for combat readiness reasons, we could fight with one boiler, but we would be fighting crippled).

Fortunately, we got ventilation back and that made things bearable until the Chief Engineer, who directly supervised the light-off, asked me how long I’d been in the space. When I told him he put the Boiler Technician First Class Carberry in charge of the boiler front and ordered me out.

When I hit the main deck it was like walking into a cold shower. The shock of it took me to my knees. It was ninety degrees outside, and it felt like a cold fall day to me after being in the fireroom for so long. I passed plumb out. Fortunately, most of the crew not involved in engineering were on deck, but if there hadn’t been someone near me, I very likely would have simply rolled over the side and drowned without uttering a word. This is the event that both my neurologist and I think think is the root cause my seizure disorder. There is no proof of that, but I think that I had a seizure that night and it wasn’t documented in the chaos.

So, nearly tossed overboard, nearly burned up, and then nearly dying from dehydration and shock; all in one night. I was given a day to recover and put right back at my post keeping the Hoel’s fires burning.

Today the Hoel is gone, and so are Boiler Technicians.  The Navy runs on nuclear power, diesel engines and gas turbines.  The Carrier Kitty Hawk (Aka “Battle Cat, Aka “Shitty Kitty”), decommissioned in 2009 was supposedly the last conventionally powered steam ship in the U.S. fleet.  The Kitty will remain in the ready reserve fleet until 2015, when hopefully, she’ll be docked permanently besides the USS North Carolina in Wilmington.  It’s probably for the best, those old 1200 psi boilers were cranky, hard to operate, difficult to maintain, and sometimes, just downright dangerous.  But it is a shame, the end of the steam era giving way to the gas turbine as the main motive force for naval vessels in our navy.  But maybe I’m just being nostalgic.