1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 8:
Mike looked again at the shed. The flames had moved down from the roof to the walls, and the whole thing was being consumed. “Everybody down!” he yelled. Then, repeated the yell for the benefit of the firemen, accompanying it with frantic arm waving.
Fortunately, the fire chief wasn’t pig-headed. He immediately ordered his men out of the area and behind the wall. Mike grabbed Engler and Krenz and dragged them over the wall. Then, dropped down himself him below the top.
For perhaps twenty seconds, nothing happened. A few people started to get up, here and there. Then there was a tremendous explosion that seemed to obliterate everything in a sheer blast of noise. Half-dazed, Mike saw one of the bystanders who’d been incautious enough to raise his head over the wall get decapitated. By what, he had no idea. A piece of brick, who knew? One moment the man had a head, the next moment a corpse was collapsing to the ground with blood gushing out of a neck stump.
When it seemed to be over, Mike carefully peered over the top of the wall. There was a ten foot crater where the shed had been. Some of its flaming remnants had apparently landed on the coal barge, and were completing its destruction.
Mike shifted his gaze, and saw that the vat which had tipped over seemed mostly empty. However, two more of the vats had shifted from the impact, and were now also tilted.
Engler’s head had come up next to his, with Krenz following a second later. Mike pointed at the vats. “What’s in those vats?”
“Coal tar,” said Krenz. “Different kinds. We separate them, and sell the different kinds.”
“The one that fell on the ground contained pitch,” Engler added. “We usually don’t have more than a few days’ worth, there’s a lot of demand for it. That one”—he pointed to the one starting to list—“contains something called ‘light benzoils.’ We don’t get much call for it, so we’ve been saving it up to sell to the Americans.”
“How much of it is stored up?”
“I add a new barrel or two to that vat every day,” said Krenz. “Maybe a couple of hundred barrels worth.”
Mike felt his face paling again. That was the equivalent of several thousand gallons of gasoline. If it spread and ignited, half the city was likely to burn down before it was all over.
He turned to the sergeant. “Get every available man from the base.”
He turned to another Marine. “See if you can find Gunther Achterhof, the CoC guy for this district. We need all the manpower we can get. Tell him to bring shovels, buckets, whatever will fight the fire.”
He looked back again. Fortunately, the pitch still hadn’t caught, despite the hot fragments of furnace littering the ground. “Two of you Marines get shovels and buckets and get those fragments out of here before they ignite the pitch.”
Once those pressing immediate tasks were seen to, he turned to the contingent of sailors and Marines who were gathered around him. “We’ve got to keep that vat from tipping over. Get some long pieces of lumber from the dockyards. Get block and tackle. Fast!”
Half a dozen sailors took off, heading for the base. As he looked again, he saw the pitch slowly oozing out of the plant and into the street. Beyond it, he saw the road leading to the open end of the sewer under construction. “Christ on a crutch,” he said. “If the stuff in that vat gets in the sewers, the entire city will go.”
“There isn’t enough time,” Engler said. “We have to get in there now.” He climbed over the wall and into the plant’s yard, heading for the coal tar vats. Krenz came right behind him.
Mike stared at them, decided they were right, and followed himself. His men joined him.
The ground was an obstacle course, requiring them to zigzag to avoid the still-hot debris from the explosion. They ran over to the fire chief, who was lying on the ground, stunned. “Wake up!” Mike shouted. “You’ve got to get your pump going.”
“We still have steam, we can pump!” one of the firemen yelled, having heard him. “But we have to put out those fires now.” He was pointing to the apartment buildings, and Mike could see that he was right. As tightly packed as those buildings were throughout most of Magdeburg, if a fire got out of control it would be almost impossible to stop.
One of the other firemen pulled out a knife and cut away the harness for one of the horses. The animal’s back had shattered by a big chunk of flying debris. The fire chief staggered to his feet and looked around. The first fireman ran over to him. “Sir, there are buildings on fire. We’ve got to put them out now!”
Mike came to a quick decision. “Go,” he said. “My men and I will take care of the plant.”
The fire chief nodded, and stumbled after the pump as his men led it away.
Mike continued through the obstacle course, finally arriving at the upended vat, He looked beyond it to the damaged one. It was still standing, but was now starting to leak a thin liquid on the ground.
“Make way!” Krenz yelled. He carried an empty barrel across the pitch to put it under the leak. “That won’t stop it for long.”
“We’ve got to jack up that platform, or that won’t matter,” one of the sailors said.
“Over there,” Mike directed. “The platform for the destroyed vat. See if any of the wood can be salvaged.” Several men started pulling lumber off the ground. Others pushed the grounded vat a few feet out of the way. They replaced parts of the damaged supports.
“The vat’s too badly damaged,” Engler said. Mike could see that he was right. The leak was increasing. They had to move the tar before it ruptured entirely. As he watched, the first barrel filled up and overflowed. The liquid quickly overtook the thick pitch in its downhill flow. A couple of men rolled the barrel out of the way, and a new barrel replaced it.
“We can’t keep this up. We don’t have enough barrels.” Mike glanced at the nearby steam crane and turned to Krenz. “You said you filled the vats. Can you put those barrels into other vats?”
“Yes,” he replied. “But it takes time to bring the boiler to steam. We don’t have enough time.”