Alone In The Light

Alone In The Light

by Brian Kenneth Swain


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781450295086
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/23/2011
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.93(d)

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Alone in the Light

By Brian Kenneth Swain

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Brian Kenneth Swain
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4502-9508-6

Chapter One

Tuesday, April 8, 2003—3:17 a.m.

It was precisely 3:17 a.m., and a brilliant full April moon reflected off the black waters of the Istanbul Strait. As the heavily loaded oil tanker Vladivostok ploughed its way through the narrow shallow waters of the Bosphorus, a rapid series of muffled thuds emanated from the amidships area. The indistinct sound, noticed only in passing by a lone watchman making his night rounds on deck, quickly dissipated in the cool night breeze, leaving behind the drumming of the turbines deep below deck and the occasional distant shouts of crewmen on the attending tugboats. Thirty-seven seconds later, the fourteen-month-old supertanker split neatly into two pieces, as if cleaved by a stage magician's bow saw. It settled quickly to the bottom, leaving the still buoyant bow and stern sections protruding above the surface, dead in the center of the Bosphorus Strait, three hundred meters off the southern tip of European Istanbul.

At just under four hundred meters, with a fully loaded weight of 280,000 metric tons, the tanker Vladivostok was a quarter-mile-long monument to the ascendancy of the Russian petroleum industry. The mammoth vessel had been constructed in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, with the ship's operator—petroleum giant Petrograd—electing, despite enormous political pressure, to eschew Russian shipyards in favor of the least-cost alternative. Three years and nearly ten billion rubles later, the gigantic monopoly had become the proud operator of the world's largest, fastest, and safest double-hulled petroleum tanker.

It had required three more months of lively negotiation between the Turks and Russians to permit passage of Vladivostok through the labyrinthine waters of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, the strategically critical waterways connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. The Montreaux Agreement that governed maritime operations in the area placed strict limitations on vessel size and weight, limitations that the new Russian tanker so vastly exceeded that permission had been granted for its passage only after direct intervention by the Russian ambassador to Turkey. Even then, the Turks had only grudgingly agreed, subject to the stipulation that the Vladivostok, whether loaded or not, travel the entire nineteen twisting miles of the Bosphorus under control of no less than four tugs, and in constant radio communication with an operator of Turkey's new Vessel Traffic Management System. Under terms of the agreement, the short journey routinely required two full days.

This was the ship's third voyage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, and the cargo this time was destined for Boston Harbor in the United States. With U.S./Middle East relations at an all-time low in recent years, the Americans had begun hedging their bets by significantly ratcheting up imports of Russian petroleum in the past twenty-four months. The new multi-year contract provided a steady and lucrative client for the rich new Tengiz field that lay beneath the north Caspian Sea, off the coast of Kazakhstan.

Three divers, equipped with bubble-less rebreather equipment, had spent an undetected hour and a half the previous night working beneath the Vladivostok. When their exacting efforts were completed, the only thing showing above the waterline was a thin, twelve-inch copper antenna, painted to blend into the neutral gray of the hull. This was all that was required for the newly installed system controller module to communicate with the constellation of Global Positioning System satellites orbiting eleven thousand miles overhead. The geographical coordinates that would initiate the detonation sequence were preprogrammed into the controller, which the divers had attached to the steel hull using strong beryllium magnets. Along with the controller, the divers also attached a string of seven interconnected and carefully sized and shaped packages of Czech-made Semtex plastic explosive. Varying in weight from ten to twenty kilograms, each was attached at a precise position along the hull. The tanker was brand new, double-hulled, and very strong. The Semtex, as it turned out, was stronger.

As the Turkish tugboats guided the fully-loaded vessel along its painstaking path through the intricate twists and turns of the lower Bosphorus, the tanker captain kept one knowing eye on the main control room's matrix of forty-inch plasma computer displays. There were six of the high-resolution color screens, arranged in a two-by-three array on which the crew could pull up any information concerning the ship's navigation, performance of the engines and other onboard systems, or cargo status. At the moment, the display on the lower right was showing a real-time channel map, overlaid with a small, slowly-moving symbol that represented Vladivostok. Also overlaid on the map was the projected path of the vessel, as well as all marine obstacles, whether fixed or moving, with which the ship might have occasion to interact. At this hour of the night, competing traffic on the water was minimal, but not nonexistent. Also displayed on the screen, in large red numbers at the lower right, was the number 2.75. This represented the distance in kilometers that Vladivostok would require to come to a full stop—more than 1.7 miles, even at her current speed of barely over one mile per hour.

The navigation screen also provided a numerical indication of the vessel's precise latitude and longitude. These were accurate to the tenth of an arc-second, and were updated by continuous GPS signals from no less than four simultaneous satellites. Suitably accurate on the open seas, the twenty-five-meter position resolution provided by the civilian version of GPS was insufficiently precise within the narrow confines of the strait. Thus the tanker captain relied almost solely on the tugs, with their extensive knowledge of the local waters and changing conditions. But despite its secondary status in the tanker's current situation, the GPS-provided coordinates were more than sufficiently accurate to provide the key data needed by the bomb controller.

The captain kept his other eye on the ship's bow, some thousand feet ahead and seven stories below, yet nevertheless clearly visible, bathed by the light of the full moon. At exactly thirty-six seconds after 3:17 a.m., the full moon slid behind one of the few clouds in the Turkish night sky, and the ship passed gracefully beneath the arching span of the Bosphorous Bridge. At that moment the tanker's navigation computer calculated a position of forty-one degrees eight minutes north latitude and twenty-nine degrees four minutes east longitude, which placed the ship approximately one hundred eighty meters from the Eastern wall of the 550-year-old Rumeli Fortress.

In the instant that the geographic coordinates of the tanker matched those stored in the bomb control computer, that system's digital control circuitry performed its final and most important function. It generated a series of seven precisely sequenced logic pulses, each lasting just fifty milliseconds, each routed to a different explosive packet. The electronic detonators embedded within each Semtex package amplified the weak pulses, imbuing them with sufficient strength to initiate the firing of a pre-charged capacitor. This discharge, in turn, caused the flash melting of a tiny bridge-wire, creating a micro-explosion sufficient to ignite the primary explosive in the detonator. Exactly seventeen milliseconds after each detonator's main charge fired, its respective Semtex package did so as well. While somewhat complex, the equipment involved was extremely reliable, safe to handle and, more importantly, the resulting time delays were highly predictable every time.

The explosive charges had been positioned in a cradling pattern, a string orthogonal to the ship's longitudinal axis, running from just below the waterline on the starboard side, along the bottom and up the other side to a matching position on the port side. The seven charges were roughly equally spaced, and the largest was placed directly at the bottom, in the center of the string.

The concept was simple and elegant, but had required extensive research into details of the ship's construction. By first detonating a large charge directly against the ship's keel, centered on the largest interior cargo tank, the outer hull would be breached, allowing the six-foot-thick protective air layer between hulls to quickly fill with seawater. By delaying for several seconds the detonation of the remaining six charges, the now water-filled, and hence incompressible, barrier layer would effectively transmit the maximum power of their shock waves directly against the walls of the oil-filled center tank.

The principal challenge then became one of synchronizing the shock waves generated by the six secondary charges. Knowing the timing and reflection characteristics with which each wave would propagate inside the tank allowed the controller programmers to schedule the detonation initiation pulses in an extremely precise and effective manner. Achieving such precision had required information on not only the structural design of the tanker—they needed to know bulkhead thicknesses, buttress spacings, and steel compounds—but also what grade of oil was going to be shipped in the center tank. Only with that information could they calculate the specific gravity and other physical constants that would determine how a shock wave would travel inside the rectangular steel-walled tank. It wasn't quite rocket science, but it did require a good deal of math, a bit of clever computer simulation, and excellent intelligence on the ship's construction, cargo, and loading and movement schedules.

The real genius of the idea was in using the tanker's own structure and the fluid dynamics of its cargo to break the inner hull, while the explosive charges did the same to the outer hull. The charges had been shaped to conform to the hull's contours and to focus as much of their concussive force as possible inward into the body of the ship. As a result, there were only very small explosion plumes from the water on each side of the hull, none of which were visible from on board the tanker. Aside from the quick series of dull thuds heard by the night duty man on the Vladivostok, and perhaps by a crewman or two on board the tugs, the only initial indication of a problem was the sudden pressure increase that registered on the center tank status gauge in the main control room, located near the stern of the ship, more than five hundred feet from the actual explosions. The pressure increase lasted only a split second though, and was followed immediately by a dramatic pressure decrease, an indication that could only mean the discharge of massive amounts of cargo from a tank. This sequence of warnings caused an instantaneous cacophony of noise and flashing lights in the control room which, in turn, initiated an instinctive set of actions from the crew—actions designed to isolate and stem the discharge. With the entire center tank open to the sea, the crew's efforts were, however, utterly futile.

What was visible, within ten seconds of the detonations, was the gradual but distinct subsiding of the center of the deck, and a much too rapid decrease in the ship's forward speed. Also within ten seconds of the initial pressure spike, the captain and crew of three working the night shift in the control room were able to look down on the waters of the strait and see from both sides of the hull centerline a rapidly spreading layer of Kazakh CPC Blend crude oil reflected in the bright moonlight.

With the hull and center cargo tank now almost completely fractured, the deck was the primary structural component continuing to hold the ship together. As the center deck slowly hinged upward, the maze of fluid and breather pipes that ran along the deck began to bend and buckle as well. The shredding and twisting steel emitted a horrific symphony of metallic sounds that carried across the calm water and must have been easily audible from either shore of the strait. It was certainly audible to the tug crews, all of whom had feverishly begun disconnecting lines and backing off from the stricken tanker as soon as they had witnessed the enormous vessel bowing in the center. None were enthusiastic about the prospect of being dragged down by what was now an obviously sinking ship.

The six peripheral detonations had each blown roughly ten- foot holes in the outer hull, creating essentially a connect-the-dots effect. The explosions had also caused the desired cataclysmic ruptures of the center petroleum tank. As the crude gushed into the strait, it was quickly replaced by seawater—heavier seawater—which increased still further the downward force on the fractured hull's center section.

The captain looked down from the control room in disbelief as the ocean and growing oil slick began lapping over the gunwale rails on each side of the ship's sagging center section. Breaking out in an instantaneous sweat, he reached for the crew master-alert button with his left hand and keyed the radio mike button with his right.

"Istanbul Maritime Control, this is Vladivostok declaring an emergency! We have sustained unknown but critical structural damage. We are going down—Repeat ... we are going down! We are abandoning ship ... requesting assistance. Repeat ... Istanbul, we are eighteen crewmen. We require immediate assistance!" Though they were easily visible from the Istanbul shore or from the Bosphorus Bridge immediately behind, he nevertheless read off the ship's coordinates twice before switching to the intercom system. "All hands, this is the captain. Prepare to abandon ship immediately. Repeat ... abandon ship!"

At the time of the explosion, the fully-loaded Vladivostok was navigating a section of the strait only thirty-two meters deep. In fact, this was the primary reason the Bosphorus Bridge had been located here. The shallow water had made for the easiest and least expensive construction of the enormous tower caissons. Filled with 150,000 tons of petroleum, the tanker's hull drew just over thirty-eight feet, meaning it was clearing the bottom by just sixty or so feet. First to settle into the mud was the destroyed center of the ship, leaving the remainder of the mammoth vessel bent up at each end in a wide "V" shape. Both ends of the ship were held aloft by the buoyancy of the oil in the undamaged tanks, and by the air still trapped between the unaffected hull barrier layers. The stern sat lower in the water, weighed down by its seven-story superstructure. In its current situation, there was no reason why the ship could not sit as it was indefinitely, since only the center tank had been compromised, and the inter-hull lining spaces were built in isolated sections, and thus were taking on no water.

With the Vladivostok in this dubious, but more or less stable, position the tugs hesitantly moved closer to the hull to search for the crew. Events had unfolded so quickly that only five had even managed to get off the ship. They were the least fortunate of the lot, since they were now floundering about in the cold water, in the midst of a still growing slick of heavy crude oil. All were, however, plucked, blackened and confused, from the chilly waters of the Bosphorus. The remaining crewmembers were clinging to the railings at various points along the superstructure, whose deck was now slanted at a thirty-degree angle—awkward, but certainly not life threatening.

Within fifteen minutes, everyone was accounted for and on board one of the tugs. Fortunately the calm waters did little to disperse the large oil slick. There was, however, a slow steady current, which drew the slick in the direction of Istanbul. It would be another half-hour before additional disaster recovery boats arrived on the scene, bearing oil containment buoys and dissolution chemicals.

Throughout the entire episode—in fact, since the Vladivostok had been more than two miles upstream from the bridge—a large man with black, crew-cut hair and a substantial beard had been sitting patiently in his fifth-floor hotel room adjacent to the fortress, staring out of the large bow window that overlooked the waters of the Bosphorus. The room was almost completely dark, and he wore a pair of headsets plugged into a maritime radio scanner that had, for most of the past two hours, been tuned to the Turkish Vessel Traffic Management System operators. To his right on the nightstand was a cell phone, whose memory had been preprogrammed with a single international number. Next to the phone sat two small bowls, one half-filled with sunflower seeds, the other with spent seed husks.


Excerpted from Alone in the Light by Brian Kenneth Swain Copyright © 2011 by Brian Kenneth Swain. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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