Ultimate Survival

How a ship’s cat survived 3 days on board a burning ship

Written by firefighter Milan Sosic  

In November 2016, our Fire Station (Goodwood) was called in to assist as a relief crew. It was the morning of the third day of a blaze on board a foreign fishing vessel docked in Cape Town harbour. We arrived at about 12AM and proceeded to take over firefighting from the off-going crew. The ship was still heavily on fire, with most of the lower compartment in flames.

After about an hour or so of active firefighting we were forced to take a recovery break as the ship was extremely hot. While on our break, Goodwood’s crew headed around the back of the area, which we think was the kitchen, looking for hatches to open up to help ventilate the heavily smoke-filled compartments. As I approached a hatch at the back of the kitchen on the outside, I heard a plaintive meow.

I stopped and looked around; I thought my colleagues were messing around with me. We continued to try and open the hatch and I heard another meow. This time I looked up and there, hiding on top of an air-con unit, was a terrified grey-and-white cat.

Saved from the flames

I immediately shouted to the guys that I’d found a cat. We all dropped what we were doing and rushed to rescue him. Unfortunately, the petrified cat was in quite an awkward position; I had to climb up a side section of the ship and hang off with one arm to get enough space to grab him. My colleagues were underneath making sure Diego and I didn’t fall.

After I got down I noticed how inflamed his eyes were, he was filthy dirty from the heavy smoke he’d been in for the past few days, and soaking wet from the water hoses. I took him straight to our fire engine. Incredibly, despite everything, he was very relaxed; clearly a cat who was comfortable around people.

I had to leave Diego in the truck (with plenty of water) as we had to continue with the firefighting, but every few hours I returned with food and to check on him. He stayed fast asleep. The past few days must have been exhausting.

Diego’s new life

We only left the next morning at 11AM – nearly 12 hours after we’d arrived to fight the fire. When we arrived back at Goodwood Fire Station, my fiancé was waiting for me, ready to take Diego straight to the vet. At the vet he had a full check-up; he was given medication for his eyes, chest (because of smoke inhalation), and suspected worms.

My fiancé and I took him back to our house with the intention of nursing him back to health and finding a good home for him. Lucky Lucy Foundation came on board and helped us get him neutered at one of their vets in Malmesbury when he was better. It was long road to recovery for Diego, but he persevered and came out a champion.

We’d got animal rescuer Caron Baynes’s details from a lady we’d met at the vet; we spoke to her about Diego and possibly her helping to find a good home for him. She mentioned that she had the perfect home for him in Wellington. And it was! Our Diego went on to be adopted by Christine Marais, and is living happily ever after with his furever family.

And the reason I called him Diego? The notice boards on the ship were all in Spanish and the first name that popped up in my head was Diego.

Caron Baynes, founder of Grace Animal Sanctuary recalls…

This has to be the greatest survival story of all time. I felt truly privileged meeting Diego. The extra-awesome aspect of this story was that, initially, contact with Milan Sosic was made about a deaf blue-eyed Pit Bull puppy named Flash, whom they’d rescued from a sidewalk vendor. When I drove through to meet and evaluate him for rehoming, I met Diego and his story unfolded from there. When we met, his eyes were still a bit puffy and even his voice was a bit hoarse.

Nobody knows how old Diego is but he’s so big that his head fits into BOTH my hands. I felt honoured to have helped him find his Forever Home with Christine and know that life can only be better for him now. (PS: Flash the deaf Pit Bull pup subsequently found his forever home too.)

Diego’s owner, Christine Marais, shares…

I don’t like cats; I ADORE them. I have eight plus Diego at home and another nine at our office. I’ve been part of animal welfare (Uitsig Animal Rescue Centre and Lucky Lucy Foundation in the beginning) for some time now and know that, sadly, the older cats don’t get rehomed easily.

Diego arrived home on the 30th of November 2016 and he fits in perfectly with the rest of the cat family as well as our three dogs. In the beginning, he didn’t know what to do with all the trees in the yard but he probably saw what the others did and simply followed their lead.

He definitely prefers men and loves to sleep at your feet. His eyes still aren’t 100% fixed but are certainly much better and he eats like a horse. Another funny thing about him is that he runs exactly like a rabbit!

We are so happy to have him as part of our family.