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Valhalla rising, p.4
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       Valhalla Rising, p.4

           Clive Cussler
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"Sir, I have a reported fire in the chapel."

  Waitkus came instantly awake. "Are the fire-control systems taking care of it?"

  "Officers McFerrin and Harding, who are on the scene, report the systems as inoperative. They're attempting to contain the fire with extinguishers."

  "Call out the fire crew to man the fire hoses."

  "I've seen to that, sir."

  "Have the lifeboat crews man their stations."

  "Yes, sir. Right away."

  As he hurriedly dressed, Waitkus could not conceive of an emergency that would call for him ordering 2,500 passengers and crew to board the lifeboats and abandon ship, but he was determined to take all precautions. He rushed to the bridge and immediately studied the fire-control console. It was still awash with green lights. If there was a fire, none of the sophisticated systems was detecting it, nor were they automatically engaging to put it out.

  "Are you sure about this?" he asked Sheffield skeptically.

  "McFerrin and Harding swear there is a fire raging in the chapel."

  "This is impossible." Waitkus picked up the phone and called the engine room.

  Assistant Chief Engineer Joseph Barnum answered. "Engine room. This is Barnum."

  "This is the captain. Do your fire-control and detection systems show any indication of a fire anywhere on the ship?"

  "One moment." Barnum turned and peered at a large panel. "No, sir, I've got green lights across the board. No indication of a fire on this end."

  "Stand by to activate your fire-control system manually," ordered Waitkus.

  At that moment a crewman came running onto the bridge. He rushed up to Sheffield. "Sir, I thought you should know, I smelled smoke when I came around the port promenade deck."

  Waitkus picked up the phone. "McFerrin?"

  The second officer barely heard the phone buzz over the crackle of the fire. "What is it?" he snapped harshly.

  "This is Captain Waitkus. You and Harding get out of the chapel. I'm going to close the steel fire doors and seal off the chapel."

  "Make it fast, sir," said McFerrin loudly. "I fear the fire is about to burst through into the avenue."

  Waitkus pressed the switch that would send the concealed fire doors around the chapel area, sealing it off. He stood bewildered when the activation light failed to illuminate. He called McFerrin again. "Have the fire doors closed?"

  "No, sir. There is no movement."

  "This is impossible," Waitkus muttered for the second time in the past two minutes. "I can't believe the entire system has shut down." He rang the engine room again. "Barnum," he barked, "use your manual override and close the fire doors around the chapel."

  "Closing the fire door," Barnum acknowledged. Then, "My board shows no movement. I don't understand. The fire-door control system is not functioning."

  "Damn!" Waitkus gasped. He gave a curt nod to Sheffield. "I'm going down to check out the situation for myself."

  The first officer never saw the captain again. Waitkus entered the bridge elevator, rode down to A Deck and approached the wedding chapel from the side opposite the crew fighting the fire. Unthinkingly, unaware of the enormity of the danger, he jerked open the door behind the altar. A storm of flame burst through the doorway and engulfed him. Almost instantly, his lungs were seared and he was turned into a walking torch. He reeled backward and fell dead in a fireball before he struck the deck.

  Captain Jack Waitkus died horribly, never knowing that his ship was about to die, too.

  Kelly Egan awoke from a nightmare. It was a kind she often dreamed, in which she was being chased by some sort of indescribable animal or insect. In this one, she was swimming and a huge fish brushed up against her. She moaned in her sleep and popped her eyes open, seeing only the glow from the night-light in the bathroom.

  She wrinkled her nose and sat up, slowly becoming aware of the faint smell of smoke. She inhaled, trying to trace its origin, but it was barely a whiff. Satisfied that it was not coming from inside her stateroom, she lay back down and sleepily wondered if it was only her imagination. But after a few minutes, the scent seemed to become stronger. She also sensed that the temperature in her stateroom had risen. She threw back the covers and set her bare feet on the carpet. The carpet seemed abnormally warm. The heat seemed to be emanating from the deck below. Kelly stood on a chair and placed her hand on the ornate copper ceiling above. It felt cool.

  Concerned, she pulled a robe over her shoulders and padded across the floor to the door leading to the adjoining stateroom occupied by her father. Dr. Elmore Egan was in a deep sleep, as evidenced by his snoring. A Nobel Prize-winning mechanical genius, he was traveling on the Emerald Dolphin because she carried the revolutionary new engines that he had designed and developed, and he was making a study on how they were performing on their first voyage. He was so engrossed in his state-of-the-art creation that he seldom came up from the engine room, and Kelly had hardly seen him since departing Sydney. The previous night was the first time they had sat down and had dinner together. Egan had finally begun to relax after satisfying himself that his huge magnetic water jet propulsion engines were operating efficiently and without problems. Kelly leaned across his bed and shook him lightly by the shoulder. "Dad, wake up." A light sleeper, Egan came instantly awake.

  "What is it?" he asked, staring up at the shadowy form of his daughter. "Are you ill?"

  "I smell smoke," Kelly answered. "And the floor feels hot."

  "Are you sure? I don't hear any alarms."

  "See for yourself."

  Fully awake, Egan leaned out of bed and placed both palms on the carpet. His brow raised, and then he sniffed the air. After a moment's deliberation, he looked up at Kelly and said, "Get dressed. We're going out on deck."

  By the time they had left their staterooms and reached the elevator, the smell of smoke had become more pronounced and distinct.

  On the A Deck shopping avenue outside the wedding chapel, the crew was retreating in its battle against the fire. The portable extinguishers were used up. All the fire-control systems were inoperative, and to add to their desperation, the hoses could not be attached because the valve caps were frozen closed and could not be removed by hand. McFerrin sent a man down to the engine room to bring back pipe wrenches, but it was an exercise in futility. Two men using their combined strength still could not untwist the caps from their threads. It was as if they had been welded shut.

  To the men fighting the fire, frustration turned to terror as the situation worsened. With the fire doors unable to close, there was no way to isolate the blaze. McFerrin hailed the bridge. "Tell the captain we're losing control down here. The fire has burned through onto the salon deck into the casino."

  "Can't you keep the fire from spreading?" asked Sheffield.

  "How!" McFerrin yelled back. "Nothing works. We're running out of extinguishers, we can't connect the hoses and the sprinkler systems won't flow. Is there any way the engine room can override the systems and close the fire doors?"

  "Negative," answered Sheffield, anxiety obvious in his voice. "The entire fire-control program is down. Computers, fire doors, sprinklers, the works-they've all failed."

  "Why haven't you sounded the alarm?"

  "I can't alarm the passengers without the captain's authority."

  "Where is he?"

  "He went down to judge the situation for himself. Haven't you seen him?"

  Surprised, McFerrin searched the area but saw no sign of Waitkus. "He's not here."

  "Then he must be on his way back to the bridge," replied Sheffield, becoming uneasy.

  "For the safety of the passengers, give the alarm and send them to their lifeboat stations in preparation for abandoning the ship."

  Sheffield was aghast. "Order sixteen hundred passengers to abandon the Emerald Dolphin? You're overreacting."

  "You don't know what it's like down here," McFerrin said urgently. "Just get the show on the road before it's too late."

  "Only Captain Waitkus can give such a

  "Then for the love of God, man, give the alarm and warn the passengers before the fire breaks onto the stateroom decks."

  Sheffield was swept by indecision. He'd never faced an emergency like this in his eighteen years at sea. It was why he'd never wanted to be a captain. He'd never wanted the responsibility. What should he do? "You're absolutely certain the situation warrants such drastic action?"

  "Unless you can get the fire control systems operational in the next Jive minutes, this ship and everybody on it is doomed," McFerrin shouted.

  Sheffield was becoming disoriented now. All he could think about was: His career at sea was in jeopardy. If he made the wrong decision now. . .

  And the seconds ticked away.

  His inaction would ultimately cost over a hundred lives.


  The men struggling to contain the inferno were well trained in fighting shipboard fires, but they were working with both hands ned behind their backs. Dressed in their fireproof suits with full helmets and oxygen tanks on their backs, each of them was becoming increasingly frustrated. With all the fire-fighting systems and equipment inoperative or useless, they could do nothing but stand helplessly and watch the blaze burn unchecked. Within fifteen minutes, A Deck was a holocaust. Flames consumed the shopping avenue and spilled out on the nearby boat decks. Crew members preparing to launch the lifeboats scattered for their lives as a torrent of fire surged over the port and starboard lifeboats. And still no alarm had sounded.

  First Officer Sheffield appeared to be in denial. It was with fearful reluctance that he took over command of the ship, still unable to accept the possibility that Captain Waitkus was dead, or that they were all in mortal danger. Like all modern cruise ships, the Emerald Dolphin had been constructed to be fireproof. That flames could have spread with such lightning speed went against all the marine architect's safety designs.

  He wasted valuable time by sending men to find the captain, and waiting until they all reported back that he was nowhere to be found. Sheffield entered the chartroom and studied the course line across a large chart. The last marking from the Global Positioning System, laid by the ship's fourth officer less than thirty minutes previously, showed the nearest landfall to be the island of Tonga, more than two hundred miles northeast. He returned to the bridge and stepped out onto the bridge wing. A rain squall was sweeping down upon the ship and the wind had risen, increasing the height of the waves marching against the bow to five feet.

  He turned and looked back, aghast to see smoke erupting from amidships and flames eating at the lifeboats. The conflagration seemed to be devouring everything in its path. Why had all the fire-control systems failed? Emerald Dolphin was one of the safest ships in the world. It was unthinkable that she might end up at the bottom of the sea. As if immersed in a nightmare, he finally set off the ship's fire-alarm system.

  By now the casino had been turned into a fiery Hades. The incredible intensity of the heat, combined with the total lack of fire-fighting systems and equipment to slow it down, melted any object it met or consumed it within seconds. The fire tore through the theater and quickly turned it into an incinerator, the stage curtains exploding in a flaming shower of fireworks, before the flames moved on, leaving a blackened and smoldering shell. The fire was now only two decks below the first of the lower staterooms.

  Bells clanged and sirens whooped throughout the ship, the only warning system that had functioned on command. Drugged by sleep, 1,600 passengers came awake, confused and questioning the harsh interruption. They reacted slowly, mystified by the emergency alarm going off at 4:25 in the morning. At first, most were calm and went about the business of pulling on comfortable, casual clothes. They also put on their life vests as they had been instructed to do during the drills before moving to their lifeboat stations. Only those few who stepped out on their verandas to see what the fuss was all about were confronted with reality.

  Illuminated by the ocean of lights from the ship, they saw billowing clouds of thick smoke and tongues of flame gushing through melted and smashed ports and windows on the decks below. The sight was dazzling as well as terrifying. Only then did panic begin to mushroom. It became total when the first of the passengers to reach the boat deck found themselves facing a wall of fire.

  Dr. Egan had led his daughter into the nearest elevator and taken it to the observation deck on the upper section of the superstructure where they could get an overall view of the ship. His worst fears were confirmed when he saw the conflagration rolling from amidships seven decks below. From his vantage point, he could also see the blaze eating along both decks where the lifeboats were mounted in their davits. On the stern, the crew was feverishly throwing canisters containing life rafts into the sea, where they were ejected and automatically inflated. The scene struck Egan as something from a Monty Python sketch. The crew did not seem to consider that the ship was still moving at cruise speed, and the empty rafts were soon left floating far in the wake of the ship.

  Ashen-faced and stunned at what he'd seen, he spoke sharply to Kelly. "Go down to the open cafe on B Deck and wait there."

  Dressed only in a halter and shorts, Kelly asked, "Aren't you coming?"

  "I must retrieve my papers from my stateroom. You go ahead. I'll be along in a few minutes."

  The elevators were jammed, overloaded with people from the decks below. There was no way they could descend from the observation deck, so Kelly and her father had to fight their way down the stairwells among hordes of frightened passengers. The mob poured into every passage and companionway, every elevator, like termites in a mound under attack by an aardvark. People who lived responsible and disciplined lives had suddenly become pitiful rabble overcome with the fear of death. Some stumbled blindly, without knowing where they were going. Many walked in a daze, bewildered by the pandemonium. Men cursed, women screamed. The drama was rapidly turning into a scene from Dante's Inferno.

  The crew, the officers, stewards and stateroom stewardesses, all did their best to control the general chaos. But it was a lost cause. Without the haven of the lifeboats, there was no place for anyone to go but over the side into the water. The crew and officers moved about the frightened throng, checking that their life vests were worn properly and assuring them that rescue ships were on the way.

  It was a forlorn hope. Still in paralysis, Sheffield had yet to send out a Mayday call. The chief radio operator had run from the radio room three times and asked him if he should send a Mayday and contact all ships in the area, but Sheffield had failed to act.

  In a few minutes, it would be too late. The flames were less than fifty feet from the radio room.

  Kelly Egan struggled through the madness to the open cafe on B Deck at the stern of the Emerald Dolphin, and found it already crowded with passengers milling around. They looked lost and dazed. Here, there were no ship's officers to maintain calm. People were coughing from the smoke that was swirling around the ship, blown by the wind that fanned over the stern while the ship still forged ahead at twenty-four knots.

  Miraculously, most of the passengers had escaped death in their staterooms, having calmly left before the flames had closed off the corridors, stairways and elevators. At first they'd refused to take the disaster seriously, but anxiety had soon run high after they found the lifeboats unapproachable. The officers and crew had showed exceptional courage by herding everyone to the stern decks where they could congregate temporarily free of the flames.

  Entire families were there: fathers, mothers and children, many still in their pajamas. A few of the children were whining in terror, while others enjoyed it as a big game until they saw the fear in their parents' eyes. Women with disheveled hair in bathrobes stood amid others who had refused to be rushed and had put on makeup, dressed stylishly and carried handbags. Men were in a variety of casual dress. Several wore sport coats over Bermuda shorts. Only one young couple came prepared to jump. They were wearing their swimsuits. But the one thing they all had in common was a fear of

  Kelly pushed her way through the throng until she reached the railing, then hung on to it in a death grip. It was still dark as she stared down at the whirling foam churned by the ship's propellers. In the predawn darkness under the ship's floodlights, the wake was visible for two hundred yards. Beyond, the black sea blended into the black horizon still quilted with stars. She wondered why the ship did not stop.

  A woman was moaning hysterically, "We'll be burned alive. I don't want to die in a fire." Before anyone could stop her, she climbed over the rail and jumped into the sea. Stunned faces watched as she sank. All they caught was a fleeting glimpse of her head when it bobbed to the surface before she became lost in the darkness.

  Kelly began to fear for her father. She was contemplating going back to their staterooms to look for him when he reappeared, carrying a brown leather case. "Oh, Dad," she cried. "I was afraid I'd lost you."

  "It's bedlam, absolute bedlam," he gasped, short of breath, his face flushed. "It's like a herd of cattle stampeding around in circles."

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