"Escape: Because Accidents Happen: Abandon Ship"

PBS Airdate: February 17, 1999
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ANNOUNCER: Tonight on NOVA. Hundreds die when a ferry goes down in a raging storm. But this man stayed alive.

PAUL BARNEY: I was driven by the fact that there was always one more form of life-saving device.

ANNOUNCER: Centuries of tragedies at sea have led to better ways to escape, "Because Accidents Happen." Experiments like these have led to innovations in life-saving equipment. But do they increase your chances of survival after you "Abandon Ship"?

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NARRATOR: When a ship goes down in a storm, any survivors are at the mercy of an angry, unforgiving sea.

PAUL BARNEY: I saw the sea was about to engulf me. I was going to die in this black ferment. And it seemed to me such an incredible waste. I was beginning to get so cold, that you stop shivering. You don't even know about it. You get way beyond the shivering stage. You're just trying to ignore this, and trying to preserve yourself amongst this complete carnage.

NARRATOR: Within minutes of entering cold water, even the strongest swimmers struggle to stay alive. Cold saps their strength, and the risk of drowning increases dramatically. The harsh lessons of survival at sea have been learned from centuries of maritime accidents. Improvements in life-saving equipment have increased the chance of survival. But when disaster strikes, the sea remains a formidable foe. The events that unfolded on this ill-fated ship illustrate the acute problems of survival at sea. Like the Titanic. and Lusitania before her, the car ferry Estonia was the pride of the fleet. Every day, she sailed across the Baltic Sea between Estonia and Sweden. It was a busy route, and the car deck, just above sea level, was often full. When she set off on September 27, 1994, there were almost 1,000 people on board. Most of them were asleep in their cabins as the sea began to get rough. A computerized reconstruction reveals what happened that night. It was not a particularly bad storm, but heavy seas battered the ship's bow door. The pounding put stress on the opening mechanism, until the hinges snapped, and the bow door hung loose. Shortly after 1:00 in the morning, it was forced open, and water began to pour into the car deck. Officers on the bridge noticed the water on a video monitor, but they did not realize the imminent danger. Fifteen minutes after the hinges snapped, the bow door fell off, releasing the ramp. The ship carried on at full speed for another minute. Water flooded the car deck, and the Estonia began to list. Eight minutes later, the crew put out a distress call.

CREW MEMBER: Mayday, mayday.

RADIO DISPATCHER: Estonia, what's going on? Can you reply?

NARRATOR: There were no emergency instructions from the bridge.

PAUL BARNEY: People were either stunned around me, they didn't move, they sat and didn't move, or they evacuated and ran into the ship. Now, I knew that the middle of the ship, if there was any sort of degree of panic, would be the wrong place to go. And also, I didn't know the way to lifeboats or anything like that. But it was obvious to me to work your way up the ship. If the ship was tilting that way, stay high. And yet, the people weren't coming out. So, I knew people were sleeping down there.

NARRATOR: When the ship turned over on its side, hundreds were trapped in their cabins. Paul Barney clung to some pipes as the ceiling became a vertical wall.

PAUL BARNEY: Suddenly, the moon came out from behind the clouds and lit up this pipework which had been the ceiling - pipework on the ceiling of the promenade deck. So, it was like this dull moonlight, and I just said, 'Right, there's only one thing to do, climb that.' So, I climbed up that, and suddenly, there I was on top of this enormous ship, on my own, in my socks, and a massive gale and the waves breaking over the ship.

NARRATOR: He found a small group of passengers desperately trying to board a life raft at the other end of the sinking hull.

PAUL BARNEY: I jumped in at the last moment as we hit the water, and immediately a wave turned the whole life raft upside down. So suddenly, I was upside down in the life raft in the pitch black. And I had to swim out of the exit. I came in up to the surface, where everyone was around, sort of shouting and screaming. I was shouting for a lifejacket, and it was just chaos, completely. That was the moment of complete chaos for me, is when you're in the black, in the water.

NARRATOR: For the next few hours, Paul Barney clung to his life as others around him slipped into unconsciousness and drowned. As long as ships have sailed the seas, lives have been in peril. Centuries ago, in the days of wooden sailing ships, there were no lifeboats or life belts. So, if a vessel foundered, the best way of staying afloat was to find some wooden wreckage. Sailing ships were often smashed on the rocks before shipwrecked sailors could be rescued. This infamous stretch of Yorkshire coastline had over 700 shipwrecks each winter in the middle of the last century. A new way of bringing stranded sailors safely ashore was needed.

TONY ELLIS: The most significant development in the early part of the 19th century was the Manby Mortar. And this was the first successful attempt to make this vital connection between a stranded ship and the shore. This is an original mortar from about 1815, from the first hundred cast.

NARRATOR: The idea was to fire a cannon ball which carried a rescue line. The problem was making sure the line didn't snap. Sidney Alford, an explosives expert, follows the instructions of Captain Manby, the inventor. He ties in a length of leather to absorb the initial shock of the explosion.

TONY ELLIS: It was essential that the line didn't foul as it was being fired to the ship. And so, it was made up in these boxes and then shortly before firing, we will take the bottom frame off and the pins fall through the bottom of the box. All right, just put it there. And now, as we can see, the line is still in a tidy format, and when it's fired, it should just come out.

NARRATOR: The mortar could shoot a life line several hundred yards out to sea. Once it was secured to the ship, the crew could be hauled to safety by volunteers on shore. This kind of rescue saved thousands of seamen's lives every year. Later, the mortar was replaced with a rocket, which had greater range and accuracy. The rocket powered line was used well into this century. Each survivor was pulled to safety on a cork life belt attached to a pulley block called a "breeches buoy." This equipment could only be used close to shore, or from another ship. In the middle of the ocean, survival was a problem, particularly when ships were no longer made of wood. When iron hulls were introduced, passengers were concerned for their safety. If an iron ship sank, it went down quickly with little floating debris to cling to. To allay their fears, enterprising Victorian inventors came up with some curious survival aids. If the ship went down, a gentleman could always slip into his cabin trunk. This specially adapted model was lined with cork to provide extra buoyancy, ensuring a safe paddle home. In distress? Then, why not mark the spot, so rescuers can find you? A rubber suit, a paddle, and lifebuoy. What more could a sinking passenger want? The Mayday mouthpiece, ideal for projecting that urgent message to the loved one - if the gallant passenger can keep his head above the waves. Thankfully, none of these inventions was tested in an emergency. But the Victorians did come up with the first practical life preservers made of cork. They were worn by lifeboat crews during rescues. The cork lifejacket would keep a man afloat, but testing one reveals its limitations. Dr. Frank Golden, a retired Admiral and pioneer in maritime survival, assesses the jacket.

DR. FRANK GOLDEN: It gave added buoyancy, which helped the person to stay afloat in the water. But of course, it has a number of faults, which we know about today. The buoyancy is equally distributed around the body, around the front of the body and around the back of the body. So, if the person was unconscious and was lying face down on the water, he would remain stable in that position. Secondly, there was no support for the head or neck. It's really just wrapped around the top of the body, leaving the shoulders and head out of the water. And that's fine for somebody who is conscious, who is alert, who is able to hold his head out. But the head actually is very heavy, the specific gravity of the head. When a person loses consciousness, the neck muscles are failing, and then the head tends to flop forward, and they could be found floating face down in the water, inhaling the water.

NARRATOR: But any lifejacket was better than nothing. When this World War I battleship turned over, the survivors who made it to the deck slid down the hull into the sea. Few wore lifejackets, and some of them could not swim. If they were lucky, they might find a Carley Float, which they could cling to. These light, aluminum floats carried rations and first aid. But they were no use if a person's strength was fading. Thousands of seamen lost their lives in the cold waters of the Atlantic during the First and Second World Wars. Airmen were more fortunate. They were issued with Mae Wests. The early ones had to be inflated by blowing into a tube. They provided good buoyancy. But they suffered from the same problem as all early lifejackets. If the airmen became unconscious, they were almost certain to drown.

DR. FRANK GOLDEN: Some of the problems of lifejackets were identified in the Institute of Aviation Medicine at Farnborough during the war by two Air Force medical officers by the name of Macintosh and Pask.

NARRATOR: Dr. Edgar Pask was the guinea pig in a series of experiments where he came as close as he dared to drowning.

DR. FRANK GOLDEN: Pask very heroically allowed himself to be anesthetized, and he was anesthetized and had a tube put into him to facilitate breathing while he was unconscious. He was then given a standard lifejacket and immersed in the water. And it was quickly revealed that in an unconscious man, the head wasn't being kept clear of the water. Or in fact, in one case, I understand he even sank. They showed that it was, if you were horizontal in the water, that was an undesirable position to be in. And they showed if you were vertical in the water, it was equally undesirable, because the body tended to bob up and down periodically with the waves, and you got alternatively a wave covering the airway and not doing so. So, they found out that the optimum position for a man wearing a lifejacket in the water was at an angle of 45 degrees to the surface.

NARRATOR: After these experiments, lifejackets were redesigned with a firm collar to support the head. With a modern life jacket, it doesn't matter how a person enters the sea. On surfacing, the head will always be held upright and clear of the water.

DR. FRANK GOLDEN: So now, I've got a nice splint for my neck, all the buoyancy in the front of my body, a nice splint for my neck. When I'm floating now at 45 degrees, my head is going to be kept out of the water, and my airway protected from calm water. But with rough water, when the waves are breaking, the waves will wash up over the front of the face and will wash over my airway, and I could drown quite easily when I lose consciousness. So, to overcome that problem, you need some form of face screen. These splash guards will help protect the airway from the wave breaking up over the front of the lifejacket. And if the person can get them on, it will enhance his ability of staying alive once he loses consciousness.

NARRATOR: But even the most modern lifejackets would not have saved the crew of this ship, which set sail on its maiden voyage in 1912.

TITANIC FILM FOOTAGE: Abandon ship! Every man for himself!

NARRATOR: After disaster struck, hundreds of people plunged into the sea, because there was not enough room on the lifeboats. The Titanic disaster alerted the world to the real danger of abandoning ship. The sinking of the unsinkable ship made nations international safety regulations for the first time. From then on, everyone traveling on a ship was guaranteed a place on a lifeboat and an approved lifejacket. All ships were required to conduct lifeboat drills. This was a simple procedure for an upright ship in calm water. But in more extreme conditions, it could deteriorate into chaos. Twenty-two years after the Titanic, in 1934, the Morro Castle set sail from New York to Cuba, which was a popular cruise destination at the time. It had a full complement of lifeboats, but the passengers were not taught how to use them. The captain wanted everyone to enjoy the party atmosphere. On the return journey, a small fire on the lower decks was allowed to get out of control. As the Morro Castle approached New York, the order was given to abandon ship. The crew had no idea how to organize an evacuation. The plight of the passengers inspired a dramatization of the disaster. One of the passengers, Dolly McTigue, was on her honeymoon with her husband, Sidney.

DOLLY McTIGUE: When we went out of the cabin and down the hall, we then went to see if we could get into one of the lifeboats. And nobody was - The lifeboats were gone. The crew was going into the lifeboats, and there we were, the passengers, all screaming and yelling, "Where are the lifeboats? We thought that there would be more lifeboats that we can get into." So, the panic was just crazy because - What were we going to do next? And no one was around to tell us what to do. And that's when somebody said, "Let's jump overboard." So, this one jumped overboard, that one jumped overboard. And I was pushed up against the railing. I couldn't move, and my hands were waving, and before I knew it, somebody picked up my legs and threw me in.

NARRATOR: Many of the lifeboats were burned in the fire. The rest were commandeered by the crew, who left the passengers to fend for themselves.

DOLLY McTIGUE: And we tried reaching for a boat, and they wouldn't let us on. They passed us right by, and they said, "No, no, no, no." So, I was ready to give up, and Sidney said, "No, you can't give up. You won't give up." And I'm looking down at this lovely girl with the lovely black hair, and she was all burnt. Her face was crisp. And I said, "Darn it, I'm not going to die. I won't give up. I refuse to give up." So, there was a boat, way over, way over there, and we happened to have enough strength in us to swim over to that boat. But we were saved, at least on the boat.

NARRATOR: The four lifeboats that made it to the shore carried 119 crew members and only 15 passengers. The code of the sea had been abandoned with the sinking ship.

DOLLY McTIGUE: And we always thought that the crew was, you know, "You come first." But we were so mad, and determined to find out what the heck happened on that boat, because something was wrong. Something had to be wrong.

NARRATOR: The Morro Castle tragedy cost the lives of 124 people. After an inquiry, the captain was prosecuted for negligence. The disaster highlighted a number of problems. The firefighting provisions were completely inadequate, with hydrants locked and hoses stored away. The passengers had been given no safety drills. And most important was the complete failure of the crew to deal with the emergency. On this training ship, merchant marine cadets learn to prevent such disasters. If there is a fire on board, a well-rehearsed emergency plan swings into action. The sailors become firefighters and divide up into small teams to locate the source. They learn how to use breathing apparatus to navigate through smoke. If they can extinguish the fire quickly, it will avoid the need to pump large volumes of water which could flood the ship. They are also trained to search through the ship's compartments for victims overcome by smoke. If a fire should take hold, the worst case disaster scenario is to abandon ship.

TRAINING INSTRUCTOR: On Patriot State, what is one of the most important things that we've always taught you? Order and discipline. Without the order and discipline, we have people jumping over the side. If we had people jump over the side, they'd be jumping on top of one another, injuring each other in the water. Order and discipline is the key.

NARRATOR: The only way of abandoning without major loss of life is to ensure everyone knows the drill.

CADET #1: Abandon ship. Abandon ship.


CADET #2: Standby engine, aye.

NARRATOR: Down in the engine room, the crew is particularly vulnerable. Automatic doors seal the ship into fireproof, watertight compartments. If there is a fire on a lower deck, sailors can be trapped. So, many ships have an escape tunnel that runs along the entire length of the propeller shaft. A vertical chimney is their direct link to the top deck.

CADET #3: Abandon ship. Abandon ship. Abandon ship.

NARRATOR: Not knowing where to go is a common problem. On a well-organized ship, everyone reports to a muster station, where a roll call is carried out to ensure no one is missing.

TRAINING INSTRUCTOR: On my count of three, release . . . one, two, three.

NARRATOR: Some of these cadets will become the cruise ship officers of the future. One day, they may have to rescue passengers who are frightened and untrained in the ways of the sea. But there are even more extreme situations. Escape from warships under enemy fire has its own set of rules. For as well as saving lives, the crew must do everything possible to save the ship. One of the most heroic examples of this was on board the aircraft carrier, USS Franklin. It was bombed by Kamikaze pilots in the Second World War. The ship's own bombs and ammunition started to explode, triggering massive fires. Most of the crew was evacuated, but damage control teams stayed on, battling the fire for five days, as the ship limped back across the Pacific. Today, in Portsmouth, England, a simulator called the Hazard enables sailors to practice damage control without leaving the dock. Working in a small compartment as the water level rises, they experience first-hand the terror of trying to prevent a flooding ship from sinking. The hull is riddled with holes. Their task is to stem each new leak. This high-tech simulator mimics the motion of a ship taking on water. High pressure water jets are triggered inside to simulate direct hits beneath the water line. It's like a plumber's worst nightmare. To combat the danger, the crew adopts a low-tech approach. They use crude tools, wedges of wood, hammers and scaffolding braces. Wood expands when it's wet, so by plugging each hole, the sailors can cut down the water flow. They must work fast, because the water level in the compartment is almost up to their necks. As the interior continues to flood, the rocking of the simulator starts to slow down, just as it would on a real ship that is taking on water. What determines the moment a ship sinks is an exact science. A ship is most stable when it's able to right itself quickly. Paradoxically, the quicker it rolls, the more stable it is. This scale model of a destroyer enables Naval engineers to see what happens when different sections of the ship are flooded.

JOHN HERRIOTT: As flood water enters the ship, it becomes progressively less stable. By opening up that machinery space there, allowing the water to flood in, and then heeling the model again, you can see that its rate of recovery has gotten slower. As more flood water enters the ship and spreads throughout the length of the vessel, you get to a point where the ship starts to heel over, and eventually we get to a point where the captain has to got to make a decision as to when he is going to give the order to abandon ship because the vessel is beyond salvation.

NARRATOR: When that point is reached, disaster strikes quickly. The Estonia sank at 1:40 in the morning, with most of the 980 passengers still trapped below decks. There was not enough time to fill the lifeboats. Only 137 people would survive the night. Paul Barney was fighting for his life in his upturned raft.

PAUL BARNEY: The night sort of really closed in to some really horrendous weather, and I was getting this bad shock. And you can't really function properly under shock. You're getting colder and colder and colder, and every time a wave came over the raft, you got soaked to the skin, and just felt your body heat dissipate out. You start to feel incredibly tired under hypothermia, and there's this incredible desire just to put your head down on the side of the life raft and fall asleep. I mean, the desire, and the strength of that is so strong. But I knew from past experiences that that would be instant - Unconsciousness would be instant death, really, because you would either slip into the life raft and drown, or overboard.

NARRATOR: Hypothermia is one of the biggest problems of survival at sea. But it's scientific investigation has a tragic history, which began in the Second World War. The German Luftwaffe was concerned by the number of pilots lost at sea. Sometimes, they died of cold even after they were rescued. It was this problem which led to a series of horrific experiments at the Dachau Concentration Camp. Nazi doctors watched as their subjects slowly shivered to death. The perpetrators of these unethical trials were later convicted of war crimes. One of the few survivors was a Dutch prisoner called Post Uiterweer, who was 25 when he was ordered to strip and enter the freezing water.

POST UITERWEER: So, we were completely naked in the water, and I don't know how long I stayed in the water. It could be a half an hour, it could be more. But I was terribly cold. My muscles were frozen. I hardly could move, and I couldn't speak. I could hardly speak anything. And then, at a certain moment, I was heaved out of the bath and put into a hot bath.

NARRATOR: Few of these Nazi experiments had any scientific value. But they established that hot water was the best way of treating hypothermia. They also found that human beings lose consciousness when the body temperature falls below 28 degrees. What to do with this information became highly controversial, because at least 80 prisoners are thought to have died in these brutal experiments. Cold water survival research since the war uses volunteers. Royal Navy researchers filmed a series of demonstrations with British Olympic swimmers.

DR. FRANK GOLDEN: We now know that it's not just even hypothermia alone that is the problem. We now know that in the first few minutes of immersion, you suffer a phenomena called cold shock, where you can't control your breathing, and your heart rate soars, and your blood pressure goes up, and you are totally incapacitated for just a few minutes if you're not used to cold water. And even competent swimmers, Olympic standard swimmers, get into difficulty in those first few minutes. And they can't even swim a short distance to save their own lives. Later on, and much later, body temperature ebbs away, and the people suffer from hypothermia. So, they have to survive the cold shock phenomena before they even die from hypothermia.

NARRATOR: Another volunteer was submerged in water at five degrees Centigrade. The experiment was supposed to last five minutes. But he could only withstand two and a half. Paul Barney felt the onset of hypothermia start to jeopardize his ability to survive.

PAUL BARNEY: You can't really think or function properly. I was trying to find a lifejacket. I had found one, but I couldn't actually do it up properly, and it was very hard to function with the cold hands and think clearly with the shock. So, my main intent was to try and get rid of the shock through deep, slow breathing, sort of yoga breathing to try and reduce my heart rate. I knew that high adrenaline was no use to me there, because it was just burning up all my energy.

NARRATOR: Even the most simple actions become impossible in cold water.

DR. FRANK GOLDEN: We thought it would be a good idea to test the effects of superficial body cooling on some simple survival actions, like opening a flare. And all the muscles controlling one's hands are very superficial on the body. So, these muscles cool very early, and that makes the man's hands relatively useless. It's fine for people in centrally heated offices who may design these things, but for the poor survivor with cold, numb, clumsy, thick fingers, that can take an awfully long time and can be very difficult to achieve.

NARRATOR: Staying alive after abandoning ship is hard enough. But an even more extreme survival challenge is underwater escape - from a submarine. Being entombed beneath the water with a limited supply of air has always been the submarine crew's greatest fear.

SUBMARINE CREW MAN #1: So you can watch, the last man down from the bridge, hatch secured, bridge rigged to dive.

SUBMARINE CREW MAN #2: Last man down, hatch secured, bridge rigged to dive. Aye, sir.

NORMAN POLMAR: The first recorded rescue or escape from a submarine was probably 1851, when a Bavarian artillery sergeant named Wilhelm Bauer, who is also a submarine inventor, developed a boat which was very effective for its time, which got stuck in the bottom of Kiel Harbor.

NARRATOR: This German movie dramatizes Bauer's pedal-powered descent into the harbor. Everything went well, until water started to leak through the hull. It rapidly sank 60 feet to the bottom.

NORMAN POLMAR: He had two assistants with him. They immediately panicked. He calmed them down, flooded the submarine intentionally to build up the pressure in the submarine to the same as the water outside. Once it filled with water, he then opened the hatch, and the three of them swam to the surface.

NARRATOR: But escape by flooding the entire vessel became impractical as submarines got larger, with more crew members to evacuate. So, the Navy experimented with an airlock chamber that was flooded for each individual's escape. The men were equipped with breathing apparatus for the ascent. An inflatable bag was filled with oxygen from a small cylinder, allowing them to escape from depths of up to 200 feet. In 1939, an accident aboard the USS Squalus caused the submarine to sink 240 feet to the ocean floor. An open valve had allowed the engine room to flood. To save the submarine, the crew sealed off the area, sacrificing 26 men on the other side. The survivors feared they were too deep to risk escaping with a breathing apparatus. Their only other hope was to wait to be rescued. Along the East coast, an emergency operation was set in motion. A ship carrying a new, untested McCann Rescue Chamber raced to the scene. The submarine crew realized it was going to take at least 24 hours to arrive. Carl Bryson and Danny Persico were both young sailors in their 20s.

CARL BRYSON: One of the problems was to stay alive, OK? And the air was bad, and we had very little oxygen to release, and we released all the oxygen. We put out all the soda lime that we had to absorb the CO2. And the air was getting progressively worse in the boat. So, the main thing to do was to conserve oxygen.

NARRATOR: A diver was lowered to attach guide wires, so the rescue chamber could descend to the escape hatch.

DAN PERSICO: I could hear the diver's feet, with his big, metal shoes. When they hit the deck, it was very clear, and I could hear his conversation into his phone in the helmet. And he was very clear, and the language he was using was really cussing and everything, problems he was having attaching the cable.

NARRATOR: With the chamber locked to the submarine, the rescue could begin.

NORMAN POLMAR: The crewmen could open the hatch within the chamber, the hatch to the submarine, and then pass from the submarine into the steel chamber, close their hatch again, close the bottom hatch of the McCann Chamber, and then be pulled up a cable which ran through the center of the chamber up to the surface. And it could go up and down several times like this, just like a lift.

NARRATOR: Danny and Carl were in the last group to be rescued. After 34 hours on the bottom, they waited for the bell to return for the final trip.

DAN PERSICO: It felt good until we got up to about a 155-foot level, and we couldn't go up, and we couldn't go down.

NARRATOR: The lifting cables had become entangled, so the men were trapped in the bell, halfway between the submarine and the ship. The only way of saving them was to haul the bell up by hand.

DAN PERSICO: The best ride I had in my life was in that bell - even though it took four and a half hours to make it.

NARRATOR: The McCann Rescue Chamber was never used in an emergency again. It was eventually replaced by an underwater rescue vehicle that could reach the greater depth of nuclear submarines. This mini rescue sub rides piggy-back on a mother sub. In an emergency, it travels to a disabled submarine, locks onto an escape hatch, and then ferries survivors from the stricken sub back to the mother sub. So far, it has never been used in an emergency. When accidents occur at shallow depths, there is a much easier way of escape. In this water tank, British submarine crews learned the buoyant ascent method of escape. They wear a special suit filled with air. After taking a few last breaths of compressed air, they zip up the suit and climb into a flooded escape chamber. The buoyancy of the suit guarantees a rapid ascent.

MATTHEW TODD: When the hatch opens, he goes. The hatch is the only thing that is holding him down. With that much buoyancy, he goes - shvroom! - straight like that. And whether he likes it or not, he goes up to surface. He can sing a song if he feels inclined. He's got a hat full of air around his face, so why hold your breath? And he can look out of his window and see the water getting lighter. I personally used to put my hands like that and go around in a spiral, and you can then see what's in the sea above you, because it's not very nice coming up under a boat.

NARRATOR: In a real escape, the survivor could face a long wait in the sea. To protect him from hypothermia, the suit is heavily insulated, and also has an inflatable life raft. It keeps him out of the water, cocooned from the cold. Life rafts are critical to prevent the rapid drop in body temperature common to all sea survivors. At the Marine Training Center in Holland, oil workers and ship crews are trained how to use life rafts. These men are wearing insulated suits, which increase survival times in cold water. But clambering into a life raft, even when it's calm, can be difficult. Most ships carry self-inflating life rafts, which can be deployed quickly. But as Paul Barney discovered, they sometimes get turned upside down by wind or waves.

PAUL BARNEY: In the English press, there was talk of the fact that we should have righted the life raft after we had got on it. But in those conditions, it seemed a completely ridiculous suggestion, because it was absolutely impossible to do that with 16 or 20 civilians in a force nine gale with a 40-foot swell next to a sinking ship. I mean, there was no way anyone was going to - People weren't even communicating amongst themselves, let alone one person trying to get everybody off.

NARRATOR: To overcome these problems, this ship was designed with a new way of evacuating people. The HSS Stena Explorer is a high speed car ferry. Although it can carry up to 1,500 passengers, this giant catamaran has no lifeboats. In the event of an accident, the crew deploys enormous inflatable escape chutes. They are taking part in an evacuation test monitored by Britain's Marine Safety Agency. Two hundred crew members must demonstrate they can evacuate the entire ship in under 18 minutes. They slide down two 80-foot escape chutes to a floating platform which is linked to three enormous life rafts. Each has a capacity of 135 people. It is a daring concept to evacuate everyone from the ship - without getting their feet wet. But it remains to be seen how untrained passengers would cope with the slides in 50-knot gales, or how these whale-like rafts would perform in a storm. One of the toughest places to escape from is an oil rig at sea. The risk of fire and the great height of the platforms make evacuation particularly difficult. A solution to this problem came from a Dutch company called Verhoef. Back in the 50s, Joost Verhoef started a small company, which would eventually produce a new form of lifeboat.

MARTIN VERHOEF: Now, my father himself was the master craftsman, and at that time—and then, I'm talking about the early 50s - he found the skill to make aluminum lifeboats which were never made before at that time.

NARRATOR: Aluminum had many advantages. It was strong, light-weight, and fire-proof. But Verhoef realized that to improve lifeboats, the launching system needed to be re-designed.

MARTIN VERHOEF: By using a cradle like this, you can see that the lifeboat can now be launched within a few seconds. Now, with this model from 1960, my father met two of his goals. The first goal was to get away from the ship as quick as possible. The second was to leave as safely as possible. But the third goal couldn't be met at that time. He wanted to have a lifeboat being self-righting under all circumstances.

NARRATOR: This goal would take longer to achieve. Verhoef went ahead and built a full-scale prototype. It was tested on the canal next to the factory. A rich ship owner, who had lost two ships in heavy seas, funded the project, because he wanted safer lifeboats for his ships. Over the next 25 years, Verhoef perfected the design. If his lifeboat was to be used from oil platforms, he had to ensure that it could be launched from a great height. He developed a pointed bow to reduce the impact on passengers as the boat hit the water. By shifting the center of gravity and making the superstructure more buoyant, he achieved his final goal.

MARTIN VERHOEF: Now, although this lifeboat may look like a toy, it meant to us a great deal, because I will show you that this lifeboat could not only launch from big heights, but it is also self-righting under all circumstances.

NARRATOR: To demonstrate the extraordinary resilience of his lifeboat, Verhoef began rough sea trials on a scale model. Despite the success of his trials, he could find no buyers. He showed the boat could survive the biggest waves, was completely watertight, and could even withstand fire.

MARTIN VERHOEF: When this free-fall lifeboat is launched, there is always a possibility that the platform is in a sea fire. Now, in order to avoid that this boat is being burned, it is equipped with a water spray system on the outsides.

NARRATOR: In 1984, Verhoef tested the boat to see how it might fare in a burning sea. Five thousand liters of kerosene were ignited. With the water spray system triggered, the boat was engulfed in flames for ten minutes.

MARTIN VERHOEF: The result of the test was brilliant. We kept track of the temperature inside, and we were very pleased to see that it was only 30 degrees Celsius, which was equal to 85 Fahrenheit, so just like a sunny day.

NARRATOR: The importance of this feature became clear in 1988, when the Piper Alpha oil platform exploded in the North Sea. A huge fireball engulfed the rig, making it impossible to launch conventional lifeboats. Many oil workers died jumping into the burning sea. As a result of this disaster, the oil industry began to invest in a better solution.

MARTIN VERHOEF: From that moment, from the moment of the Piper Alpha disaster, people were motivated to pay a little bit more money for safety in general. And that was the key of the success of our free-fall lifeboats.

NARRATOR: Free-fall lifeboats have now been installed in many oil platforms and tankers. Anyone who might have to use them is required to participate in test drills. All passengers must be well strapped in for the big drop. The free-fall lifeboat provides a rapid escape from danger for trained crews. But it is not suitable for mass evacuation. It would have been hard to deploy on a ship listing as fast as the Estonia. Paul Barney's ordeal continued until first light, when helicopters began rescuing survivors. Ten people on his life raft did not make it through the night.

PAUL BARNEY: By dawn, there were about seven people left in the life raft. I was driven by the fact that there was always one more form of life-saving device, or something that could save my life. For me, I was stuck in this little deflating life raft for five hours, expecting it to go. And I knew the next form of life-saving equipment would be the lifejacket. And if that went, then I was going to have to look for something else. But I was always constantly looking on the horizon, and always trying to gain information as to what could possibly be the next thing that was going to save my life. I was ushering people off myself, saying, "Look, it's all right. I can hang on." I didn't actually know that. I don't remember that. I thought - I didn't know I was the last one off the life raft at all until I saw it on film later on.

NARRATOR: He had survived the Baltic Sea through his sheer determination to live. The horror of this tragedy prompted international action. Today, ferries must provide automatic evacuation systems and life rafts that cannot be flipped in a storm. The sea will always be an unforgiving environment, but the lessons from past disasters hold the key to our survival.

What do you need to know when accidents happen? Be prepared. Log on to NOVA's Web site,

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