HMS Sheffield May 4th, 1982 2:04 p.m. GMT
“I have to get to the oxygen. It’s our only chance.” Seaman First Class Frost spoke calmly, but loudly enough to be heard over the moans of the burn victims and the metallic shrieks from the great ship as she spiralled to starboard. The blast had been deafening, disorienting, and now HMS Sheffield, their great protectress, had become a behemoth of destruction, raining down molten metal, vaporizing the very air, shaking the foundations of her crew’s world.
Minutes earlier, Frost had herded the galley crew, eleven service men, their officer cook, and himself, into the largest of the ship’s freezers, the walk-in meat locker. The damage was above the waterline, Frost thought, or they would have been flooded out already. Now, the fire, which had prevented the galley crew’s escape to the upper decks, was the enemy. The locker would hold off the heat, but it was too small to contain enough air for them all, for long.
He pulled at one of the two levers that sealed the door of the walk-in freezer, when a strong hand on his wrist stopped him.
“We’ll open the catches, together, so as to lose as little air as possible. Wait for me to get the lower one.” Frost looked into the sooty and bleeding face of Petty Officer Goodall, the ship’s executive cook. “Go!” said Goodall, and the two men simultaneously opened the levers of the freezer door, stepped through, and closed the door behind them. Done in three seconds.
The hot air of the galley’s supply hall hit them like a fist in the face, then quickly became a full-blown pain in the chest.
The Petty Officer raised his mouth up to the level of Frost’s ear. He knew instinctively to preserve his air by speaking quietly. “The O-2 tanks are in Storage Locker 5-H. Not locked.”
“5-H?” questioned the big sailor.
“Through the galley,” responded Goodall. “All the way through, sorry to say.”
The two men moved slowly down the hall, into the galley proper, a narrow space with a stainless steel island in the centre and preparation areas on the side walls. The room had to be seventy feet long.
Thirteen men were in the galley when the yellow alert had sounded. It had sounded eleven times in their eight hour shift—every time a false alarm—so the men had not even considered dropping tools. Just two days ago they had been informed that only a Code Red required deployment to battle stations.
While Air Warning Yellow still piped, they had felt a powerful impact, then the blast of the explosion. Once through the steel shell of the destroyer, the timed Exocet missile had exploded inboard, creating an irreparable crater in the guts of the ship.
On Deck 5, at least thirty feet below the point of impact, the galley was already unrecognizable. The air was black, with great gouts of smoke billowing in from what had been the midsection of the ship; flames had spread up the walls from spilled cooking oils, melting the metal overhead struts; drops of ignited aluminum rained down through the wasted ceiling from the ship’s midsection, setting new fires wherever they landed on the highly flammable linoleum flooring.
It was a hell that Frost and Goodall had never thought to see.
“Through here,” said Goodall. With one hand he guided Frost, with the other he guided himself, along the stainless steel centre island. Then he yelled. “Bloody hell! The counter’s on fire.” Through the murk, Frost could barely see Goodall’s hand when he lifted it up, the flesh already suppurating from the contact burn, bones showing through the charred flesh.
Frost’s survival instincts kicked in: the air is hot from the fires, so there can be very little oxygen left. What air there is, is too hot to breathe. So, we have….what? Ten minutes? Five if we keep moving. Less if our lungs ignite. He peered at Goodall, who was now in deep shock, almost comatose from the pain. Frost’s mind raced through the possibilities. Go back, and die of suffocation in the meat locker, with the twelve other men. Or get an oxygen tank back to the locker, and save them all. Maybe. Go back, sir,” he said.
The Petty Officer’s good hand, still on Frost’s back, clutched hard. “No. You will need me. The O-2 weighs too much.”
Frost led the crippled cook down the galley, trying to balance his need for speed against his need to take breaths of the suffocating air as seldom as possible. But for how long would it matter? His eyes stung and watered, his brain screamed at him to go back, his lungs ached with the heat.
“Here.” Goodall’s voice was barely audible. Storage locker 5-H contained at least eight large gas canisters, strapped to the wall. All green. Good. Oxygen. Frost began to unbuckle a strap, when Goodall pulled at him. “Knife. In my pocket. Always.”
Frost grinned, dug in Goodall’s uniform pants for the knife—which would have been an awkward moment at any other time– then cut the leather strapping. The tank clattered to the floor, but Frost was fast enough to brace it upwards. If it ever fell over, he knew, he would not have the breath to lift it upright.
“Need wrench,” muttered Goodall. Of course. They had to be able to unscrew the metal shield that covered the valve on the top of the canister; that required a made-for-purpose very large wrench. Frost looked around, spotted the wrench on a nearby shelf, and picked it up. “No. Me,” said Goodall. “Can’t help with the O-2. Too….too.” He broke into a lung-wrenching cough.
Frost nodded, handed the wrench into Goodall’s good hand, and grabbed the gas canister awkwardly. It was over four feet long, full of oxygen which is not light, and constructed of three-eighths steel. Frost knew it weighed over two hundred pounds, but without hesitation lifted it, and began the long trek back through the fiery galley. The space was now so dark they were moving by instinct. Frost made sure that Goodall was with him; he could feel the contours of the heavy wrench pressed against his back, as Goodall struggled behind him.
They inched through the long galley, and finally into the storage hall that housed the meat locker. Frost staggered through the final yards to the sealed door, pounding on it with the heel of the oxygen tank. He was nearing unconsciousness, but, through the pain of the heat, realized that Goodall was no longer at his back. He turned, and saw the Petty Officer, some eight feet behind him, his officer’s white uniform shirt alight and melting to his skin. As he dropped to his knees Goodall tossed the wrench, as best he could, towards Frost. Frost started back, but saw Goodall shake his head, then fall.
The oxygen tank, the wrench, and Frost were pulled into the freezer by the waiting men. The pneumatic doors were clamped shut.
Rescued some ten hours later the twelve men survived. In the official report, it was confirmed that the oxygen provided by the tank, and the cooling provided by the frozen meat in the air-tight freezer saved the men. Seaman First Class Reginald J. Frost was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal. Petty Officer Neil Goodall was awarded his Distinguished Service Order—reserved for officers– posthumously.