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Mayday at the Bottom of the World


Photo: Fred Olivier / Alamy

[Personal note: People often ask what prompted me to found PACEs Connection, which began as ACEs Connection in 2012. There are two parts to this answer: the professional part—how ACEs Connection grew out of my reporting on violence epidemiology. And the personal one, which I haven't written about in great detail until now. It appears on, a remarkable travel site that calls itself "the antidote to clickbait".]

CONTENT WARNING: This story contains graphic content and descriptions of sexual abuse involving a minor. Reader discretion is advised.

In my beginning is my end. — T.S. Eliot

Friday, July 24, 1998 / 2:29 a.m.
100 miles off the Antarctic coast

One long, ear-thrumming alarm jerks me from the edge of sleep. A fire drill? At this hour?

I struggle from beneath the blankets of my narrow bunk, open the cabin door, and wince at the bright light of the ship’s empty companionway.

“Is this a drill?” I ask a scientist who stumbles past. He sleepily shakes his head and shrugs.

The alarm stops. I pause in the doorway and will the silence to settle in.

I detest middle-of-the-night surprises. Always have.


The edge of the mattress tilts.

But it's the breathing that sets my heart to racing.


The alarm erupts again.

“Attention! Attention, please! There’s a small fire in the engine room.” The captain’s voice, tense and remote, issues from the ship’s loudspeakers. “Please muster to the heli-deck.”

My roommate, a penguin researcher, shakes herself awake and rolls out of her bunk. She steps into her “freezer” suit, designed to withstand temperatures as low as minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 C). I don a turtleneck sweater, pullover, jacket, long underwear, sweatpants, socks, and wool-lined boots.

I start through the doorway and — for a reason that I will never understand — dash back into the room to grab a small flashlight. I bought it in Hobart, Tasmania, the port we’d left eight days earlier, to quiet some mind-gremlins that had been shouting at me, “Don’t go! Don’t go! Go home! Go home!”

But my home was 9,000 miles away.

I’m on a seven-week expedition aboard the research icebreaker RSV Aurora Australis with several dozen scientists, technicians, and crew to explore the winter sea ice around Antarctica — a journey I’m chronicling for the Discovery Channel.

We’re exploring one of Nature’s most mysterious phenomena: Every year, starting in May, 20 square miles of sea freeze each minute in the ocean surrounding the Antarctic continent. By July, enough sea ice will form to double the size of Antarctica.

Life abounds in this ephemeral world, but for humans, it’s one of the most isolated, forbidding places on the planet.

I trudge with others single file toward the stern. As we emerge onto the helicopter deck, I smell smoke.

It’s frigid outside. Thick clouds solidify the moonless night. Floodlights punch holes of illumination onto the deck, which is covered with a thin layer of snow. Lowered lifeboats crouch in shadows along the railings.

Two seamen dressed in full firefighting gear stand with their hands locked in front of them, oxygen tanks and breathing masks at their feet. Grim-faced, they glance toward us but make no eye contact as we pass. My stomach tightens.

Unbeknownst to us, several decks below, the first and third engineers are aiming fire extinguishers at a blaze around the larger of the ship’s two massive engines. They extinguish the flames, but smoke still billows from both. The cavernous three-story room fills with the fumes of diesel fuel.

Just as one of the engineers yells, “I think the fire’s out!” a fireball erupts around the engine, and a whoosh of air and heat rushes at the men. One of them streaks up a ladder to the control room, dives through the doorway, and slams the watertight door shut. The other runs toward the back of the engine room and climbs an escape ladder to an upper deck.

Six decks above, on the bridge, the captain feels the ship shudder as an explosion rips through the engine room. He grips the back of his chair and lowers his head to steady his nerves.

The alarm abruptly stops. The floodlights that illuminate our group on the open deck blink out. The captain yells at the radio officer: “Send Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!”

The international distress signal means the ship is in grave and imminent danger — of fire, explosion, or sinking — and requires immediate assistance. But the explosion knocked out the emergency generator that powers the radio. No message is sent.

A ship underway is a living creature: It inhales and exhales through its vents; water gurgles through its pipes like blood through veins; lights buzz 24 hours a day; and, beneath all the noisy burble of life, the engines are a comforting heartbeat.

But now the Aurora’s heart has stopped.

In the bitter cold, in complete blackness, we all understand that something horrible has happened. We’re 1,600 miles from the nearest port, adrift in solid sea ice a hundred miles off the coast of Antarctica, with a blizzard approaching. Planes can’t land on the three-foot-thick sea ice, and we’re out of range of rescue helicopters.

The massive Aurora Australis — 300 feet long and able to gnash fearlessly through nine-foot-thick ice — shrinks to insignificance....


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Your story is incredible on so many levels, as so eloquently described by Veronique. Thank you for sharing it and for ALL you’ve done over the years to found, conduct and lead the international grassroots efforts using the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences for good.

Thanks for reading the article, Veronique, and for your comments. It's been a journey for all of us, hasn't it!

Maxine, thank you for your kind words.

PS - I'm so sorry and so sad for what you experienced in your family system then and more recently in being disowned. And so glad for what you've made out of those experiences !!!    :-)

Wow. Thank you so much for sharing this part of your story Jane. This was so skillful and compelling; the horrifying parts shared in such titrated, gentle, illuminating and clarifying ways, to continue with all that you have done in sharing the role of adversity in what happens in our lives. Thank you.

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