At the 2nd Odessa Christian cemetery there is a memorial with a tombstone inscription “To the sailors and passengers of the m/v Pobeda, who tragically died on September 1, 1948.”
Much was learned about the details of that tragedy and its probable causes from the crew members who were on that ill-fated flight, as well as from the declassified documents of the USSR Ministry of the Marine Fleet (MMF).
According to foreign statistics, in the post-war years, fires and explosions that occurred at sea, as well as in ports, averaged from 5 to 7% of the total number of severe accidents of sea vessels. At the same time, ships that died as a result of a fire or explosion accounted for more than 10% of the total number of ships lost. Sometimes this figure even reached 20%. That is, the world fleet loses an average of two ships every day as a result of their partial or complete destruction by fire.
The analysis of fires on MMF ships could usually be found in specialized literature, textbooks, and reviews of accidents on ships. The fire on m/v Pobeda, which happened on September 1, 1948, was not mentioned anywhere for a long time. According to Yu. Gekhman, who in those years was the head of the 1st department of the ChMP, all materials on Pobeda were immediately classified as Secret.
The history of this ship with the original name “Magdalena” began at the shipyard “Schihau” in Danzig (Gdansk), where in 1928 the construction of the ship was completed by order of a German shipping company for its operation on the line Europe – Central America – West Indies. The ship was designed to carry up to 400 passengers and 4,000 tons of cargo. Crew – 177 people.
The main dimensions of the vessel: maximum length – 153.9 m, width – 18.5 m. Displacement – 14039 tons, gross register tonnage 9829 b. R. tons, deadweight – 6390 tons. Two-shaft power plant of two 8-cylinder diesel engines of the Sulzer type, brand 8SM68, 3500 liters each. With. each at 105 rpm. allowed the ship to develop a speed of about 15.5 knots, working on two 4-bladed propellers.
In February 1934, the ship ran aground off about. Curacao. After a six-month repair and re-equipment in Hamburg, the Magdalena liner left the factory as a single-pipe motor ship with the new name Iberia.
During the 2nd World War, Iberia served as a floating base for the German Navy in Kiel. On February 18, 1945, the Iberia, which had not suffered in the hostilities, was transferred to the USSR for reparations to the ChMP. Here the liner received a new, proud and dear name for the Soviet people – “Pobeda”.
During the Cold War, the UN mission contingent was reduced. More than 300 people, including the families of diplomats, were supposed to return to their homeland. Due to the fact that the Rossiya diesel-electric ship, which previously made regular flights on the Odessa—New York—Odessa line, was declared persona non grata by the US State Department, the m/v Pobeda was put on this line. The crew was headed by an experienced sea captain N. Paholok, the engine team was chief mech A. Zvorono. On the voyage were also trainees of the navigational and ship-mechanical faculties of the OVMU (now the OGMA) under the guidance of the senior teacher of the Department of Navigation K. Bashtannik.
On July 31, Pobeda left New York for Odessa with 323 passengers on board. Among them was the family of the Chinese Marshal Feng Yu Xiang, who was supposed to take part in the conference in Moscow. 277 tons of cargo were loaded on board.
On the approach to Gibraltar, an order was received: to go to Alexandria and take on board about 2,000 more Armenian repatriates from Egypt, returning to Armenia. In addition to them, 5 employees of our mission in Egypt with their families were taken on board. 1500 tons of cargo were also loaded. Thus, all passenger capacity norms were exceeded. However, all repatriates were safely delivered to Batumi at the end of August. On August 31, Pobeda took off on a flight heading for Odessa.
On September 1, at 13:00, the shipping company’s radio station received a report from the vessel about the supposed arrival in Odessa by 14:00 the next day.
However, Pobeda appeared in the Odessa port only on the 5th, without passengers. (They arrived on the Vyacheslav Molotov turboelectric ship, later the Baltika). The commission boarded a terrible picture: passenger cabins, saloons, service rooms, collapsed ladders, deformed deckhouse bulkheads and a set of superstructures, burned to the very metal bulkheads. Cargo holds in the bow of the ship, where the cargo started to ignite, were flooded with water due to fire and sparks entering through the mines. But the worst thing is that 40 passengers, including 19 women and 15 children, the family of the Chinese marshal Feng Yu Xiang and two crew members, barmaid G. Gunyan and sailor V. Skripnikov, became victims of the fiery tornado.
All forty dead passengers and two crew members are buried at the memorial of the 2nd Odessa Christian cemetery. The coffin with the body of Marshal Feng Yu Xiang was sent by plane to Moscow, where, at the request of the family, the deceased was cremated.
What happened in those distant September days?
After the last scheduled radiogram, the ship stopped communicating and did not pass the checkpoints near Cape Tarkhankut. On September 2, on the orders of Moscow, ships from a number of ports were sent to search, ships of the Ministry of the Navy, the Ministry of Fisheries, ships and aircraft of the Black Sea Fleet were also connected.
At the same time, the following was happening on m/v Pobeda. On September 1, at approximately 2:15 pm, on the beam of Sevastopol (60 miles from it), when passengers were resting in their cabins, a fire broke out in the amidships of the ship. In a matter of minutes, the fire engulfed several decks, navigation bridge, radio room, captain’s and navigators’ cabins. The fire began to spread through the living quarters to the bow and stern, to the boat deck, approached the holds and the engine room.
Watch radio operator V. Vedenev, caught in the fire, got out of the radio room through the porthole, without even having time to give SOS. The spare radio also burned down – in the chart room.
The ship’s general fire alarm was announced only a few minutes later by the ship’s bell on the forecastle. The crew began the struggle for the survivability of the vessel from two sides – the bow and stern. All possible methods of fire extinguishing were used. Unfortunately, many hand-held foam fire extinguishers were filled with smuggled goods – panne velvet, very fashionable at that time …
It’s good that the engine room was located below the fire. The engine team, headed by senior mechanic A. Zvorono, immediately battened down all the doors and necks to prevent the fire from spreading to the engine room. Water was supplied to the fire main. It was difficult to maintain the necessary pressure, because the rubber gaskets on the fire pipeline failed from the high temperature. The watch of the 2nd mechanic, together with the trainees, for almost two days continuously protected the engine room from fire and ensured the operation of the ship’s mechanisms and fire-fighting equipment.
In the engine room, the bulkheads were so hot that paint was bubbling on them. They had to be cooled all the time, non-stop watering the bulkheads from fire nozzles with outboard water. Only after the fire was defeated did the crew of the “machine” climb onto the open deck from their “hell”.
At 21:00, a Black Sea Fleet naval aviation aircraft reported that it had found a burnt-out motor ship and there were 5 boats with people near it. Military and rescue ships were sent to the crash site from Sevastopol, Feodosia, Batumi and other ports. The engine crew managed to save the ship’s power plant, and Pobeda went to Odessa on its own.
As noted later in the documents, “the crew acted courageously, selflessly and persistently.” Male passengers assisted the crew in fighting the fire. Most of the cadets-probationers of the OVMU under the guidance of the head of the floating practice K. Bashtannik, who led the cadets by personal example, showed real heroism and examples of self-sacrifice in saving passengers and their ship. This fact was stated by a special commission. When the next academic year began, at the formation they announced gratitude to the cadets who took part in the fight against the fire.
As it turned out later, the source of ignition was located in the central part of the ship near the newly equipped 3rd class cabins on deck D, which were located in a hard-to-reach area with a narrow corridor. Namely, in an unequipped pantry, where wide-film films were stored, in those years they were distinguished by increased flammability, and when burned, gave high smoke.
As usual, before arriving at the home port, N. Kovalenko, acting ship projectionist, radio engineer, decided to prepare the films taken on the voyage for delivery to the film base. He asked the sailor V. Skripnikov to rewind the films after watching. Some of the films were in metal cases, and some – intended for rewinding – lay open on the table. In the process of seemingly harmless rewinding on a manual machine, sparks arose as a result of friction, and the tape flared up, and nearby films caught fire from it. Instantaneously, the flames engulfed the entire pantry.
The clothes on the sailor Skripnikov caught fire. With cries for help, he ran out into the corridor, slamming the pantry door. According to Svirsky, before his death, Skripnikov only had time to say: “I am not guilty.”
In the meantime, the fire, literally in a matter of minutes, engulfed the entire central part of the ship, including the 3rd class cabins. Their passengers died instantly, either on the spot or in the rapidly smoky corridors.
According to some information, a regular pantry, intended for the storage and preparation of films for demonstration, was located on the deck of the music salon with direct access to the open part of the deck, not connected with other rooms. But the ship administration allegedly equipped this room for a guardhouse. The current Charter on the discipline of maritime transport workers of the USSR at that time provided for the maintenance of crew members in a guardhouse as one of the types of disciplinary sanctions.
Of course, the use of an unequipped pantry for storing films, and even next to the passenger cabins, without the consent of the MMF fire department, was a gross violation of fire regulations.
When investigating the circumstances of the fire, along with the main version of the ignition of the film, the option of a possible sabotage was considered. So, during the landing of repatriates in Alexandria, saboteurs could get on board the Pobeda, who organized the fire. This version arose because, when the Pobeda left Batumi, pieces of a substance that looked like ore began to be found in different parts of the ship. It was worth bringing to such a mustache of a burning match, as it immediately ignited and burned with a blue flame, releasing a large amount of heat.
In February 1949, the Water Transport Collegium of the Supreme Court of the USSR considered the case on charges of a group of commanders of the motor ship Pobeda in a fire on a ship that caused death of people and caused great material damage, in February 1949, at a closed visiting session in Odessa. The court, which lasted two weeks, noted that the fire on the ship was the result of gross violations by the command staff of fire safety rules during the storage and use of films.
Recognizing the ignition of the film as the main cause of the fire, the court, however, allowed itself to doubt the sincerity of the last words of sailor V. Skripnikov and did not rule out the option of smoking the deceased in the pantry, which caused the film to ignite.
The investigation found that Captain N. Paholok and his assistant in the fire department A. Nabokin allowed the storage of a flammable film in an unsuitable room on the lower deck in the central part of the ship among the passenger cabins. The projectionist Kovalenko allowed the sailor Skripnikov to rewind films without properly instructing him. Captain’s assistant A. Nabokin did not conduct fire safety classes with the crew. Many crew members did not know how to use fire extinguishers.
Employees of the shipping company’s radio center and dispatchers on duty were accused of criminal negligence in the performance of their duties.
The court passed a harsh sentence on the perpetrators of the fire: the captain of the Pobeda, N. Paholok, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His assistant in the fire department A. Nabokin – by the age of 25, projectionist N. Kovalenko – by 15 years, pompolit S. Pershukov – by 10 years, radio operator V. Vedenev – by 8 years. Coastal service workers indirectly responsible for the tragedy were sentenced to more lenient sentences.
The fire on the ship Pobeda and the death of the Chinese marshal were immediately reported to Stalin. The blame was placed on the Armenian repatriates. Iosif Vissarionovich informed the Secretary of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of the Soviet Union G. Malenkov.
On September 13, 1948, Malenkov replied to Stalin as follows: “I received your telegram about the ship Pobeda. Undoubtedly, you are right that there are American intelligence officers among the Armenian settlers who carried out sabotage… Today we will take measures and decisions in full accordance with your proposals.” A day later, another message was sent to the same address: “By the Decree of the Council of Ministers of the USSR of September 14, the repatriation of foreign Armenians to the USSR was completely and immediately canceled and the admission of Armenian settlers to Armenia was prohibited. The proposals set out in the 4 paragraphs of your telegram about the motor ship Pobeda were adopted as decisions of the Politburo.