Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Airship over the Pole by Garry Hogg. Pt. 4: Impact

The point at which Italia crashed was northeast of Spitsbergen.  The exact position was 81º 14' North, 28º 14' East.  The time, as shown by Nobile's watch which stopped on impact, was 10:33 a.m.  It was just over twenty hours since they had headed south from the Pole.

At the moment of actual impact, Mariano and Viglieri were in the control cabin studying the chart on the table, trying to work out the airship's exact distance from King's Bay.  They believed it to be considerably less than 200 miles; in fact, owing to the lateral drift which had been so difficult to estimate with any degree of accuracy, they were well out in their calculations.  The floor of the cabin was tilted upwards at an impossible angle, which did not help matters.  They were clutching the table with all their might in an attempt to maintain their balance.  It was probably the strength of their grip that saved both their lives.

Trojani was at the engine-control signals.  He clung to them as his feet slipped from under him on the tilted floor.  The violence of the impact was such that he was catapulted out of the control cabin onto the ice.  Cecioni, too, who until the very moment of impact had been wrestling with the fastenings of the ballast chain, was catapulted onto the ice.  But he was thrown first against one of the steel cross-braces so violently that one of his legs was broken.  He fell in a crumpled heap on the ice, feeling as though he had been torn apart.

Radio Operator Guiseppe Biagi was seated precariously at his instrument.  When he saw that a crash was inevitable, by what can only be decried as a sort of sixth sense he grabbed hold of a small portable radio transmitter-receiver that had been brought aboard for emergency in case anything went wrong with the main set.  Like Trojani and Cecioni, he was catapulted out of the cabin.  Miraculously, he retained hold on the radio he had snatched off the shelf.  He hugged it to him and instinctively protected it from contact with the ice.  He was dazed with shock, but not, as were the others, knocked temporarily unconscious.  

In fact, he was the first man to recover his senses.  As though still part way through some nightmare, (in fact, it was only just beginning), he staggered to his feet, still clutching the radio, and gazed about him.  He was not alone on the ice.  A few yards from where he was standing unsteadily on his feet, Cecioni, obviously badly injured, lay groaning with pain.  Close alongside him, grotesquely bent, with one log twisted at a frightening angle beneath him and one arm distorted as though it had been wrenched from its socket and put back haphazardly by some amateur bonesetter, lay General Nobile, silent, his face white as death.

Professor Malmgren, also silent, was sitting a few yards from the others, in a crouched position.  Near him was Filippo Zappi, his head moving slowly from side to side s though in a dream.  And there were four figures actually erect on their feet, dark statues on the rough, hummocky ice: Dr Behounek, First Officer Mariano, Alfredo Viglieri, and Engineer Trojani.

Time seemed to be standing still; it was as though the world had come to a halt.  Then, suddenly, Biagi heard a cry from somewhere over his head.  He looked up.  There was Ettore Arduino, Chief Engineer of the expedition, with Rigger Alessandrini beside him.  They were leaning out from a partially wrecked cabin, hurling down everything they could lay their hands on.  Containers of fuel clattered down on the ice.  Boxes of provisions.  A tent, which began to open like an unwieldy parachute as it descended.  A rifle.  A box of ammunition.  Other objects too; among them, some of the scientist's instruments.

At the cry, all those on the ice looked up, as though coming to life for the first time.  What met their eyes filled them with horror.  For Italia, lightened of their weigh, had begun to rise again.  Biagi tried to snatch at the end of the ballast chain, but was too late.  The airship was caught by the wind and swung broadside on, tilting as she rose, then turned, and headed back northward the way they had just come.  Looking up, they could see the faces of six of their companions, frozen with horror as they realised what was happening.  Ettore Arduino, Renato Alessandrini, Attilio Caratti and Calisto Ciocca; Professor Pontremoli; and the journalist Ugo Lago, who had replaced Tomaselli at the very last moment.

Lightened by the weight of ten of her sixteen crew, as well as the weight of the equipment, instruments and provisions that had been heaved overboard by the alert Arduino and Alessandrini, Italia rose rapidly.  As she rose, she drifted faster and faster.  She was now on more than a monstrous gasbag at the mercy of the elements, manned by six men suddenly and finally snatched away from their companions, marooned in the ice-cold air just as the other ten were marooned on the actual ice.  It was the last they were ever to see of each other.

Italia vanished from sight.  The small party gradually shook itself into life.  Nobile recovered consciousness, awakened from his blackout by an appalling pain in his broken right leg and right arm.  His left eye was dimmed, and he reached up with his good arm to try to ascertain what had happened to it.  When he took his hand away he found that it was covered with blood from a streaming wound in his forehead.  He became aware of a bad pain in his chest, too.  Broken ribs, he thought, in a curiously detached way, and tried to feel for them through his thick clothing.  He was by far the most badly injured of them all.

Hearing a sound alongside him, he half-turned, to find Cecioni lying on the ice, groaning with pain from his broken leg.  He was trying to sit up, but the pain was to great, and he collapsed immediately, his groans interspersed with sharper cries.  As Cecioni slumped back on the ice, Nobile spotted beyond him something he recognised as one of the provision and equipment sacks he had wisely ordered to be packed for just such an emergency.  He called sharply to the men who were on the feet, telling them to retrieve the sack quickly; there was always a chance at this season of the year that an ice-floe might crack without warning.  It this were to happen, that valuable sack might vanish without trace.

Mariano and Trojani were quick to realise what he was saying, and went briskly across the ice to retrieve the sack.  It could mean, they realised, the difference between life and death - quite literally.

They deposited the sack at Nobile's feet and, one by one, extracted its contents.  There were containers of iron rations, and a large box of pemmican.  There were hermetically sealed packages of chocolate.  There was a revolver, with a sealed tin of ammunition and some Very signal guns.  There was a supply of matches in a watertight container.  Above all, there was the tent.  Nobile blessed the day he had had the foresight to make up this self-contained unit of provision and equipment.  Meanwhile, the other men had rounded up the scattered packages that had been thrown out of the airship.

It was Mariano who was the first one to realise how desperately badly injured his leader was, and quietly took charge.  He snatched from the contents of the sack the only sleeping bag that it contained.  Then, with the greatest possible care, he and Behounek and Viglieri, having assessed the extent of Nobile's injuries, contrived to insert him into it.  The unavoidable pressure on his broken leg and arm caused him, in spite of himself, to cry out in pain.

It was just at that moment, however, that he was startled to hear a very familiar sound - the high-pitched barking of his beloved little terrier bitch, Titian, who had accompanied him on his previous flight over the Pole and refused to be left behind this time.  Though everyone had been too dazed, injured or preoccupied to notice her, she had obviously, like them, been catapulted out of the airship, and temporarily knocked unconscious.  But now she had recovered, and came bounding across the ice to where the men were gathered around the sleeping bag.

Viglieri swept her up off the ice and thrust her into the opening of the bag, where Nobile's left arm enfolded her.  From that time onwards she was his comfort as he lay for days, for weeks, in bitter cold and extreme pain.  Nothing (except the return of the six men who had been wasted away aboard Italia) could have been of greater consolation to him in his agony of mind, which matched the agony of his broken body.

Meanwhile, Mariano and Behounek and Trojani had erected the tent beside him.  Once it was erected and guyed, Nobile and Cecioni were carefully laid inside it, as it was quite obvious that they were the two most seriously injured of the whole party and as such must be given preferential treatment.

But they were not the only ones who were injured  Filippo Zappi was also in a bad way.  He was hugging himself in pain and felt sure that he had several broken ribs, though fortunately it turned out that he was only very badly bruised in the chest.  There was blood on his face from a wound received when he was thrown against one of the steel cross-bars as he was catapulted from the airship.  Professor Malmgren, although he was one of the first on his feet, had injuries to his right arm and shoulder.  His lips were compressed, and it was evident to anyone who glanced at him that he was controlling himself only with great effort.

Radio Operator Guiseppe Biagi seemed to be in the best shape.  Though he had been badly bruised when he fell, he seemed calmer and in better control of himself than the others.  The first thing he did was to start collecting from the scattered wreckage of the control cabin any bits and pieces he thought might be utilised in erecting a receiving and transmitting aerial.  This, he knew, was an absolutely vital task, and one which he and he alone could perform.  He was to become the most essential member of the marooned party.

It was while he was casting about for the pieces he needed that he became aware of a figure apparently sitting asleep on a hummock of ice a hundred yards away.  Puzzled, Biagi put down the pieces he had collected, and walked over towards the figure.  When he came close enough he recognised, even from the back, Foreman Motor Mechanic Vincenzo Pomella, who had been stationed at the time of the disaster in the aft engine nacelle.

Biagi called to him, but there was no reply.  He then touched him lightly on the shoulder and the figure tipped forward as though just out of balance, and fell on the ice at his feet.  One look at him told Biagi that the man was dead.  His whole face and part of the head had been crushed in, either from contact with some part of the nacelle or from contact with the ice itself.  Blood had flowed from his broken mouth, and congealed in a dark mass that hung like a beard from his chin.  Biagi summoned Trojani and Mariano.  It was impossible to give the dead man proper burial, so they rolled him over until he was lying face down on the ice, the worst of his injuries hidden.  Later a crude covering was made of canvas and odd lengths of steel tubing not needed for the aerial, and erected over him, so that he would have a sort of ice mausoleum.

So now, of the sixteen men who had set off from King's Bay little more than twenty hours before, one was dead.  Six others were being carried northward, out of control, to a death as certain as anything in life could be.  And the remaining nine, two of them had broken limbs, were cooped up in a small tent on an ice floe of unknown proportions, with the prospect of death on the horizon unless a miracle was to be wrought.  If they had known just how many weeks of hunger and thirst and exposure they were going to have to endure, it is possible that some of them, those with less courage and faith than their fellows, might have wished that they had been aboard Italia as she drifted helplessly away back over the Pole; or like Vicenzo Pomella, that death had come swiftly to put them out of their misery.

Biagi found more than he had dared to hope for in his search for possible materials from which to construct an aerial.  Thanks to Arduino and Alessandrini, not only the sealed canvas sack had been jettisoned but a number of other packages and miscellaneous items.  They lay strewn about on the hummocky ice, and among their first tasks, now that the two badly injured members of the party were safely in the tent, was to search for what had been thrown out and to make sure that nothing had been overlooked.  Every conceivable step had to be taken to keep them alive as long as possible against the terrible Arctic odds.

More pemmican was found; more chocolate; more containers of malted-milk tablets - always an excellent standby in Arctic conditions.  Everything was brought inside the tent, together with several items of scientific equipment, which, to the controlled delight of Professor Malmgren, had luckily fallen on to a patch of snow and had not been badly damaged.  When everything had been assembled, Nobile set about making an inventory of their possessions.  The first thing to do was to work out exactly what rations every man could receive per day as a bare minimum, and at the same time to estimate for how many day they might hope to survive.

They had, it was found, 160 pounds of pemmican - the most solid and long-lasting food of all.  There were ninety pounds of chocolate, which comes close to pemmican in food value.  There were twenty pounds of malted milk.  There were seven pounds of sugar, and the same of butter.  In addition, there was a small quantity of cheese, and a can of meat extract.  It was not a great deal for nine men (and a dog).  But this total of 284 pounds of mixed provisions, Nobile thought, should afford adequate rations for a month and a half, or seven weeks at the outside.  Each man's basic ration would be half a pound of pemmican and a mouthful or two of chocolate.  But for the Alertness of Arduino and Alessandrini, they realised, their position would be very much graver than it was.

Curiously enough, water shortage was a problem they had to face.  It might be thought that all they had to do was to melt a block of ice and they would have all the water they required.  But it was not as simple as that.  The ice all around them was seawater ice and, when melted, quite useless for drinking purposes.  So it became necessary to hunt for ice-chips and snow on the surface that would have fallen during recent snowstorms.  This proved to be a slow and laborious business.  Even when a quantity had been collected, there remained the problem of melting it.  A few tins of fuel had been jettisoned from the airship, but there was no stove.  Even if there had been a stove, this would have been a dangerous file to use in it.

It was Malmgren who came up with a makeshift solution.  He took a fuel can and filled it with ice-chips and snow.  Then he soaked some pieces of rag and fragments of wood from the wreckage in the fuel and made a small fire under the can.  It was dangerous work, as the fuel-soaked rags could flare up without warning and singe a man's eyebrows - or worse.  The quantity of ice and snow that could be put into a can was sufficient for only a very small boiling of water; from start to finish of their long weeks of isolation, Nobile's party suffered continuously from thirst, for there was never enough drinking water to go around.  As for using the precious commodity for washing: this was out of the question.

Their tent was little more than eight feet square and only high enough in the middle by the pole for a man to stand up-right.  The tent had been designed to hold four men at most; now it had to contain nine men, two of whom, being almost completely incapacitated, had to lie full length on the ice floor, occupying more than their fair share of available space.

To save a little space, the sleeping bag was slit down one side and Cecioni had to lie in it as best he could alongside his leader.  Titina was allowed into it during the hours of sleep - which were hard to come by anyway in conditions of such cold and exhaustion.  Cecioni, who had been such a stalwart standby at the elevator controls, seemed to be a changed man.  Because of his injuries, no doubt, he became a grumbler.  This tended to make the atmosphere in the confines of the tent uncomfortable for everyone.  He particularly resented the attention paid to the little terrier and the fact that she was permitted to share the comparative warmth of the sleeping bag.  Naturally this distressed Nobile.

While the other members of the party were organising themselves in and around the tent, Biagi concentrated his attention on constructing and erecting an aerial tall enough to give some promise that messages could be transmitted to and received from the outside world.  He found several twisted lengths of slender tubing that had once been part of the airship's framework, and a number of lengths of bracing-wire that had snapped off at impact.  With these he fashioned a tallish radio mast, which he braced strongly against the wind.

Biagi was something of a character.  He was certainly a patriotic-minded man.  He was not content with his handiwork until he had laid his hands on some odd strips of material in various shades and fashioned them into a miniature red, white and green Italian flag.  He placed his little flag at the top of his aerial; there it fluttered in the icy wind, a symbol of a small Italian community close to the North Pole and a symbol of their hope for the future.  Then, having completed his aerial, he turned his attention to making sure that his radio was functioning.  He had protected it from impact with the ice, and now it had to repay him for his care by making contact between the ice-bound castaways and the world outside.

Little more than two hours after the crash, Biagi sent out the first of his distress signals: "S.O.S. Italia! S.O.S. Italia!"

The time agreed between the captain of the base ship in King's Bay, Citta di Milano, and Nobile for any interchange of signals was to be five minutes before each odd hour.  Biagi's first signal went out at exactly five minutes to one o'clock on the afternoon of May 25.