The war for the Iranian port city of Khorramshahr raged like a violent lightning storm for 16 long and terrifying days in, around and over the hapless Romanian freighter Olanesti before Capt. Sandu Torcaciu decided he had had enough.
As shells from the the mainland started picking off smaller coast freights, moored in the channel of the Shatt-al-Arab since the port dockyards caught fire last week, Torcaciu ordered his moorings cut yesterday in a desperate gambit to drift out of the line of fire.
But hardly had the 7,800-ton Olanesti begun to float toward the relative safety of the small river island of Um al-Rassas, aptly named Bullet Island in Arabic, than a newly installed Iranian artillery battery in a far end of the Khorramshahr dockyards to starboard opened fire on the ship. The shells came down despite the fact that the ship was flying a Romanian flag from every cargo mast and had its nationality prominently painted in white on the blue hull.
At precisely 4:20 p.m., as crewmen recalled here today, a shell of unknown caliber smashed through the ship's superstructure, right on top of the captain's own wood-paneled cabin. Within minutes, the fire the shell started had spread to ignite the ship's highly flammable cargo of lumber and paper products and the ship was burning out of control.
The Olanesti had just become the lastest victim of the savage battle between Iraq and Iran for control of the port of Khorramshahr. Despite confusing and contradictory claims by both nations, the fight was still raging fiercely today inside the smoking city as well as along the length of the riverside dockyards that were once Iran's main commercial port.
It was the end of the Romanian freighter. With more shells whistling overhead and the decks peppered by periodic machine gun fire from Iranian positions on the eastern end of the docks, Torcaciu ordered his radio man, Bruno Caracas, to send a final message to the ship's home port of Constanta.
"Our ship is destroyed, our ship is destroyed," Caracas recalls radioing repeatedly. "We are leaving the ship.Adieu. Adieu. Adieu."
Constanta's reply was a simple "Okay. Go."
Like the sailors of at least half a dozen ships set afire before them at their moorings on the Shatt-al-Arab, the 30-man Olanesti crew abandoned ship, slithering down hawsers into the slow moving green waters and swimming desperately toward Bullet Island and the Iraqi positions there.
The Olanesti's sailors were than many of their neighbors on other ships caught in the war along the river. Except for six who burned their hands from sliding the ropes into the water, all excaped unharmed.
Earlier in the day the Romanian sailors had watched when the 750-ton Dubai ship Taha, like two Indian vessels before it moored just off the contested dockyards, was set aflame by artillery fire. When is 10-man crew dived over the side, Iranian machine guns opened up on them from the shoreline. The five who jumped overboard on the Iraqi side swam to safety. The five who jumped on the Iranian side are missing and presumed dead from the Iranian machine gun fire.
Arriving here in Basra still shaking, the Romanian sailors told tales of the ordeal that shed new light on the battle of Khorramshahr, which they had witnessed from their ship, first tied up in the dockyard wharves, and, since the wharf was set afire by shellfire, from the channel.
"For two weeks I was every time scared," radioman Caracas said today sitting in the lobby of the Shatt-al-Arab Hotel here. "Day and night, all time, there was machine gun fire and many shells."
Tied up at the port, along with 12 other foreign freighters caught at the wharfside by the war as they were getting ready to unload their cargoes, the crew of the Olanesti watched for 10 days as shells from Iraqi gunners across the narrow waterway arched endless barrages of artillery into the city. They saw planes, Iranian Phantoms and Iraqi Migs, strafe each other's lines as well as attack the dockyards theymselves, spattering vessels with rockets and cannon fire.
A week ago the Iraqis, spearheaded by three T-55 tanks and an armored personnel carrier, made their first attemp to take the dockyards, entering from the western, upriver gate, only to be repulsed by withering Iranian artillery and tank fire down the length of the dockyards.
They later watched as the Iraqis meticulously proceeeded to bombard the port. The shellfire chased clouds of bats out of shattered tin warehouses and when they set the hole central dock area aflame, the dock's rats were sent scampering into the city while ships like the Olanesti were forced to cast off and seek new moorings in the exposed channel of the Shatt.
For five days the Olanesti, along with Chinese, Yugoslav, Indian, Panamanian, and Maldive freighters, bobbed deep in the Shatt while the war for the dockyards still not concluded raged on.
As the Olanesti's First Engineer Valentine Nedela described it, the Iraqis have established a foothold on the far upriver side of the docks where five freighters are still tied up. The Iranians still control the downstream edge of the 2 1/2-mile docks, while in between is a no man's land across which both sides are dueling.
Three days ago, a Chinese freighter, whose name is still not known, decided to make a run for the protective cover of Bullet Island.It caught three artillery shells before the crew went overboard to swim to the safety of the Iraqi positions. Today it was the Olanesti's turn.
Like the Chinese and some Indian seamen before them, they made it. Their ships did not. They were left to drift in the river's currents, burning pyres floating ever so slowly down the waterway toward the Persian Gulf.
In all, Iraqi officials said, 120 sailors from various ships in the Shatt have swum to their lines and taken refuge here in Basra during the past two days.
For those who made it, who were not cut down in midstream in the Shatt by Iranian machine gunners, it was a moment they will never forget.
"Getting away yesterday, I was born a second time," said radio operator Caracas.
He immediately sent a telegram to his wife and 14-year-old son in Constanta which, in his own words, said: "I am alive. Don't scared."