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MTMC's Sunny Point firefighters win their toughest challenge.

As Sunny Point fire fighters of a pierside fire, they could already see black smoke above the towering pine trees.

Full reality set in as the firefighters rolled their vehicles out on the long, curved concrete approach to South Pier.

Thick, billowing black smoke poured from the stern of the MV SSG Edward A. Carter, Jr.

It was 4:30 p.m., July 14, and the Sunny Point firefighters had arrived at what would turn out to be the biggest emergency challenge in the installation's half-century existence.

The prepositioning ship Carter--with nearly 1,300 containers of ammunition--was on fire.

The excellent design of the ship kept the ammunition safely apart from the engine room: a 40-foot firewall separated the holds containing the ammunition from the engine room, said Military Sealift Command officials.

"There was zero visibility," said Acting Captain Jeff Ballard, a 13-year veteran of the military terminal's fire department.

"Flames were coming out of the side of the vessel."

Moments later, Sunny Point's second fire unit arrived.

"We were one minute behind those guys," said Firefighter Mark Sileikis. "You could see flames through the smoke."

Firefighters rolled out hoses primed with foam and moved forward.

Instinctively, they grabbed spare oxygen bottles for their Scott air breathing packs. Once inside the tight confines of the ship, with limited or non-existent visibility, the spare air tanks could prove to be a lifesaver.

Difficulties began at once. At the most accessible opening to the ship's engine room, there was a 10-foot gap between the vessel and the pier as smoke and fierce heat poured out.

Inside the ship was "hell," said Ballard.

Fire fighter Doug New described it this way: "Imagine putting a mask over your face so you can't see and being in an oven."

Shooting foam in front of them, the firefighters led a team on board the vessel.

Searching for survivors, the two firefighters made it down two levels into the engine room.

"We could hear the sounds of metal warping," said Ballard. "The ladder we were on was warped itself."

It would be as far as they would get--smoke and flames were too great.

Starting back up the ladder, Ballard heard New, disoriented by the smoke, call out. Ballard went back and led New out of the ship. Due to the thick smoke, it was impossible for firefighters to spot the source of the flames. The men backed off the ship.

At dockside, a solution was taking shape.

The Edward Carter's boatswain mate used a forklift to move a nearby gangplank between the pier and the engine room opening. Soon, firefighters had a safe support platform to approach the flames.

Sunny Point firefighters started back inside, with two lines running foam, said Firefighter David Leonard.

What followed would best resemble close-in combat.

Firefighters advanced into the engine room behind the foam. Their adversary was intense heat and smoke.

"The problem was that we could not see where the fire was due to the thick smoke," said Leonard, adding: "Once we were driven back 50 feet."

Firefighters regrouped and plunged in again.

By now, volunteer firefighters from nearby communities began arriving. Before it was over, departments from Brunswick, New Hanover, Columbus, and Pender counties, in North Carolina and Horry County, S.C., would be assisting the efforts.

What happened next was a small action that produced an enormous return.

A volunteer from one of the departments handed Sunny Point firefighters a thermal image camera.

"You turn that camera on, and there it is--the flames are instantly visible," said Leonard.

Using the camera, firemen pressed forward behind gushing fountains of foam. Moving slowly, they regained the engine room.

By 9:30 p.m., firefighters considered the fire contained. Some flames flared up unexpectedly as the firefighters sought to cool "hot spots." No fire was reported in the vessel at 4:15 a.m.

Dawn found firefighters still on the docks.

"I was up 38 hours before I got to sleep," said Ballard.

Another perspective of the fire fighting efforts came from Ray Edwards, Assistant Chief, Leland Fire-Rescue Squad.

Edwards, a Sunny Point security guard, was coaching a Little League game when the ship fire message came on his digital pager: All Leland-Fire Rescue Squad members were ordered to service.

"The heroes are the Sunny Point firemen," said Edwards. "Those nine firefighters. They had it knocked down when we got there."

How did he feel when the fire was extinguished?

"It was an answer to prayer," said Edwards.

Sunny Point paid its fire fighters their own personal tribute July 16.

When department heads held their first, formal staff meeting since the ship fire, and Assistant Chief Scott Brown was recognized, staff members burst into spontaneous applause.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Military Transportation Management Command
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Previous Article:Teamwork fosters big contract savings. (Estimated $17 million savings).
Next Article:Sunny Point moves beyond ammunition ship fire.

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