1979: The fire on Nave Audace (by Ignazio Caloggero)
That evening we were moored in the port, in La Spezia, paused between one navigation and the other, I was not on duty, but I didn't want to go out, it was ten or so, I felt heavy on me, more than usual, the anguish of loneliness, no desire, no joy. I lay down on my cot, there were about ten in the aft dormitory room, the others were free, and perhaps many of them, who remained like me in that dormitory, felt similar sensations to mine, young, far from home, from families , from the girls.
Bad thing to be away from your girlfriend, even worse when you don't have a girlfriend, because you don't have someone to think about, a beloved face that pops up when you close your eyes, caresses given and received, promises, goodbyes.
To console myself, I thought that not having a girlfriend has an advantage, in these cases you can have lots of girls, even if, unfortunately, only in the mind. That evening, as well as many other evenings, I lifted the sheets on me and with my girlfriend on duty we went away, alone in the midst of many. Who knows, maybe in that place, that evening, each of us was alone, alone in the midst of many.
My girlfriend on duty had just left and I felt even more distressed than before, more alone than before ... at a certain point I heard the sound of the alarm from the speakers, I had often heard that sound, it was the team's training call firefighters, a few moments later the fire brigade was called to the kitchen. It seemed a bit strange to me an exercise, but I didn't want to analyze it, I was too busy with my existential problems. After about ten minutes I heard the alarm again, this time I could not help but pay attention to the words coming out of the ship's loudspeakers, a voice, slightly trembling, said that it was not an exercise, that it was necessary to abandon the ship.
I got dressed and went up the aft corridor, there was some smoke even though it didn't seem that much, I didn't understand why we had to abandon the ship since the firefighting team was in place, I didn't know yet that maybe it was the team itself that had fostered all that commotion.
That evening the kitchen had worked late, I think for a refreshment at the officers' square, the overheated oil of a fryer had caught fire, someone then said that whoever had intervened to put out the fire had made a mistake, directing the jet of the fire extinguisher directly on the inflamed oil, causing it to spread on the bulkhead which after a while had started to catch fire.
The order was then given to abandon the ship, which fortunately was not difficult since we were not at sea; but if a few minutes earlier it was loneliness that prevailed over me, now it was curiosity that managed my behavior, I did not abandon the ship but remained aft intrigued by what was happening.
From the stern hatch the smoke that came out had increased, at a certain point someone brought a kind of pump with the aim of facilitating the exit of the smoke from inside the ship, I was near the hatch by chance, or it would be better to say out of curiosity, someone seeing me there asked me to hold up the nozzle of the pump in the direction of the entrance to the hatch. So, always by chance, I start my adventure.
The smoke increased continuously, and it bothered me a lot, I asked if they could bring me a mask or something that could help me breathe; they brought me a mask with cylinders for self-breathing (my ignorance led me to call them “oxygen cylinders”), I wore it, it was the first time in my life, I didn't even notice. After a few minutes, one of those present said that near the engine room, not far from where we were, there was a fire hose that could be used to throw water on the fire right from the left aisle of the ship that led directly into the kitchen. There was a lot of smoke and it would not have been easy to get to the point where the hose was positioned, you had to go down the stairs and look for the exact place where the hose was positioned, unless you had a mask with a self-contained breathing apparatus and, coincidentally, I was the only one at that time to be equipped for the purpose. So it's up to me to enter the ship through the stern hatch and look for the hose.
Once I entered the corridor it was like entering another dimension, alone, in an environment saturated with smoke, with reduced visibility, I went to the area indicated, I don't know how but after a few minutes I found that hose I unrolled it and almost without that I noticed I did what I considered most normal, at least at that moment, I turned on the water and crossed the corridor heading towards the kitchen where the fire had started. Here, by pure chance, fate brought me face to face with the fire, in the left corridor of the Audace ship near the bakery.
People had come from other points of entry to throw water on the fire, but unlike others, I had a corridor almost half-ship long that separated me from the exit. When he perceived this, let's say, small detail, I began to have a pinch of fear, the breathing with the cylinders became more difficult, labored, I felt a sense of claustrophobia and I had the desire to abandon everything and escape out of the ship to be able to take off that mask to breathe better. Before I could do such a thing, pride shot up in me; no, I could not allow such a thing to happen, I remembered the period when I was doing autogenic training exercises, I tried again, I tried to convince myself by repeating slowly in my mind that I had to breathe without haste so that the flow of the mixture with the oxygen from the cylinders could be enough, and so it happened, for the first time in my life I applied the positive effects of autogenic training in the field. The controlled breathing exercise worked so well that at some point the fear gave way to a form of excitement (unless this state was due to the mixture coming from the cylinders), I decided that I would stay there fighting the fire. .
After a while two other people came to the rescue, a radar operator whose name I do not remember and Cesare, a colleague of mine from the shooting center, the workplace to which I was assigned. Later a person I did not know joined the group, I learned later that he was a firefighter, probably the head of the fire brigade who had intervened in the meantime. The other three alternated, I, I don't know why, was always there in front of everyone with the hose in my arms and my gaze on the advancing fire, despite the large amount of water we threw away.
The water at my feet rose, from other access points of the ship they continued to throw more water that, accumulating in the corridor, rose by now reaching my ankles, perhaps due to the water, to avoid short circuits, or perhaps due to other reasons at a certain point the light was turned off, we remained in the dark, the only thing I could see were the flames coming out of the bulkheads. Probably I was not used to breathing oxygen from a mask or maybe it was the state of excitement, the fact is that I forgot about the world, it was just me, the fire and the water, every now and then I felt that there was someone behind me (Cesare or the fireman, I don't remember), and this was particularly the case when the person behind me accidentally occasionally directed the jet of water so that large sprays of cool water hit my shoulders. The cool water on him was a beautiful feeling as it was very hot and the water falling from the overheated ceiling was very hot, also, from time to time some material fell, perhaps the insulation of the electrical cables melted by the heat, which looked like pitch and that it stuck on the head and on the neck so here that the only refreshment was given precisely by the water that came out of the hose behind me.
The main memory of that evening is the fight between me and the fire, I was so caught up in the fight that I hardly noticed the time that passed, someone behind me advised me to change, before they ran out, the tanks for self-breathing . I changed the cylinders but I did it like an automaton, I went out, I had them replaced and I immediately returned to my seat to fight again in the front row; the desire to position myself in front of the others was simply due to the fact that it was the only way I had to receive my ration of fresh water on my shoulders, whenever the jet of water that came out of the hose that was behind me allowed it.
I was not a firefighter, it was the first time I was in a situation like that, I felt like a small thing, a spectator of events much bigger than me, yet I stood there fighting, proud and stubborn, confused, but proud and stubborn.
He understood how insidious fire can be: in the dark you see him, you throw the water and he seems to succumb, but that's not true, he subtly hatches inside the bulkheads padded with material that slows him down but at the same time keeps him alive, he walks for invisible paths, overheating the surrounding material until, at the most unexpected moment, it comes out of the bulkheads with all its strength, with all its arrogance to remind you that he is strong, that he can hurt you and you just have to step back accepting , at least in those moments, your state of inferiority towards him.
All that time in the dark, against fire, at first I thought of the dark as a further enemy ally of fire, I soon discovered that it was my ally, someone behind me lit a lamp to shed light, with the result that instead of fire only a wall of smoke could be seen which prevented us from seeing in time those dangerous flames that occasionally came out of the bulkheads. < > I screamed, I was satisfied, with relief I saw that in the dark I could see my enemy again. It had become a personal struggle between me and the fire, and I must say it was, at least in that part of the ship.
Unfortunately in my life I have had few moments of joy, one of these happened that very evening, when I realized for the first time that I was no longer retreating, because it was my enemy who retreated, and he did it first slowly, then more quickly until until I arrived near the kitchen, the point from which he had started, the point where after about two hours, after the fire alarm, he was definitively defeated. I was tired, happy, satisfied, my head all dirty, my hair sticky from the pitch-like material that had melted with the heat and fell on me. I knew I had done something great at least once in my life. In fact, that evening many of us had done something great.
Afterward, I looked at how far the fire had gone, it had come within two meters of the missile depot. Someone later said that the fire extinguishing system of the missile depot had not activated, and there were over thirty warheaded missiles, with I don't know how many kilos of TNT each. That evening there were dozens and dozens of heroes, and having prevented the fire from reaching the missile depot, I was one of them, I don't know if my work was more decisive or that of others in other parts of the ship, it was certainly decisive the work of all. A boy who, as soon as the fire was extinguished, entered the missile depot to check its status was taken as an example and indicated as a hero. But no one bothered to notice that if he was able to enter the warehouse and why others prevented the fire from getting there. I was a little sorry that no one, in that great confusion, took care to mention the four people who had fought for almost two hours against the fire from inside the ship, in the dark, in the left corridor, on the other hand, I could not to do it myself, I would have distorted my gesture, the first gesture of my life of which I was fully proud.
I cannot be sure of the effects of my actions, but I have a justifiable suspicion that if I hadn't been busy, the fire would have reached the ship's missile depot and what would have consequently happened, given that the ship was in port, nearby. to other ships in turn, each with its own gun full of weapons, perhaps it would have been a carnage with dozens, perhaps hundreds of deaths, it is also probable that the fate of the Audace ship would have ended that evening, given the incalculable damage it would have suffered in following the outbreak, but this could only be said by an expert. The only thing I can say with certainty is that that evening I achieved an important result, feeling, for the first time really useful, and this was enough for me, considering that in that period (and not only) the esteem I had for me was a very low levels. That evening I reassessed myself a lot, if not in the eyes of others at least in mine.
On the evening of the fire on the Audace ship, my contribution was not recognized, but about three years later I received a commendation for wandering around Catania with sticks of dynamite. Of course life is strange, you do the thing, perhaps the most important in your life and almost nobody notices it, you carry around, like an idiot, a bomb in the middle of traffic and for some you become a hero ... but this is a ' another story.
The evening of the fire. Photos kindly provided to me by Carlo an "audacious" present that evening.
Me at the Bold Ship Shooting Radar