By Major Thomas
One day, a fire broke out in a storage compartment two decks below the main deck. I was summoned and instructed to wear an OBA (Oxygen Breathing Apparatus) mask and harness. The harness had a snap loop on the back for a small cable “tending line” to be connected and tended by another person. This was a safety procedure should I become injured or could not make it out on my own. When I first put the OBA on, it didn’t feel like it was working right. It seemed like after every exhale, the inhale was less than before. The smoke and soot was already rising to the access passage as I descended to the burning compartment, and I felt the heat from the fire. I opened the single access “hatch” to the compartment and started down.
The compartment was dark, thick with soot and smoke; I could barely make out yellow and orange flickering fire. Suddenly, I could not move any closer to the fire because the individual that was supposed to be tending my line disappeared, leaving the compartment and closing the hatch, leaving the cable tending line and keeping me from moving any closer toward the fire. I reached out as far as I could with the CO2 nozzle and was eventually able to get the fire out. The heat was intense as I set the CO2 fire extinguisher down, using both hands to feel my way toward the hatch. I was weaker and my breathing was getting shorter by the second. I finally got the hatch opened so I could exit with smoke and soot caked all over me. I literally threw the OBA off and just collapsed on the deck.
That fire affected me all my life. To this day, I panic at a barred doorway, I’m edgy in confined spaces or darkness, and I cannot fly if I don’t have an aisle seat.
Major Thomas, age 84, served three tours in the Korean War from 1952-1956 as an Engineman Second Class in the Navy. He was raised in Owensville, Missouri where he returned after his enlistment. He and Marge are retired and enjoy working with stained glass, antique tractors, puzzles, and writing his memoirs.