MANAMA, BAHRAIN, SEPT. 29 -- The captain was in his cabin and there were double lookouts on the bridge eight nights ago as the empty supertanker Gentle Breeze followed the Saudi Arabian coast, hoping to complete a safe passage from the Strait of Hormuz to Kuwait's southern oil-loading port at Mina Sud.
The sea was flat and the lookouts, perched more than 100 feet above the water on the "wings" that jut out from the superstructure of the bridge, strained to peer into the moonless night because the captain had told them they were in dangerous waters.
Just ahead and to the east over the horizon was Farsi Island, the base used by Iran's seaborne guerrillas to terrorize merchant shipping. If they could get beyond it, to the edge of Kuwait's territorial waters, they would be safe.
But then the night was shattered by the ship's emergency alarm: a small boat with no navigation lights was bearing down at high speed on the starboard side. The lookout, a Filipino youth, had seen it just in time to warn the crew, most of whom were in their bunks.
Capt. Vijay Soman, 31, recounting the Sept. 21 attack in an interview yesterday aboard his badly damaged ship, said he had feared just such a moment.
Soman said he was reading in his cabin that night. He had told the bridge watch to wake him at 8:30 p.m., and was getting dressed when he heard the alarm.
"I went to the wheelhouse because I knew what was on," he said, "and the next thing I knew, the firing started. Without any warning whatsoever they opened up with rockets."
"Whoosh, whoosh," Soman heard the projectiles launch from the boat as it stood off at 300 yards, visible only by the searchlight it had thrown onto the massive hull before it.
The first rocket crashed into the superstructure, behind the bridge. "The ship took a shudder and it takes a lot to shake a 100,000 tonner," Soman said.
Although no one knew it at the time, the first rocket had torn through the steel bulkhead in the boatswain's cabin, killing the crew chief, Camilo Rodriguez.
"I presume he was asleep in his cabin, because that is where eventually his remains were found," said Soman, "He probably didn't know what happened. I hope not anyway."
After the rocket hit, Soman ordered the helmsman to turn away from the attackers. Most of the 33-member crew -- Indian officers and Filipino seamen -- were lying in one of the passageways Soman had designated as the assembly point in case of attack. They clutched their firefighting suits and breathing apparatus.
The rockets kept coming. Then Soman smelled phosphorus. The Iranians were using incendiary rockets, as they had in several earlier attacks this year. Smoke billowed through the accommodation deck below the bridge and up to where Soman was shouting orders. Some of the crew dashed back with firefighting equipment toward the intense heat and flame as the rockets and machine-gun fire raked the ship.
Flames spread from the boatswain's cabin and smoke billowed through the living quarters on the ship. The hospital cabin was engulfed, its four empty bunks ignited.
Other rockets ripped through the hull with what Soman described as a "subdued bang" that echoed through the seven cavernous crude oil tanks forward. The ship was riding empty, high above the waterline.
After about 20 minutes, and after 15 rockets had ripped through the hull and superstructure, the attack stopped and the small boat disappeared into the night.
For nearly 24 hours, working in shifts, the exhausted and terrified seamen fought the fires that permeated the five-story structure that sits on the stern of the vessel.
A tour of the ship yesterday showed extensive fire damage, with cabin after cabin gutted. The radar and communications gear on the bridge sat as charred hulks.
Soman said he is waiting for the insurance estimators to finish their work so he can go home to Pune, India, and see his family while what may be months of reconstruction work begins on the Gentle Breeze, now moored along Manama's Azry Drydocks.
Most of the crew already has been sent home and the body of Rodriguez is waiting in a Bahraini mortuary for instructions from the family.