American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

Through Smoke and Fire

Lieutenant Commander Jesse Mimms Roper was in charge of the gunboat Petrel  when it was in Maila Bay, soon after the close of the Spanish War. He lost his life while trying to save one of his sailors from a fire on board of the gunboat. The story of his heroic self-sacrifice is told by his second officer in about the following words: —

"I was lying in my bunk at half-past six on a Sunday morning. Suddenly I heard a call, but being off duty I paid no attention to it. Then there was a great scuffling on the deck, and my boy ran in to tell me that there was a fire somewhere.

"I was responsible for all the powder on board, and it did not take me long to get to my place. On the sick list though I was, I felt that it was for me to be wherever that fire was. It was below the hatchway leading from the sail room to the berth deck. As I ran forward, I saw a great cloud of smoke rushing up the hatchway, but there were no flames in sight.

"Commander Roper was already there. He was clad only in his pajamas. He had been the first man to go down into the hatch, and was at once overcome by the smoke. Two seamen had dragged him up, and he was just recovering when I reached his side. Several of the crew were at the hatch, lifting out some of the men who had gone down with the hose and been overcome.

"Every man that went down was sure of suffocation, but not one held back. Each man, when his turn came, ran down and seized the body of the man who had preceded him. He quickly slung a bowline under the arms of the suffocated man. The seamen on deck would pull the body up, and the man below would seize the hose and fight the fire as long as he could breathe. Then he, too, would drop, unconscious, and somebody would have to go after him.

"I have been in all sorts of dangerous places at sea, but I never saw anything that tried my nerves as that did. The men, one after another, keeled over as they went down into the smoke. Before long we had twenty-two men lying unconscious on the deck.

"There was one man, Seaman Toner, still missing. We knew that he was lying somewhere unconscious in the middle of that black smoke. He had been in charge of the hose, and had not returned. As soon as this was known to Commander Roper, he made a rush for the hatch. I held him back, and he tried to shove me to one side. At last he turned away for a minute and then made a rush for the hatch. It was too late for me to catch him, but I shouted to him to come back.

" 'You don't know how things are down there,' I said. 'There are other men here who are willing to go, and they are much abler to stand it than you.'

" 'I know exactly how things are down there,' he said, turning and waving his hand to me. 'I am going down after that seaman.'

"Before he could reach the hatchway, Cadet Lewis stepped in front of him and said that he would go after Toner. There was a race to the hatchway, and both disappeared in the smoke together. Two jackies followed them.

"The rest of us grouped around the opening without saying a word. We gazed down the iron ladder a moment, as if helpless. I then gave orders that no more men should go down there unless they had bowlines about them. There were two officers and three men already there.

"In another minute a negro named Girandt had slipped a bowline around him and was going down the hatchway. He got hold of the two men who had gone down with Commander Roper, and all were pulled up together. After taking a few breaths of air, the negro went down again and tied the line around Toner. This time he himself was unconscious when pulled up.

"I couldn't stand it any longer. There were twenty-five men lying stretched out on the deck, and I decided that it was my duty to go to the succor of the officers. I put a wet handkerchief in my mouth, slung the bowline around me, and was let down. I had ordered the electric lights in the compartment turned on. They flared out just as I touched the deck, and through the smoke I could see Commander Roper seated on a pile of canvas in a corner.