Three old war horses from the era of the SS Marine Electric showed up at the formal US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation into the sinking of the El Faro. I was one of them. Michael Carr, then a Coast Guard salvage diver was another. And the guy who deserves the most honor, Peter Lauridsen, who was the head of the Marine Board that looked into the causes of the wreck — and set new policy that safeguarded our vessels for 30 years.
All three of us had no business reason for showing up. All of us thought we just had to, that we were compelled to represent the men lost on the Marine Electric and the brave men, some of them gone now, who stood up to make sure the system worked well.
Michael Carr was kind in reflecting on my book, “Until the Sea Shall Free Them” and my portrayal of him. “You got me ABSOLUTELY right,” he said. “I could not believe it.”
Carr is an experienced sea captain these days and has posted some of the best commentary about the El Faro. It is highly reasoned, analytical, and brings together many disciplines. I may have been his favorite read then. He’s mine now
Back then, he was a salvage diver — and a hot-headed Coast Guard lieutenant who as he says, “should have been court martialed.”
As the choppers began to search for the Marine Electric off the shores of Virginia, Carr announced to his commanding officer that he was going along to help get the men into the chopper baskets. This at a time when there was no rescue swimmer service in the Coast Guard. And when Carr was not assigned to “SAR.”
You are a salvage diver, his commanding officer said. You’ll get yourself killed. Carr responded with an expletive that suggested his commander should do some odd things to himself and that Carr was going out on the chopper.
The tempers cooled. The order to stand down stood. Only after the Marine Electric was the rescue swimmer school founded within the Coast Guard, but Carr should perhaps be considered its first volunteer.
If I nailed Carr’s character, Peter Lauridsen was the guy I shortchanged. Certainly, the book honored him as the head of the Marine Board that set new standards for ship safety and marine boards in general. Certainly, he was one of the good guys and hero.
But in writing the book, I never reached Peter for the sort of long de-brief needed to do it right. I know I put out the call. I’m not sure he ever got it.
What I did not do was make the second and third and fourth calls — the ones that are part of my regular trade craft. To this day, I am not sure how this happened. I talked at length with the other two board members. I missed Peter completely. My fault, not his.
Only years later as I came to know Peter better at talks and presentations did I understand that the book was far poorer for my slip-up.
For one thing, one of the characters in the book suggested that Lauridsen was somehow gunning for admiral. The quote was right. That is the way the character saw the world. But nothing in Peter’s character tells me that assessment is correct. He is a man of good intentions and honor. I ought to have made that clearer in my words. I ought to have sought out Peter’s words and insights into the board.
So that is one of the few regrets I have about Until the Sea Shall Free Them.
My apologies, readers. My apologies, Peter.