The banana boat. The scariest moment of my mum’s young life.
We all have these moments as we grow up, marry and have families of our own. The boys from down the street–the ones with the gargantuan train set that spanned two rooms–their dad was involved in serious motorcycle accident. Something hit him and he went spinning off at an odd angle. That night Mum babysat the boys while their mother went to hospital to stay at her husband’s side waiting for him to wake up. The next day my dad drove us past the scene of the accident on our way to somewhere else. I saw a smear of something dark on the tarmac, something we drove over on our way to wherever we were going.
The story of the Barrad Crest was one I heard many times growing up. My dad was a fireman–he still is, at heart–and though he worked in situations many of us only experience in nightmares he seldom talked about his job beyond abstracts. “We’re professional heroes,” he said, but he never told stories of the people he’d saved, the buildings he’d hosed. He talked about the fireman’s lift, the camaraderie at the station and–no matter what the police told you–how important it was to keep windows unbarred and unlocked. It was better to risk being burgled than to lock off exits in the event of a fire, he said.
As I grew older the few tales he told became darker. He and his colleagues had a gallows humour forged through necessity. He said it was hard peeling a charred corpse from a chair or retrieving a head half reduced to ash to be buried with its body without laughter to fall back upon. You can imagine him scooping bodies from smouldering rubble–small bodies, old bodies, bodies that had walked and talked and laughed and played not an hour before–and having to laugh at the unfairness of it all.
If you didn’t laugh what dark sorrows might take laughter’s place?
The banana boat was the one story he did tell, though there was little humour in it even for man so predisposed. It was, in all ways, a baptism by fire, and the one story he told when driving us to school, into town or on the dreary motorway slog to our holidays. The name, memorable as it is, was always good enough for me, but in writing this blog I was determined to talk with him and get the full story.
It was October 1973 and Big Jim was stationed at Plymstock fire station. He was still a probationer, having completed training only four or five months before.
“When you join the fire brigade–or when you joined in those days–you do thirteen weeks’ hard training and you live on it,” he told me. “It’s no doddle; it’s physically very tough. Mentally you spend a lot of time in lecture rooms going through manuals and instructions and it’s so drummed in that when there’s a job to be done, you get in and do it. That’s one thing with the fire service: when you train it’s done by numbers, but you know every job each number has so if something happens you can fill straight in. You don’t have to ask anybody; you can see what they’re up to and you know what that job should be. It’s as simple as that.”
A probationer’s life can be a difficult one. Having no experience and having yet to prove yourself, as probationer you’re looked down upon by those higher up–perhaps even distrusted. “I hadn’t seen much in the way of fire,” he said, as if fire were an inscrutable, barely seen tutor with much to teach.
There are strict time limits regarding attending a call. During daylight hours firemen have thirty seconds from the time the alarm sounds in which to get dressed; at night they have twenty. They prepare their uniforms boots-up, ready to pull them on in a single fluid motion. They rarely have notice of where they’re about to go or what they’re about to do. In this pre-GPS era, with an expected four minutes from the call coming in to the crew reaching the fire the drivers didn’t have the luxury of looking at a map: they were expected to know the area like the singed hair on the backs of their hands.
But this day in October was different. Everyone in the station knew something had happened; they just weren’t sure what.
“We heard there was a boat on fire the day before, and when we got into work everybody was excited trying to find out what was going on. A little later we heard from the Navy that the fire was out.”
The boat was the Barrad Crest, a Lebanese ship of convenience transporting bananas from overseas. Still two years before the Lebanese civil war, the country was regarded with suspicion. “The boat wasn’t properly controlled or insured as would a British or American or a French ship,” said my father, with the mild post-war xenophobia typical of his generation. “Being Lebanese they didn’t necessarily obey all the rules.”
The boat had caught fire off the Cornish coast and was being tugged to Plymouth docks, the largest in the region. Having been told the fire was out, my dad and his colleagues thought the call was a training exercise. Another vessel, the Elizabeth Beau had sunk in Sutton harbour only days before and the fire service had been called to pump water from its hull. This would be the perfect opportunity for his crew to learn the ins and outs of firefighting at sea.
“On land it’s different. If something goes wrong on land you’ve got somewhere to run. If something goes wrong on a boat, you’ve got nowhere.”
Control had already dispatched a crew from Greenbank station to investigate the Crest. Those on shift at Plymstock were now told to take with them as much breathing apparatus equipment as possible to the fire boat at Royal William yard.
“En route we were told we could use the blue lights and sirens and we thought then, ‘There’s something drastically wrong.’ When I was dropped at Millbay Docks I’d never seen so many blue lights in my life. The ambulance was there and obviously the police; so was every fire appliance in Devon and half of Cornwall. Our procedure used to be, you shut down all the blue lights except for those on the Control vehicle, but all these had the lot going. It was quite a weird sight.”
Contrary to what they’d been told the fire was still alight. It was early evening, time for the shift to change, and as the watch awaited the arrival of a chief officer from Exeter some of the crew clocked off and went home for the night. My father was not among them.
Once the officer had arrived they set sail into the Plymouth Sound aboard the Sissy Brock.
(“When you think of all the firefighting ships with manly names!” said my dad, laughing.)
The sea was calm and the sky clear–just as well, considering the Brock was little more than a barge. A quarter of a mile out from the Crest it was shaken by an explosion that was felt, rather than heard; the fire crew were so close the sound seemed to pass them over. All around the Brock insulation and metalwork rained from the sky, splashing into the waves.
I asked my dad if it was like approaching a war zone.
“It probably was,” he said. “But you never really had time to think about it. The objective was to get on the boat and see what had happened to your colleagues.”
What had happened was this: the fire had died down to embers, having been dealt with earlier that day. But this was a boat transporting bananas, which are customarily exposed to ethylene gas just prior to delivery in order to aid ripening. The ethylene, stored aboard the Crest in high pressure cylinders, was as flammable as natural gas. The Greenbank crew had opened the storage hold and the escaping ethylene had caused a flashover.
The Barrad Crest’s crew had left the boat and were now on the tug pulling it into harbour. Firefighters aboard the Crest threw rope ladders down for my father and his colleagues. They had to cross the tug to reach them; along the way the Lebanese sailors tried to stop them, probably believing the situation too dangerous for anyone to tackle.
The deck of the Crest was, in my father’s words, “Pretty warm to say the least.” Aboard it were people looking after injured members of the Greenbank crew sent earlier who’d been injured in the blast. One was trapped beneath a felled cargo crane which one of the officers alone managed to lift from off him. Days later, under less pressing circumstances it took three men to move the same crane.
“I helped carry one of our colleagues who didn’t appear to be with us,” said my dad. ‘Didn’t appear to be with us’ was his way of saying he believed the man to be dead. “Because the deck was slippery I went flying. We dropped the stretcher onto the ground and after that, the man started breathing. He later made a full recovery.
“Whether he was actually breathing before or not we don’t really know. Whether it was the fall that shocked him back into life we’ll never find out.
“But I’m happy to say he survived. Everybody who was on that ship survived, though some couldn’t carry out their job again. One of the men I joined with, who’d only been there four or five months eventually ended up in a control room: he was never fit enough to be a fireman again.”
After evacuating those who were injured their next job was to tackle the fire. Streaming seawater through hoses, they sprayed the outside of the ship to take away heat from inside–a suppression technique known as ‘boundary cooling’.
But hoses under pressure can be just as dangerous as fire itself.
“Somebody on board the fire boat had charged one of the hoses full of water. If left unattended the snaking action can break you in two. This thing started to rise in the air, I was stood with one leg either side of it and as it went up, it took me with it. Luckily enough I fell on top of it and was able to control it.
“At that time I was on the third or fourth telling off from one of the senior officers, who apparently didn’t like probationers. Going forward a few days, the officer came around to our station and said: ‘That was you with that hose, wasn’t it?’ I said: “Yeah”. He took me by the hand, gave it a good shaking, I never had a problem with him after that. The rest of the watch stood open-mouthed saying, ‘Look at him talking to a probationer nicely.’”
By this point my dad had become detached from his crew and was working with strangers. Those who hadn’t left at the shift’s end were now fighting the fire quite a distance from him. Their officer had gone back to the tug with the injured, though Dad didn’t realise this at the time.
“There were no orders, no instructions,” he said. “We just joined in.”
Finally a voice came over the tug’s tannoy instructing the firemen to evacuate the ship–an instruction none of them obeyed. It took the chief officer pulling rank in order to move the crews from the boat. They slashed the hoses to ensure no straggling fireman would be caught in them and left the Barrad Crest to eventually be beached less than a hundred metres off Jennycliff.
I asked my dad what the boat had looked like as they were leaving.
“Because the flame was contained in the hull it was mostly smoke you could see coming off it,” he said. “It wasn’t particularly black; it was more of a white-yellow coloured smoke.”
“A banana-coloured smoke?” I said.
He laughed. “Yeah, heading that way. A light banana at that.”
At that time every Friday evening my parents went to my grandparents’ house in Dundonald Street for tea. This Friday, my mum went alone as Dad hadn’t returned home from work. Once they heard about the ship ablaze off the coast on the news, they knew what had happened to him.
“I remember feeling absolutely dreadful, petrified we were going to hear that something had happened to him,” she said. “We were worried until he came back.”
He came back at two or three in the morning, had a quick wash and still smudged with soot, smelling of smoke and with his hair drenched with seawater, went to sleep.
I asked my parents if that night had changed how they thought about the fire brigade.
“It was dad’s new career,” said my mum. “It was something he wanted to do and I don’t think we thought about it after that. It’s just the nature of the job, that you get involved in this sort of thing.”
All the same, how can anyone take such events in their stride?
“It’s a fantastic job,” said dad. “It can be hard work; it can be easy work. You don’t know until the day’s over what sort of day it’s been.”
He sat forward, faintly smiling.
“I mean, how many people go to work and say, ‘I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing today.’ Most people say, ‘I have to sit behind this deck and write on this piece of paper, or work this computer, or serve this customer.’ We never had that.”
It’s been a long interview. Not a particularly long one to record, you understand, but one that’s been a long time in coming. I wrote the first few words of this post back in February, always knowing I’d come back to it, always knowing I’d interview my father and for the first time hear the story told start to finish without interruption. I put it off until the end of the year because I feared it wouldn’t hold up to the snippets I’d heard, the image I’d carried with me all this time: the banana boat, a story of heroism against frightening odds.
I was wrong.
My dad sees things differently. “There’s no such thing as heroism,” he said. “It’s not like what you see in the films and all the rest of it. You go to do a job. I know I’ve said we’re professional heroes but if you listen to most people who get a medal for being a hero, what they’ve done at the time is what they had to do. They probably didn’t think about what they were doing. Going into the middle of a field with all this firing going on to rescue a colleague: they do it because they see their colleague there. They don’t think about the firing.”
Big Jim Ness joined the fire service in 1973 and retired in 1999. For the last ten years of his career with the brigade he worked as a fire prevention officer clearing emergency exits at night clubs and ensuring tanks were properly stored at petrol stations. In 1994 he was given a silver medal as reward for twenty years of exemplary service.
In all those years it’s impossible to estimate how many lives he and others like him have saved. However, one thing’s for certain: whatever they say, however much they protest, they are all very much professional heroes.