Cruise ships are floating flaming death traps of incendiary Hell, according to the media lately. Since nobody has actually died during all these cruise ship fires, they’ve switched to reminding us that after all these cruise ship fires good people are left stranded in cabins full of feces. We cruisers know how absurd all that crap is (pardon the pun). But fire is indeed the greatest threat to safety on ships, now as it has always been. Allow me to share the extent of fire team training on ships: I was asked by the captain of Wind Surf to simulate a dead passenger in a shockingly real scenario....
Via the crew stairs the second officer escorted me deep into the forward bowels of Wind Surf. We passed all manner of hallways and storage areas I had not known existed. After a several twists and turns, Barney stepped into what was obviously once a crew bar. Now it hosted a raucous pile of tables, chairs, and rolling desks. “Lay down and play dead. Easy. Don’t freak when the lights go out. Things will get nasty, but you won’t be hurt.”
Seeing me raise my eyebrows, he explained further. “It’s a surprise fire drill made as realistic as possible. The fire team won’t know if anyone is below decks or not and will systematically search every room for unconscious victims. Don’t hide in the cupboard or anything because that’s not realistic, but staying in the back is better for the drill. What makes this drill more accurate is that you’re our first American.”
“Why does that matter?”
“The fire team only has experience hauling out other crew members, and they’re all Asian. In a real fire, a guest passed out from smoke inhalation won’t weigh ninety pounds. You weigh about two hundred pounds, so you’re helping us create a much more accurate scenario. When they come for you, don’t make it too easy for them. Be dead weight.”
I carefully picked my way through the detritus of the dead crew bar to become a dead crew member. Propping my back against a cupboard, I splayed my legs out. With a satisfied nod, he snapped off the lights.
Darkness swooped in, solid, tangible. This was not the absence of light, but the presence of a thing. Just a few minutes of such absolute black made even an egomaniac feel small. Not scared, but small, insignificant. This was not a place for living men, here, deep below the surface of the sea. I strained my hearing to pick up a sound, any sound, but there was none. Not even the slap of waves descended down here, in the pit where I lay. I fancied I was in a sensory deprivation tank, but for the sharp tang of back-bar alcohol and solvents stabbing my nose.
After an interminable time, my ears tickled with the muted call of the ship’s intercom announcing to passengers the impending fire drill. Don’t panic at the alarms, the muffled voice said. Don’t panic at the smoke. Smoke?
A minute later, another sense tickled. The air became chemically dense. The smell was not of smoke, but something equally unpleasant. I mulled over what it could be when I was scared out of my wits by the sudden alarm. Hearing the ship’s horn blasting the fire alarm was nothing new—I’d heard it every cruise for years—but hearing the alarm in my current situation was something else entirely. It was downright unnerving. Red emergency lighting snapped on, pushing back the black from below rather than above. Though dim, the illumination was sufficient to see the hallway outside. The red opening pulsated in a rapidly thickening haze.
Smoke curled into the chamber, first slow, soon robust. Tendrils of white crawled across the ragged carpet, claiming more and more of the room. Behind the vanguard was a supporting wall of swirling grey, gradually thickening until I could no longer clearly see out into the hallway. The red remained, somehow undefinable.
Very slowly did time tick, tick away. The simulated smoke became hard to breathe. Not only did the unceasing klaxon urge me to rush into the red, so did instinct. The sensation was so powerful my legs twitched, itching for action, escape. I had to consciously fight the urge, for I had been charged with death. After twenty minutes came a flicker of a different color. A beam of yellow wandered across the reddishness of escape, then left. Eventually it returned with a companion. Then both vanished. Disappointment flashed through me. They had had overlooked my room.
Yet a minute later the glow materialized two phantoms of black. Backlit by blazing red, each cut a dramatic figure in full-on fire gear, complete with oxygen tanks and full face masks. Thickened by heavy layers of fire retardant gear, they seemed to move in slow motion. Beams from handheld searchlights roamed the smoke-dense room, lighting across old, clustered junk. Revealed in streaks were fallen stacks of chairs and tables upended upon each other, cobwebs flashing. I felt exactly like I was watching a movie: the heroes had just discovered the killer’s creepy lair.
Then a beam of light fell across my legs. Another zeroed in. Two bulky forms pushed through the thickness directly towards me. Heavily gloved hands grabbed me by the shoulders to haul me bodily from the floor. I drooped and flopped as awkwardly as possible, feet dragging uselessly on the floor. Undeterred, they slung my arms over their shoulders and hauled me out from behind the bar. Between the deafening klaxons their respirators labored. Though much taller than my saviors, both men worked as a single unit to compensate. No words were exchanged. None were needed; both knew what the other was supposed to do.
Don’t think for a minute that cruise ships leave fire safety to waiters playing with fire hoses. The ordeal fire teams maintain as routine is most impressive. But then, to be honest, I always wanted to be a fireman. They’re totally badass.
Brian David Bruns
Author of national bestselling Cruise Confidential