Friends had to remind me of the date: 33 years ago Thursday the SS Marine Electric capsized off the coast of Virginia sending 31 men to their deaths.
But in a larger sense, I had never forgotten the Marine Electric, nor am I ever likely to forget the catastrophe and the heroes who helped drive a major reform in ship safety in the United States.
Those memories propel me now to cover another Marine Board of Investigation, this one into the loss of the El Faro and 33 lives in October of 2015.
The disaster was the first major sinking of an American merchant marine vessel since the Marine Electric and I’d like to think my reporting, with Tim Dwyer, helped assure that. The wreck, the Marine Board of Investigation, and the reforms are chronicled in Until the Sea Shall Free Them.
Three men survived the disaster then, including the chief mate, Captain Robert Cusick, who bobbed about in freezing water long after he should have died. Cusick sang verse after verse of The Mary Ellen Carter, a folk song about an old ship that sank and then was salvaged by her crew. The Stan Rogers version still gives me chills when I hear it.
Bob Cusick and the two other survivors — Gene Kelly and Paul Dewey — went on to testify that the ship was a rust bucket that ought never have gone to sea. The Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, and Captain Domenic Calicchio , wrote a strongly critical report that eventually sent more than 70 old rust buckets to the scrap yard.
The wreck also resulted in the formation of the now famous Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers program and the use of survival suits on North Atlantic runs.
Today, I’m preparing to fly to the Coast Guard marine board hearing in Jacksonville on the El Faro. Like the Marine Electric, the El Faro was a very old ship. Like the Marine Electric, the owners of the El Faro say the vessel was in good shape. Like the owners of the Marine Electric, the owners of the El Faro run a generally good operation and actually are building new ships.
They do a lot of things right.
The question of course is whether they did one thing wrong.
I’ll approach that question with an open mind. The El Faro is not the Marine Electric. And as a journalist I’ll do my best to avoid the biggest trap for humans: Forming beliefs first and then seeking facts to justify them.
Good men and women joined together to find facts in the investigation of the wreck of the Marine Electric. I’m trusting that this will happen again in Jacksonville with the El Faro.
The one challenge of course is that three good men survived the wreck of the Marine Electric. And none survived the wreck of El Faro.
So it is the job of the marine board — and the press — to make certain those drowned voices are heard in some manner.
My resolve is to help the board makes sure that happens.