Nicolás Yaksic Triantafilo
The "P Line" began operating in worldwide seaborne trade in 1874, with the 1,020 ton POLYNESIA, owned by the German ship owner R.F. Laiesz.
Around the year 1880, Laiesz increased his fleet by adding the first 1,400 ton sailing ships, with the later addition to the company in the following years of the nitrate sailing ships POTOSI, PANGANI, PREUSSEN and PAMIR.
The PREUSSEN, one of the few five-masted square-rigged frigates ever built, had a cargo capacity of 8,000 tons and in the year 1910 covered the Taltal-Cuxhaven (Germany) route, via Cape Horn, in 77 days. She carried a crew of 48 men, who had to handle 5,560 m² of sails.
The PAMIR, a sailing ship whose tragic end we are interested in describing because of its deep human repercussions, was built in Hamburg in 1905, by Bloom and Voss. She was 96.40 m. long with a 14 m. beam; carried nitrate until the year 1914, when the war paralyzed her operation.
After the First World War the "P Line" ships were awarded to different countries as war compensation.
At the beginning of 1920, Laiesz bought back six of these ships, including the PAMIR, and with them reassembled the nitrate fleet.
In 1931, the PAMIR was sold to Captain Gustav Erickson of Mariehamn, Aland, Finland, becoming part of Erickson’s "grain fleet" sailing between Wellington and San Francisco.
Many years later at the end of the Second World War, she was chartered out as a training ship to Federal Germany’s merchant navy, an activity in which she undertook many voyages of instruction.
In 1957, on the eve of southern Spring, the PAMIR sailed from Buenos Aires, her bowsprit pointing towards Germany. It was a day on which the cheeks of the fair-skinned lads glowed as they worked the windlass to weigh anchor.
Once in the Atlantic, the white cloth filled with the wind like the wishful hearts of her young crewmen, her bow plowed the sea, breaking the silence of the crimson evening fading away in the west. The PAMIR, one of the last exponents of that magic life under sail, was to submerge forever in the immensities of the sea and time.
Her cargo holds carried grain; and on board were 51 German merchant navy cadets, apart from the 35 crew members.
The breeze blew moderately. Suddenly its intensity increased, without the men giving it much importance, thinking that it was only gusts of wind. However the Master, Captain Johannes Diebitsch, an old mariner who had spent almost fifty years at sea, raced on deck and voiced: "Shorten the sails". No one on board imagined how this episode would end; the PAMIR, like a bird in a gale, had always come proudly through any storm.
The wind continued to fill the sails with such force that the sailing ship appeared to fly. Great waves beat violently against her hull, making her list heavily to port; her sails began to split with loud sounds of ripping, and at the same time her top rigging parted like clumsily tightened guitar strings.
"Shorten faster!", shouted Diebitsch, while attempting to turn the ship’s bow into the wind; but she was already dismantled with her hull leaning heavily on the sea attempting, like a wounded bird, to rest her tired planking and sails.
The officer on watch with a monochord voice, announced the list: "30º - 38º - 40º..."; giving the impression that the once majestic PAMIR would never right herself again; the men looked at each other without saying a word, until finally the moment came when Captain Diebitsch ordered a distress call, that life vests be served and to abandon ship.
Cigarettes and some bottles of liquor were distributed. When they tried to lower the boats, however, they found that the portside ones lay below the surface and it was impossible to lower the ones on the opposite side because of the sharp angle of the ship’s list. There were also three inflatable life rafts, but two of them could not be found. The third was launched in the water and about twenty men raced to it immediately.
The PAMIR capsized; five men climbed onto her hull confident that it would not sink, but the heavy steel ship sank into the waters of the Atlantic at 11:15 on 21st September 1957.
The group of survivors who remained in the inflatable raft suddenly saw one of the sailing ship’s boats, and swam until they reached it and they all helped to right it, only to find it completely dismantled and lacking its oars. If its compartments had not been watertight, it would also have gone under. Desperate, they found that the box containing flares was lost; but fortunately a keg of fresh water was still in the boat.
It was extremely cold. Some sailors, with the intention of lightening their apparel to be able to swim better, had removed their trousers and boots; now they were frozen and could not avoid their teeth chattering.
Hours later another boat was sighted holding approximately twenty-five members of the crew; but they could not keep close to them and the two craft slowly drifted apart until they lost sight of each other.
By mutual agreement, Karl Dümmer, who had been the assistant baker on board, was placed in command. In spite of being only 25 years old, he had been a seaman longest, and moreover was the eldest of the survivors.
When Dümmer was about to pass around a bottle of liquor among the sailors, a large wave snatched it from his hands; simultaneously, the boat turned over for the second time. Once again these unfortunate sailors righted the destroyed boat, their fear increasing as this last pounding by the sea had snatched their keg of fresh water, leaving them prey to thirst.
Evening was now falling and night threw her icy cold mantle over these unfortunate men.
Close to midnight, they saw the lights of a ship passing by a few hundred meters away from them. They shouted with all their strength, but their voices did not carry as they were too low in the water, hardly above the surface. Also the darkness of the night made them invisible in the immensity of the ocean.
One sailor, Günther Schinngel, in his sleep passed on that night to fly with the errant albatross; Dümmer said a short prayer and then lowered his body into the sea. Another survivor dozed off sitting on the thwart, his head rolling on his shoulders. They tried to get him to await the new day, but he also accompanied his young comrade in everlasting sleep.
At the break of the following day, the sailor Anders decided to dive into the water and swim for exercise; he was quickly hauled out by his companions who spotted a shark in time.
That afternoon an oil tanker was seen, an episode which only brought more despair, as despite their shouts and signaling it immutably continued its course.
In the midst of further bad weather, the boat again turned over. Once righted, a sailor swam away shouting "I am going to fetch the Captain".
A type of collective madness came over the crew men, who began to suffer hallucinations: they saw people, cities, land.
One sailor out of his mind jumped into the water for swimming exercise, leaving them with great shouts of laughter. In his turn Peter Frederich, who had also gone berserk, dived into the water to swim while a shark was close by, and was finally lost in the distance.
At the end only five survivors remained, who could not decide whether all this behavior was part of a collective suicide or a series of accidents linked with the sharks. I prefer to think it was the latter.
The misery of these poor unfortunate men came to an end when, alerted by the search systems, they were sighted by a ship approaching them. Only when they could distinguish human figures on the bridge arms waving in salute did the shipwrecked sailors feel they were saved.
The distress call radioed by the PAMIR was received 600 miles away from the scene of the disaster, in the Azores.
The American 57th rescue squadron was alerted, but due to the bad weather conditions prevailing, they were unable to send a search flight from the port of Lagos (Nigeria).
The weather finally improved, and the SC-54 took off. Several hours later the plane spotted two manned PAMIR boats, and the remains of a life raft, with no signs of a survivor on it. Running low on fuel they decided to head for Bermuda and report what they had seen in detail.
It was thus that a ship on the Atlantic run was fortunate enough to find Dümmer’s boat with its five shipwrecked survivors. Later, another ship under an American flag shared the good fortune of the former and sighted another PAMIR boat, which by this time only had Günther Haselbach on board, the only witness of what had happened to his group.
For ten days North American planes continued to fly over the indicated area, but found nothing, not even bodies.
From a psychological point of view, faced with cases of survival under such extreme conditions, it is worthwhile remembering certain valid opinions.
Dr. Alain Bombard*, in an interview given to the press, regarding the PAMIR accident, stated that it was inadmissible that healthy, strong and trained young men should succumb to such an extent under that type of circumstances, and that, instead of dying of hunger and cold, they had given up their lives from fear.
Moreover, Captain Héctor E. Bonzo, Commander of the ARA GENERAL BELGRANO, torpedoed in the war of the Falklands, commented that the survivors of this cruiser drank practically no water and consumed no rations on the life rafts during the two or three days they awaited rescue.
In Comandante Bonzo’s opinion this was due to the fact that the crewmen involved were well fed at the time of the attack, and therefore their concern as shipwrecked survivors was centered more on the problem of the cold, which caused more deaths, as they were on rafts with no more than three occupants. There were problems also with burnt crewmen incapable of feeding themselves, and others affected by seasickness due to the roughness of the sea.
Among the experiences gained from the PAMIR shipwreck, it is worthwhile taking into account the loss of the boats, which could not be lowered due to the angle of the ship’s list during the wreck. Today, fortunately, vessels carry a larger number of inflatable life rafts automatically activated.
Mention should also be made of the little utilization of experiences from other accidents where the storage of the rescue equipment is concerned, as two of the inflatable rafts of the three carried by the vessel, could not be found at the time of the loss.
Likewise, consideration should be given to the apparent lack of expediency with which the Commander ordered to abandon ship, considering the youthfulness of the crew, which is evident in the later reaction of the crew, the majority of whom died, the survivors suffering the wants which are described in this account; and their behavior shows that they lacked the mental preparation to face up to adversity with stamina.
It is interesting to note Hans-Georg Wirth’s comments to the press: He declared that, on abandoning the ship, he found himself in the water in a group of 15 individuals, who improvised a type of raft with their life vests. This enabled them to remain afloat, until luck allowed them to come across one of the boats adrift, which in desperation they caught up with and boarded.
Wirth also commented to the reporters: "...I thought of nothing else but survival and keeping alive at all costs." Doubtless very normal, but notable as, according to his statements, he wanted to keep alive especially because he had promised his little sister that he would return home safe and sound, and he did not want to disappoint her.
This brings to mind a recent incident when a person suffered an armed assault and was shot in the lung. When lying wounded on the ground, feeling the flow of blood and hearing a strange sound like a balloon deflating, he remembered that someone, some time before, on seeing the long life line on his palm, had told him that he would live for many years and this, looking back later, had kept his spirits up and contributed to his recovery.
What is worthwhile remembering from these experiences is that, although one may seem trivial and the other supported by a strong bond of affection, both allowed a person in a death trance to recover the strength to try and struggle for survival.
These considerations must be emphasized, as we must be conscious of the fact that we are in a condition to take from our own lives, different stimuli, both spiritual and tied to the family, which may eventually allow us to go a head in an extreme situation; and this not only for ourselves, but so that we may share our energy with those who could be our companions in ill fortune, and thus form one single body to overcome adversity.
The lost wake of the PAMIR left 80 dead, the majority of them young men who were awaited to fill positions with professionalism and enthusiasm in the German merchant navy.
The teachings from this tragedy are the legacy their lost lives leave to all the navies of the world.
* Doctor Alain Bombard, who in the "HÉRÉTIQUE", an inflatable life raft 4.6 m. long, with only a harpoon, flares and a small net, decided to undertake a voyage in order to prove that a shipwrecked person can survive. Bombard performed incisions in the flesh of fish to suck out the juice from it, and with a small trawling net collected plankton.
He sailed in his minute craft, accompanied by a navigator, from Montecarlo to Las Palmas (Canary Island).
From Las Palmas he carried on crossing the Atlantic on his own on 20th October 1952, and arrived in Barbados on 23rd December that same year.