Pat Pettett's Story of the Fire on the ship in 1970.
Pat has just retired from teaching and decided to write a few short stories in her spare time. Pat thought she would write her recollection of this episode in her life.
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Fire at Sea

We were on the trip of alifetime. It was not every young couple who could board a luxury cruise ship in 1970.  Every cent had been carefully saved and the moment had finally arrived.  We were off to the UK for a year. 

Our cabin was tiny with just two bunk beds, a miniscule bathroom and a chest of drawers that opened and closed at the ocean’s whim.  The joy of being together on such a huge adventure was wonderful.  We hadn’t a care in the world.  We were young, with our whole lives ahead of us. The world was our oyster.

The first boat drill came and passed with much laughter and “as if it would happen” stuff.   The Greek officers were serious but had little control over those who giggled and fumbled with life jackets not caring if they were fastened correctly or not.  What a scream.  As if the ship would sink!

A few nights later I awoke to Eric’s alarmed voice stating that the ship’s engines had stopped.  Silence hovered heavily as we wondered and waited. A loud bang on the door from one of the crew sent us into a panic. The ship was on fire!  We hastily pulled on some clothes but my major concern was to get my contact lenses in.  If we were jumping overboard then I wanted to see where I was going.  The water in the sink was boiling as I tried rinsing them and with great difficulty I peered into the steam covered mirror to insert them. Eric in the background was yelling, “For God’s sake Pat.  The ship’s on fire and you’re putting your make up on!”  We frantically grabbed our life jackets and fled.  It was 4:00am!

The fire doors were closed; escape was paramount but where did we go?  What were they babbling on about when we had that fire drill?  We held hands tightly and eventually ended up on a small emergency station for the crew.  No English was spoken but scornful looks were thrown my way as I battled with my life jacket.  Where did all the strings go?  Which way did I tie it?  We waited in fear and trepidation for our next order.  Why was everyone so silent?

As the fire alarms proclaimed the ship’s worst nightmare we joined a steady stream of people and headed to the top deck. There were over two thousand passengers crammed together in gloomy darkness.  Most were still in night attire looking startled and frightened.  Sleeping babies lay in carry baskets, small children with terrified eyes clung to parents while doom and uncertainty filled the air.  I stood next to an elderly Dutch gentleman smartly resplendent in a suit, perfectly knotted tie and gleaming black shoes.  He proudly patted his breast pocket to show me that he had his wallet and passport. I looked in horror at what I had brought with me; my prize possession was a hair brush!   Eric had nothing!

Angry flames, victorious in their height, leapt between the funnels of the ship.  People stared, mesmerised in horror while a huge glow filled the sky. There was no panic; in fact people were remarkably quiet, trying hard to accept the fact that this was actually happening to them.

Life boats were ceremoniously lowered into the black, fathomless water and it was painfully clear to even my untrained nautical mind, that there weren’t enough for two thousand people, not to mention the five hundred crew.  People muttered about the stupid Greeks and their inefficiency while others quietly whimpered about sharks in tropical waters.  I waited for the cry, “Women and children first.”  That’s what they say in the movies!  My voice was mutinous as I said to Eric, “I won’t be going without you so we’ll jump together – later.”  His answer was a squeeze of the hand so we were united in this drama.

The sun rose above the horizon sending golden hues across the ocean but the splendour went unnoticed as the new problem emerged – sunburn.  We were somewhere in the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand and Fiji with no protection at all.  The tropical sun was relentless and we had no escape.

In a miraculous moment we found our newly acquired friends Margaret and Werner who were struggling with two year old Chrissie and five month old Martin.   Werner was dressed but Margaret was in a skimpy nightdress with a thick yellow dressing gown thrown on top causing great discomfort in the increasing heat. Chrissie was whimpering and clinging to Werner while Martin slept peacefully in his tiny basket lined with apricot and white checked gingham. 

We were aware of cold, smoky water around our feet and as we looked up the flames diminished.  Thick smoke poured from the gaping hole as crew members fought bravely from below.  The captain’s announcement stated that there was a fire in the main galley but everything was under control.  A few sniggered but most people sighed with relief as they settled down to wait out the day.

Trestle tables appeared laden with dry biscuits, cheese, tinned beef, pineapple juice and tea which was all that could be found in the crew’s galley. In a frenzy people raced for food, stuffing their mouths, piling their paper plates to overflowing, filling their pockets with no thought for others.  The scene was disgusting.  Some people were little more than animals.  What they didn’t want they just dropped on the deck.  For a fleeting moment I felt ashamed to be part of the human race.

All day we sat baking in the merciless tropical sun, making temporary hats from handkerchiefs or second hand serviettes to protect our heads.  There were three toilets for two thousand of us – hopeless, futile and filthy.  Martin’s baby basket floated in the murky water and we watched as the apricot and white check gradually turned to grey. He slept peacefully on, totally unaware of the mayhem.

At 7 pm we were summoned to special indoor stations where we waited for hours for cabin information.  Eric disappeared into the bowels of the ship to emerge triumphantly with my face cream and his wallet.   A man from Melbourne disappeared below to return with a huge tin of orange juice.  Someone pierced the top with a pocket knife and we all managed to quench our thirst using just one filthy cup we had found on the floor. We laughed and cheered, ecstatic with our find.

An elderly English couple sat quietly in the corner clutching each other’s hand.  The lady’s beautiful peaches and cream complexion had been ravaged by the harsh sun.  I passed her my face cream and she wept silent tears as her husband gently moisturised her cheeks. I just held her hand in comradeship.  I knew…….we all knew…….  Life was tough.

We finally returned to our cabin but found it awash with filthy, smoky water.   Post traumatic tears of self pity poured from my eyes as I discovered the cases under the bed full of sodden clothes.  I’d had enough!  I was burnt to a cinder, hot and sweaty and tired beyond words.  There was no light, no air conditioning and no tap water. What was happening to our dream holiday?  In silence we closed the door and made our way back up to the top deck.

   I was ashamed of my outburst when I discovered that many cabins had been charred to a cinder and several hundred people had lost everything.  Men stood with dazed looks while women and children were sobbing openly.   Clothes were hastily shared and makeshift beds were made in any available space in the lounges and on the deck.  People were crammed together crying, chatting, blaming, planning.  The night would be endless.

Through the sea of faces we suddenly spied Werner.With great concern he was searching the crowd looking for us.He beamed as we waved and the three of us spoke at once, trying to check on each other.  Their cabin had been completely untouched so we all bunked in together and slept the sleep of the dead.

The next morning brought chaos as dazed people wandered through the badly maimed ship.  Gossip informed us of looters through the night who had stolen and trashed from behind unlocked doors.One girl had been raped in the darkness of her cabin.The scum of the human race had been busy!

We were informed that the fire had been caused by a large container of oil which had over heated and ignited in the main galley.  The fire had travelled rapidly through the air conditioning causing untold damage to the galley and gutting the cabins on the decks directly above it.

Weary crew members and officers assessed the damage and worked endlessly to pacify and help passengers.  Willing people gave clothes and toiletries as about seven hundred passengers prepared to fly to their destinations from Suva.  We spoke to one newly married man who was travelling to England with his wife to meet his in-laws.  He said he had no hope of impressing them if he arrived in his pyjama pants!  Eric found a dry shirt in a drawer in our cabin, some one else gave him some jeans and so it went on…………..  Most people wanted to help.

The Suva wharf was spectacularly alive with a brightly dressed band playing cheerful music as the ship limped in at 5pm.  We felt like heroes!  Warm hands of friendship reached out as we were welcomed by the Fijian people. Suva was there to help.

Hotel dining rooms filled to capacity as the ship’s passengers were given meals for the next week.Those whose cabins were deemed uninhabitable were given free accommodation. Eric and I stayed on the outskirts of Suva in a motel called “The Outrigger” which was a mini tropical paradise.We loved it and had our own little special holiday in absolute luxury. Buses were hired for sight seeing trips and wherever we went a warm welcome was extended.The island’s hospitality was overwhelming.

Experts were flown in from Greece to install a new galley in the ship and within a week passengers were back on board.   With the decline in numbers shipboard life was wonderful and so it was with gay abandon that we succumbed to the excitement of the high seas again with Acapulco being the next port of call.  Sincere efforts from the officers & crewmen made the remainder of the voyage an outstanding success.  What absolute heroes they were……..  Not one life had been lost.

Patricia Pettett

Many thanks to Patricia for her contribution to the site

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Welcome all visitors to the S.S. Australis Website, which has now been online since 1998!

I will continue to update the site if I receive a new story, or if you have interesting photos taken on the ship during your voyage on either the southbound, northbound, or on one of the South Pacific cruises. We used to do those trips several times a year from Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland (New Zealand).

I am deeply moved by the interest and wonderful contributions from the numerous passengers and crew over many years.

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Warm Regards


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