The Wreck of the SS Marine Electric — 36 Years Ago

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Here’s the original story Tim and I wrote 36 years ago.  This and reform efforts within Congress and the Coast Guard helped prevent a major casualty for many years — until the SS El Faro sinking in 2015.

Here’s to the men and women of the Marine Electric and the El Faro.


By    Robert R. Frump and Timothy Dwyer, Inquirer Staff Writers

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA); 9666 words

Published: 1983-05-02

Section: LOCAL   |   Page A01   |   Edition: FINAL   |   Memo: DEATH SHIPS

Second in a series on how government programs keep

old worn U.S. ships at sea.

Tomorrow: How the maritime establishment keeps aging

ships afloat.

His ship was sinking. On the darkened bridge, Captain Phillip Corl reached for a life jacket, the last man to put one on. Now he was fumbling to get his arms through the holes of the awkward vest when the Coast Guard rescuers radioed back.

”What color are your lifeboats?” the Coast Guard asked. “State the color of your lifeboats,” the radio sputtered. Eugene Kelly, the third mate, reached past his struggling captain for the radio mike.

“Orange! International orange!” Kelly yelled back.

The shrill whistle to abandon ship blew. Kelly found himself with a walkie-talkie in his hand, standing at the top of an interior set of stairs leading down to the lifeboat deck. The radio crackled. Engineer Michael Price was still at his post, deep within the ship. Did the officers want the engine- room pumps tied down?

“Mike!” Kelly yelled into the walkie-talkie. “Get the hell out of there! We are going down!”

Then he jumped from the stairs, the walkie-talkie tumbling in front of him. It shattered to pieces on the lower deck. He crashed on top of them and lay there for a moment thinking: I’ve got to get out of here before we go down.

Outside he rushed, to this scene: Above him, Corl was climbing the rail of the deck, trying to get free of the ship. Below him, chief mate Robert Cusick was launching a lifeboat.

The lifeboat lines were paying out, paying out, paying out. Seaman Paul Dewey was on the deck reaching out, reaching out, reaching out for a line.

The ship jerked. Dewey tumbled over the rail and into the water. The vessel righted and then, with a sucking noise “like the sound of the water going out of a bathtub amplified one billion times,” the old ship turned onto its right side.

The water seemed to just come up and meet Kelly.

Dewey felt the steel of the ship pressing him down wherever he tried to swim up. The ship had capsized on top of him.

Cusick, the old chief mate, was swimming underwater as if in a dream, past the lighted porthole of the cabin where he had stood just a moment before. He looked in. The room looked normal. He clawed against the steel and swam some more.

Kelly just slipped easily into the water, only to see the huge stack of the ship poised like a hammer above him. Now it was coming down, directly on top of him, and he could only look up at it.

Freeze the scene at that moment in time. It is 4:16 a.m. Feb. 12, 30 miles off the Virginia Coast, and the men of the Marine Electric have begun the final chapter of the story of their ship.

It is a gripping story that could stand by itself, worth the telling for what it has to say about courage, survival, tragedy and luck among human beings at sea.

Yet the prologue to that story – of how the Marine Electric came to sail years past the age at which most ships are scrapped – is as compelling in its way, with moments as crucial, as the scene above.

An Inquirer investigation into the loss of the Marine Electric, based on interviews with survivors and relatives of lost crewmen, an inspection of Coast Guard records and testimony before the formal Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation show that the wreck of the Marine Electric should never have occurred. The ship’s violations of Coast Guard safety standards should have kept her in port.

Members of the Marine Electric crew knew she was unsafe, and they were afraid. Many would not cross the Atlantic on the ship. On occasions when the ship changed from its normal coastal trade route to transatlantic grain trips, these men would take their vacations rather than make the trips.

Seamen said they looked to the Coast Guard to rescue them if the Marine Electric went down on one of her normal coastal trips. For some, it was not a question of if the Marine Electric would sink, but when.

The ship was riddled with deficiencies – a hole in its hull and holes in its hatch covers. Yet she sailed, in part because some inspections by the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping were bogus.

Checks of some crucial areas of the ship never took place, despite records that indicated they had.

Other claimed inspections were reported as having been made on days when they could not have been done. A supposed hatch-cover inspection occurred when the ship had no hatchcovers.

The result was that the Marine Electric, sailing out of Norfolk to its end and the death of 31 of its 34 crewmen, had holes in its hatches, deck and

hull, all in violation of U.S. safety requirements. Some of the holes and many of the temporary repairs went unreported by the ship’s owners – also a violation of U.S. safety codes.

Despite the ship’s many flaws, the Marine Electric was certified by the Coast Guard as seaworthy and given a Maltese Cross A1 by the American Bureau of Shipping – the highest rating for insurance and safety purposes.

It was the poor condition of the hatch covers that most worried Cusick before he sailed. Cusick was second-in-command of the vessel. He had frequently complained about the covers to his superiors and had avoided transatlantic trips on the old ship whenever he could.

All this was far from his mind as he clawed along the steel of the capsized ship, his lungs straining. Past the lighted porthole, he found a railing and turned past it. His life jacket and air-filled polyester underwear popped him to the surface. He sucked in air.

Dewey was still underwater, his oxygen all but spent, still swimming up, still hitting steel. Then, on the edge of panic, it struck him. Up was the wrong way. The ship was slanted above him. He turned and swam down. He dove down against instinct and the buoyancy of his life jacket. He reached a rail and turned past it. Freed from the underwater trap, he shot up.

He broke surface like a cork and spit up water, coughed and caught his breath. He swam on his back away from the capsized ship. He was surrounded by shipmates in the water.

“Help me, help me, ” they cried out.

He would try to help them. He would do nothing but try to help them in the next hour.

Kelly was looking at the huge stack, still falling toward him through the air in a lazy arc. He stared at it, frozen; he felt unable to escape.

A hand grabbed his life jacket at the scruff of his neck and dragged him through the water. The stack hit the water where he had been.

When Kelly looked up, he could see nothing. There was nothing to see except the strobes of the life preservers blinking eerily. No rescuers. No stars. No clouds. Nothing. The water was the same. Black. “Unbelievably black.”

It terrified him. But there would be worse moments. When there was enough light to see, he would watch his men, his colleagues, his friends, just drift away on the water, into the interminable night. Only a half-hitch held him to a life preserver; he clutched a tankerman’s red light in his hand.

Cusick, other officers and crewmen knew what they had in the old ship. Still they sailed. They liked the Marine Electric for one reason and one reason only: It was in the coastal trades.

The coastal trades meant steaming from Norfolk with coal for Somerset, Mass., and back. Thirty six hours up the coast; 36 hours back.

Dewey in fact felt lucky to have been hired 10 days earlier. The schedule meant only a few days at sea, compared with months in the transatlantic, deep- sea crossings. Family men could stay close to home. And the work was steady.

It was, as third mate Eugene Kelly said, a “milk-toast run.” The old salts could have the transatlantic runs, two weeks each way, with just the ocean to stare at. Most of the men on the Marine Electric could park their cars at the Somerset power plant; when they came in, they could zip home, ”like we were shore workers and get a night at home,” Cusick said.

The bad news was that cargo carried between two U.S. points must be moved on U.S. flag vessels – built in the States and crewed by Americans. And many of those vessels are old rustbuckets. “Almost 80 percent,” Capt. H.A. Downing of the Marine Transport Lines (MTL), owner of the Marine Electric, would say.

It didn’t take experts to tell that the ships were rustbuckets.

A month before the Marine Electric left on her last voyage, Sheree Browning visited the ship. Her husband, Steve, a ship’s engineer, was working late. He said that she might as well come down to the dock and hang around the ship watching television until he got through at midnight.

On the way, they drove by a sleek, new ship, and Sharee asked her husband: ”Is that your ship?”

No, it wasn’t, he said.

“Then we drove down to this little rust boat in the back and I said: ‘Don’t tell me this is it?’ And he said: ‘Yes.’ And I said: ‘My God’ and thought to myself: ‘This thing is terrible-looking. I’d be scared to go across the harbor in this thing.’ ”

The men who worked on the ship weren’t afraid to go across the harbor. The ship’s second mate, Clayton Babineau, for one, took last summer off and worked on the roof of his house while the Marine Electric delivered grain to Israel

because he didn’t think the ship safe enough to make the trips.

Cusick, who had been a merchant mariner for nearly 40 years, had in fact declined the command of another old vessel for that very reason. He would have earned more on the other vessel – would in fact have been skipper, not just chief mate.

Cusick mightily feared the condition of the hatches of the Marine Electric and the other aging members of the U.S. bulk fleet.

“Bill, you know what you got here, these old ships,” he said at dockside to his old friend, William H.C. Long, a fellow officer of the Marine Electric. ”You know these old ships, these hatchcovers on these old ships. . . . ”

The Coast Guard makes few rescues in the middle of the Atlantic, but the sea lanes sailed by the Marine Electric in the coastal trade were only about 30 miles out.

If the Marine Electric sank, Cusick knew the Coast Guard would be near. “I always figured the Coast Guard would come out and get me,” said. He rejoined the Marine Electric in November when the ship resumed its coastal route.

There was no time for talk of safety matters on the docks Thursday, Feb. 10, for the crew members were busy getting ready to sail, and a long mechanical arm attached to Norfolk and Western Pier 6 was filling the Marine Electric’s five cargo holds with 24,800 tons of granulated coal.

A fierce winter storm that was to bury the East Coast under a record accumulation of snow, was closing in. Sherree Browning’s husband bid no lingering farewell to his wife. She dropped him at the dock. He turned and said, “Put your foot to the floor of the truck and don’t look back until you get home.”

Still, she thought about turning back. She almost did – to see him leave. She felt something was wrong, but the thought passed, and she went home.

Captain Phillip Corl, who was substituting for the ship’s permanent master for this run, had a last-minute thought too. He acted on it. His wife, Alice, was to have accompanied him on this trip. But the weather gave Corl pause. At the last minute, he sent her ashore.

By 11 p.m. the loading was done. It was, Cusick noted, a good job. The bow was drawing 34.04 feet. The stern drew 34.04 feet. Marine Transport Lines, Cusick said, was good about that. The company never tried to overload. Never even hinted that it would like to. There was no percentage in it.

The ship cast off almost immediately upon loading, and Cusick set his men about the business of dogging down the hatches – fastening clamps as the ship approached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and headed for the ocean.

The pilot was dropped to a launch at 2 a.m. Friday as the Marine Electric neared the tunnel-bridge system that spans the mouth of the bay. A good-size sea was running. A gale was blowing from the northeast. None of this concerned Cusick particularly. “We had gone out many times in this type of weather.”

When he turned in about 3 a.m. any apprehension he had about the ship coming through the storm was put to rest by this recurring thought: If we go down, the Coast Guard will come out and get us.

He trusted the Coast Guard capacity for sea rescues, but he had seen enough not to trust the Coast Guard ship-safety-inspection procedures.

The ship heading out into the storm was riddled with holes. None was big enough to sink the ship by itself. And none was big enough to make the owners retire the old ship. But added up, they were enough to keep it at dock for not meeting Coast Guard regulations. More than enough, in fact.

Richard Roberts, another third mate, told Kelly it was his last trip on the old ship. The officers had long complained about the condition of the ship. Clayton Babineau used to kid Kelly about the ship’s condition:

“Think they’ll be chopping her up for razor blades?” he would joke, once they had made it home safely from another trip. It was a reference to the universal seamen’s metaphor – “Cut her into razor blades” – for scrapping a ship.

Kelly would answer him: “Can’t make razor blades out of rust.”

Once over dinner, Kelly said, chief engineer Richard Powers, who was in charge of maintenance on board, had told him the company was reluctant to put a lot of money into the Marine Electric because it planned either to scrap the ship within two years or place it under a foreign flag of convenience.

“It was a calculated gamble,” Kelly concluded. “If it paid off, they made a lot of money. If it didn’t . . .. ”

Kelly himself would not walk over the hatches, as some crew members did when they were closing them up. “I always expected to look down in the hold one day and see him lying flat on his back,” he said of one crew member who did.

One day, Kelly beamed a flashlight on the deck and was horrified when the light passed through a hole and shone on the bottom of the hold.

Cusick drew dozens of sketches of the wasted areas of the hatches, which had been patched with common duct tape and epoxy glue – Red Hand, they called the glue. He gave the sketches to the company, expecting that repairs would be made. They were not.

Kelly and Cusick were concerned about a discovery they made at the dock in Somerset before embarking on the trip immediately preceding the last voyage.

“Mate, come quick,” Kelly said to Cusick. “There is a hole in the


There was indeed. The number-one wing tank on the port side was being filled with water to steady the vessel. But water was pouring out from this tank through a jagged hole in the hull three inches in diameter and about five feet down from the deck, well above the water in calm weather, but a hole in the hull nevertheless.

They figured the hole had been made by a bulldozer while the ship was being unloaded at Somerset.

The law states that such a breach of the hull must be reported to the American Bureau of Shipping and the U.S. Coast Guard. Regulations also state that repairs made to a hull must be inspected and approved.

Cusick reported the hole to Captain James K. Farnham, the permanent master, and then patched it crudely. He put the bottom of a three-pound coffee can over the hole, backed it with a cement-filled box and braced it with a timber. Farnham in turn reported it to Joseph Thelgie, the superintendent of maintenance for MTL. But nothing was done to replace it.

Did Thelgie report it? Cusick wondered. Thelgie had not.”This was an oversight on my part,” he was to say later.

Marine Transport Lines, owner of the Marine Electric, had a reputation as one of the best bulk-ship operators in the U.S. “A first-rate company in all ways,” said a ship surveyor active for 30 years. MTL, as it was known in the trade, was in turn owned by a large international, transportation-oriented company, the Chicago-based GATX Corp.

Unlike some operators with their one-ship corporations, MTL had money for maintenance. It traced its ancestry to 1816. In 1982, its revenues were $112.9 million with a net income of $2.4 million.

It did not have just two or three ships. It owned, chartered or operated a fleet of 34 vessels under U.S., British, Liberian and Panamanian flags.

There were, in fact, three fleets managed by MTL. The Military Sealift Command wing, with nine tankers, had a $185 million contract that made it the 79th largest defense contractor.

MTL had not cheated the Navy – as was the habit of some U.S. shipowners – by offering to carry Navy cargoes in good ships but then charging outrageous rates while using decrepit old ships.

The MTL fleet used to carry Navy cargoes was built in the mid-1970s and financed by the Irving Trust Co. These modern ships, like the Sealift Pacific, which rescued 186 Vietnamese boat people in July 1980, enhanced the reputation of the American merchant fleet.

In its second fleet, MTL had some of the largest and most commercial tankers in the world. The B.T. Alaska and the B.T. San Diego brought oil from Alaska under a U.S. flag. MTL also had foreign flag ships. There was the new $13 million ship the Oswego Prima, which it operated for the Oswego Chemical Corp., and just recently, MTL bought a new tanker for about $28 million from a Spanish shipyard.

Finally, MTL had a fleet of six World War II-era ships like the Marine Electric called T-2s – all of them more than 35 years old, hardly to be expected in a first-class fleet. In fact, the 22-year-old Oswego Peace, a foreign-flag ship operated by MTL, was scrapped in Taiwan in 1982, while the 38-year-old Marine Electric sailed on.

Only if they flew a U.S. flag would MTL ships live past 30.

Yet the T-2s served a specific and profitable purpose. They were, after all, built in this country. They were patched and kept afloat to participate in the protected trades reserved for U.S. vessels.

For instance, occasionally some of the old ships would sail in the cargo- preference trades under which U.S. Food for Peace grain was carried abroad. (Those cross-ocean trips to Haifa, Israel, with loads of grain were the ones Cusick and Roberts feared most.)

New American ships that could participate in the preference trades cost too much to build in U.S. yards – sometimes three to four times the cost of similar construction in foreign yards. So old U.S. merchant ships were saved.

The T-2s operated by MTL included the Marine Chemical Transporter, owned by Union Carbide Co., and the Marine Eagle, owned by the Du Pont Co. The fleet also included the Marine Floridian, a chemical carrier owned by an MTL subsidiary, as well as the Marine Texan and the Marine Duval, two MTL sulphur carriers.

All were well over 30 years old. Each had been jumboized – enlarged to carry more cargo. And all but one had a record of accidents and breakdowns typical of old ships operated so long past their prime. Age-related equipment-failures had left some drifting helplessly at sea, vulnerable to disaster.

For example, the Marine Chemical Transporter’s main propulsion system failed in the Straits of Florida in January 1978. A Coast Guard report noted the cause was the failure of a part “due to deterioration” that allowed acid to enter the steam system. (Another Coast Guard inspection on Feb. 19, 1981, found that a pin on a lifeboat on that ship had simply sheared off “due to fatigue.” The lifeboat therefore could not be launched properly.)

There had been many other T-2 problems for MTL, including the loss of 39 men on the Marine Sulphur Queen in 1963.

Then, there was the Marine Electric.

According to MTL officials, the 38-year-old converted T-2 was lost because she turned at a crucial moment on her last voyage to aid a fishing vessel named the Theodora.

The Marine Electric and the Theodora first crossed paths on Friday, after the coal carrier had reached the stormy North Atlantic. All that night and for most of Friday the big ship had battled 25-foot waves and blizzard conditions with winds gusting at Force 10, more than 55 miles per hour.

Kelly, Cusick and Dewey watched as the Marine Electric passed well to the east of the Theodora about 3:30 p.m. The fishing boat was struggling slowly but successfully on a westbound course toward shore and shelter.

However, a short time later, as the storm intensified, the Theodora began taking on water. Her pumps could not keep up with the flooding, and the Coast Guard asked the Marine Electric to turn back to help the Theodora.

Corl, the captain, agreed. But he warned the Coast Guard that the Marine Electric was also struggling in the seas. In fact, the ship was “hove to” at the time – going as slowly as she could, maintaining just enough forward motion to avoid falling into the wave troughs and wallowing helplessly.

Under the circumstances, Corl executed the full 180 degree turn without much trouble, avoiding being swamped in the troughs, a hazard of such maneuvers. The Marine Electric was only in the trough briefly – for maybe two or three rolls.

Kelly, outside the deckhouse at the stern, felt no discomfort as the Marine Electric swung about at 4:10 p.m. Friday. Once the ship was turned, the wind came from astern, and Kelly, now exposed to the elements, hurried back inside.

Later during supper someone commented on how well the “old man” had handled the turn.

“Can you see us on radar?” the Theodora asked the Marine Electric by radio at 4:36 p.m.

“Yes,” came the reply. “You are 1.2 miles due south of us.” The Marine Electric continued to shadow the Theodora as the fishing vessel, then well off the Winter Quarter Shoals of Virignia, moved toward shelter.

An hour passed, and the Coast Guard asked the Marine Electric at 4:38 p.m.: ”Can you stand by until midnight?”

“Well if you want me to stand by . . . ,” came the reply from the Marine Electric. It is believed Corl was speaking: “I’m having problems out here myself in this . . . weather.”

“Marine Electric, if you can, we would like you to stand by as long as possible,” the Coast Guard answered.

It was 6:22 p.m. The lights on the bridge would have been lowered then to enhance visibility and the reading of instruments.

“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep this course,” came the answer from the Marine Electric. “I’m taking an awful beating out here. I’m going to be in trouble myself pretty soon.”

Two minutes later the Coast Guard gave the Marine Electric’s officers permission to resume their northward course. A rescue boat was nearing the Theodora. A chopper had arrived and had lowered a pump to the fishing boat. The captain of the Theodora reported that his boat was proceeding without any problems and no longer needed the Marine Electric’s assistance.

Sometime during this errand of mercy, MTL executives now theorize, the ship sealed its own fate.

The ship was in an area spotted with shoals. The water was as shallow as 40 feet and the vessel, which drew 34, easily could have struck one, the company executives have testified. Such a grounding would have been virtually unnoticeable as the ship pitched and bucked in 35-foot waves, said executive vice president H.A. Downing.

A little hole opened and then widened into a long crack that eventually grew into a gap 36 feet long and 7 feet wide, a tear from port to starboard across the hull of the ship, 40 feet back from the bow, company executives theorize.

There is no doubt that the rip is there: Divers have documented it. But did it result from hitting a sandbar?

Cusick was on the bridge during the turn and the escort of the Theodora. He recalled nothing that would indicate a grounding. No thumps. No bumps. Nothing. Kelly and Dewey felt nothing either.

“This is no reflection on the crew or officers,” said MTL’s Downing, who is a sea captain himself. “But they are wrong. With waves running 30 to 35 feet, you come down hard in the water. You could hit sand bottom and never know it.”

Cusick, however, has said he would never be convinced of that. He was on the bridge. He had kept an eye on the charts and depth-readings, he said. And, he noted, the Marine Electric never came close to the old coal route that ships he had served on used to follow; a route that was well west of the Theodora’s position and close to the shoals.

At no time did the ship enter water shallower than 16 fathoms – 96 feet – according to Cusick. Moroever, the fishing boat captain, with a fish-finder that recorded depths, said the Marine Electric never went into water shallower than 110 feet. The Coast Guard’s estimate indicates that at the Marine Electric’s closest approach to charted shoals she was 3 miles from the nearest shoal in water more than 12 fathoms.

It was at that point – 38 degrees 50.2 minutes north; 74 degrees 57.3 minutes west – that the Coast Guard released the Marine Electric from escort duty.

Theodora captain Jennings Hayward radioed the Marine Electric: “I thank you very much, old dog, and I really appreciate what you did. . . . Thank you very much and good luck to you.”

The Marine Electric turned back north, with no luck in sight.

Dewey, Cusick and Kelly all thought at the time that the worst of a bad storm had ended. Kelly was the officer on the bridge until midnight. All seemed routine. Dewey rested, awaiting the start of his shift at midnight. Cusick was bushed. He turned in.

None had a hint that the turn they made from the Theodora put them on their final course.

Yet the last two years of the Marine Electric’s existence could be seen as a succession of crucial moments leading squarely to that end. Each voyage the old ship made might well have ended in disaster that lay just ahead.

An episode two years earlier may have been the last best chance the Coast Guard had to avert disaster. The worn hatch covers of the old ship were to have been repaired as part of work scheduled for the Marine Electric at the drydock at the Jacksonville Shipyards Inc. in January 1981. The hatch- cover work was included on 86 legal-size pages of repair orders.

Some work on the hatch covers was done. Thirty-one metal patches were welded on to renew them and reinforce their strength.

But other work on the covers was not done properly.

New gaskets were to have been installed to improve the cover seal against water. But almost the reverse happened, according to Cusick. The original 59mm gaskets were replaced by shorter gaskets, he said. The result was an ”ineffective” seal between gasket and hatch lid.

The hatch covers had been taken off during the drydock inspection for work and were brought back only the day before the Marine Electric set sail again. When the hatch covers were placed back on the ship, they were warped, still contained holes and would not open or close properly.

“The hatches were put on at the last moment, at the last day,” Cusick explained. “We spent the whole night trying to get them to open and close. They were in much worse condition as far as opening and closing the hatch covers than they were when we took them off. None of the sealing bars would work, because this particular gasket, this short gasket, wasn’t even reaching in many cases to the sealing bar. Instead of the gasket itself coming down in the middle of the knife-edge of the gutter, it was missing it entirely.

“It was very, very fouled up. It was so bad that they got the MacGregor company down to work on it.”

Maxwell S. Graham represented MacGregor Land and Sea, the manufacturer of the hatch covers. He worked on them beginning March 8 – 12 days after the vessel was cleared and approved by the U.S. Coast Guard and American Bureau of Shipping inspectors in Jacksonville. His assessment: “Covers will not open or close correctly. . . . Once again it is emphasized that the panels are not considered watertight and much work is required to make them so.”

However, on June 8, 1981, the Marine Electric was “certificated” – it officially received a Coast Guard certificate that stated all was well with the ship. The hatch covers still had not been repaired or tested for strength or weathertightness by the Coast Guard or the ABS. In fact, inspectors for both agencies never even looked closely at the hatch covers. Their inspections were done while the covers were open and stacked like dominoes so only the surface of the first and last panel in each stack was visible.

More than a year later, Graham was still being called to work on the hatch covers. In November 1982, he noted that he had found the panels of number 3 hatch in poor condition during a March 1981 post-drydock visit to the ship. Said Graham in an invoice and analysis:

“They have deteriorated badly in the interim. At present the coamings (raised edges of the hatch) have holes in the wheel tracks and are so wasted that there is no strength left to support the weight of the panels without further distortion. The coaming compression bar is badly scaled and wasted such that it should be renewed . . .. The top plates are weak, wasted, buckled and holed in many places . . .. The rubber gasket channels are of an incorrect size and do not fit correctly to the adjacent panels.

“To compound this problem the side skirts bend inboard and foul the compression bar. . . . The panels on the remaining hatches appear to be in a similar condition. A judgment as to the seaworthiness and cargo protection capabilities of these panels must be examined” according to the ship’s classification to fully determine their exact state “with an eye to the duration of further use (of the covers), if any.”

The position of Marine Transport Lines was and is that the ship was in good shape with sea-tight hatches. “The cargo never got wet,” said Thelgie, the fleet superintendent. He said Graham was simply trying to hawk his wares – not seriously assess the condition of the ship.

Captain James D. Farnham, the permanent master of the ship, said he felt the hatch covers were worn but seaworthy. He said he had sailed the ship in seas similar to those the Marine Electric faced on its final trip, and that they had held up fine.

And Basil Andriopolous, MTL’s land-based port engineer, agreed: The ship was in good shape. The hatch covers were sound. If there were problems with the ship, they were there only because Richard Powers, the chief engineer, did not report them. And Powers? He could not answer these questions. He died when the Marine Electric went down.

The MacGregor representative had a slightly different analysis.

“My understanding is that Mr. Thelgie was caught between two positions,” Graham was to say later. “One was operating within a budget and the other was operating the vessel.”

How could the old ship sail in violation of the regulations that required hatch covers to be weathertight and able to sustain 210 pounds of pressure per square foot?

The Coast Guard inspector, Lt. James Guidish in Jacksonville, said he never looked at the hatches. He said he didn’t even know how to go about testing the seaworthiness of a hatch cover and never attempted a test because the owner’s representative assured him that the crew would carry out the tests after the ship left Jacksonville.

The tests were never conducted.

The ABS inspector, Serge V. Simeonidis, said he inspected the hatch covers on the ship carefully. The problem with that assurance is that he said he inspected the covers on the ship when the ship had no hatch covers; they were not there during his inspection.

Cusick, who was on the vessel at the time, said no ABS inspector looked at them. The ABS man said he looked at them last on Feb. 22, 1981, and had looked at them several times during the week prior to that. In fact, Cusick said, the hatch covers were not returned until Feb. 23.

Not until November 1982 did the company replace any of the cover panels – and then only one. The month before the Marine Electric sank, Farnham asked Cusick to sketch the hatch covers for possible future repair. The sketches detailed many badly worn areas – some up to 16 feet long by 2 feet wide. There were so many pinholes in the covers that the daylight came through when they were closed.

The hatch covers were so bad that the deck crews no longer tried to control the rust with scrubbing and many coats of lead paint. When rust ate through the covers, the crew just slopped flat black paint over them to cover it.

By the time the Marine Electric went to sea on what would be its last voyage, the hatch covers had deteriorated even further. They still did not close tightly. Cusick said the hatch covers were in awful shape.

The deck, too, had some holes in the area between the hatches. Those holes would also be plugged by the crew with the Red Hand, an expoxy glue. Cusick asked that “doublers” – big iron patches – be welded on the deck in some places.

Kelly noticed a hole in the deck that had been circled with white chalk. It was only three inches long and a little less than an inch wide. But it had penetrated the full depth of the metal deck. The hold below was visible. That hole worried him more than the one he had found in the hull, he said later.

Those were some of the deficiencies of the Marine Electric. Any inspector aboard would have to notice them. There were plenty of occasions when inspectors were on board:

In 1981: May 5, 10, 24; June 8, 11; July 1, and Dec. 19 and 31.

In 1982: Jan. 18; Feb. 8; March 21, and Nov. 3.

And the last on Jan. 15, 1983. A notation in the Coast Guard computer says: ”Mid-period inspection. Okay.”

The vessel was never stopped.

If there were any consolation in sailing on such a ship during the winter of 1983, it was that the required bienniel drydock for repairs was not far off. It was scheduled for February.

But then on Dec. 27, 1982, there was a letter from Thelgie to the Coast Guard requesting a delay in the drydocking until April 1. He said that New England Power Company, which was receiving the coal being carried by the ship, had asked that it remain in service until then.

The power company was to say later that it made no such request in

December, and in fact had a barge lined up to replace the Marine Electric. It also had a 35-day reserve of coal on Feb. 10, the day the Marine Electric left on its final voyage.

But the Coast Guard agreed to the MTL request. The drydock could wait.

Now, all the chances to avert disaster were gone as the Marine Electric left the Theodora to resume course 040 north about 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 11.

The helmsman constantly had to swing hard right rudder to hard left rudder just to keep the ship on course for what would be the ship’s last eight hours.

Kelly was on the 8 p.m.-to-midnight watch – in charge of the bridge as a third mate. He could hear the Coast Guard cutter and the Theodora exchange radio messages as the fishing boat headed toward the safety of Chincoteague Passage.

Then he settled in to the peaceful rhythyms of a ship’s bridge. All the electronic equipment was working well. The winds had subsided some – from Force 10 to Force 5 – though it still was a rotten night at sea. Captain Corl had been up all night. Now, he was napping in the chartroom behind the bridge on a settee.

The ship was making little progress. Sometimes its speed was a little over a knot. But at times it was less than 0.3 knots. By midnight, when Kelly’s watch ended, the ship had traveled only 1 1/2 to 2 miles, rolling with the 20-foot waves.

But there was no list or harbinger of disaster. Waves broke across the deck, washing over the hatch covers – but not breaking on them.

It was almost back to routine now. The Marine Electric had seen worse weather. Other ships were untroubled. Richard Roberts, the other third mate, relieved Kelly at midnight. He looked at the chart, and Kelly told him that Corl wanted to be kept posted every half-hour.

Kelly, exhausted from a day and night of bad weather during which he could not sleep, turned in and finally slept. Dewey, an able-bodied seaman, took the lookout outside on the starboard wing, the exposed area projecting to the right of the bridge. Cusick had turned in an hour before.

Calmly in the mess room, Dewey read a novel after he was relieved, waiting until 2 a.m. when he was scheduled to take the wheel.

But then, at 1:15 a.m., the handling of the vessel changed.

The bow was sluggish; it was not coming up from the water as much as it had, Roberts would tell Kelly. It seemed as if the ship was down at the head. Roberts shook the captain awake.

Dewey took the wheel at 2 a.m. Captain Corl and Roberts puzzled over the bow. They were certain something was wrong. They tried to call the engine room to start pumping operations. But the telephones had failed. About 2:45 a.m., a seamen was sent to round up the other officers and send messages to the engine room. Clearly, something was wrong.

Cusick had been awakened by Corl. “Come up on the bridge, mate,” Corl said. “I believe that we are in trouble. I think she’s settling by the head. This may be my imagination,” Corl continued. “With the way the sea is running, I can’t really tell.”

Cusick raced to the bridge. He took one look. He ran to get Powers, the chief engineer. It was apparent: The seas were breaking over the bow.

The seaman who had stirred Kelly told him there were problems. The captain wanted the officers to report to the bridge, wearing their life jackets.

The third mate washed his face and brushed his teeth. He dressed calmly and

went to the bridge. He stood in the rear, away from the large forward window, to let his eyes adjust. Then he stepped forward to the window and stared into the storm.

It was his first glimpse of the Marine Electric’s fate. The waves that had broken over the bow earlier now covered the front portion of the vessel. Green water covered hatch number one and almost all of number two. The waves were breaking on hatch number three and against the base of the ship’s house from which those on the bridge looked out.

The Marine Electric was going down. It was nearly 3 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 12, and the 38-year-old converted World War II-tanker and most of its crew had only hours to live.

Powers, Cusick and Corl decided to call the Coast Guard. At 2:51 a.m., Corl asked for assistance:

“I am approximately 30 miles from Delaware Bay entrance and I’m going down by the head. I seem to be taking on water forward. I’m going to try to head for Delaware Bay. . . . We are positively in bad shape. Positively in bad shape, we need someone to come out and give us some assistance.”

Corl told them that he did not really know what was wrong.

Trying to discover what was happening, the crew shined flashlights from the bridge. But the beams died in the spray of the waves. Powers ran below to get his big red light with two handles on it.

He gave it to Kelly and told him to shine it toward the bow. The beam pierced the storm. Kelly could see the small white doghouse on the bow. It would appear and disappear. He thought the entire bow was under 6 to 7 feet of water. He could not see the hatches.

Powers came inside and told Kelly he thought the number-one hatch had been stove in. Kelly still could not see for sure. There was too much water and 400 feet of distance between the bridge and hatch covers.

Pumping continued. There was a good head of pressure from the starboard wing tanks, which meant they probably were flooded.

At about 3:30 a.m., Corl told Cusick to ready the lifeboats. The chief mate mustered his crew on the starboard boat deck. It was as if a routine drill were being held. It went like clockwork. Farnham had drilled the crew well. They took the covers off the lifeboat, carefully folding and stowing them.

Cusick believed the covers would be replaced soon, that the crew would be rescued before they had to use the lifeboats. If we get into trouble, the Coast Guard will come and get us.

“It was the farthest thing from our mind that what was about to happen would happen,” Cusick said.

On the way to check the lifeboat operation, Kelly stopped where the life rings were stored and piled them up on the deck. “I don’t know why I did it,” he would said later. “I was never trained to do it. Nobody told me to do it. I just did.”

Kelly functioned with an automatic sense that amazed him. He freed the EPIRB, the emergency radio transmitter that sends a continuous SOS. He headed back to the bridge.

There, Dewey, still at the helm, had some steerage, but not much. Corl had ordered a course change from a northeasterly 040 to 000 – due north. The vessel was traveling at 1.3 knots. Dewey could see and feel the front of the ship continuing to sink slowly.

Did the ship have survior suits? the Coast Guard asked by radio.

No, just life jackets.

Cusick said the lifeboats were swung out over the water but not lowered. He feared they would be damaged in the heavy seas if lowered as the ship rolled. The inflatable life rafts had been hauled down to the boat deck in their canisters. They were ready.

About 3:40 a.m. Dewey noticed the Marine Electric was no longer sinking only at the bow.

It was listing to starboard. By 3:55 a.m. there was a five-degree list. It would increase to 14 degrees when the ship rolled in the waves. That left the lifeboats only about five feet above the sea.

They asked the Coast Guard if there were any vessels in the area. Minutes later, Albion Lane, the radioman, was told there were two merchant ships in the vicinity: The closest one would reach the Marine Electric at 6 a.m.

There was a sigh of despair from the officers. Everyone knew, Kelly said, that the Marine Electric would not last until then. They hated the thought of going into the water in lifeboats.

At 4:07 a.m., the ship shifted more to starboard. A little later, there was a further shift to 10 degrees.

It was enough for Corl. He radioed the Coast Guard: “I think I’m going to lose my ship here . . .. We are taking a real bad list to starboard.” Then he called the engine room on the walkie-talkie: “Secure the engine. Stop the engine. Evacuate the engine room.”

Corl told Dewey there was no sense trying to steer. Dewey left the rudder hard to port and began to leave by the outside passage. Kelly yelled to him. Go down the inside passage. There was too much list for the outside ladder.

On the radio, Corl told the Coast Guard he was going to abandon ship. Now.

At 4:14 a.m., the Marine Electric broadcast its final radio transmission: ”We are abandoning ship right now. We are abandoning ship right now.”

He put down the radio and reached for a life jacket – the last man to do so.

The whistle blew. The men rushed through their duties, Cusick and Dewey at the lifeboats, Kelly on the bridge. He paused on one deck and heaved life rings into the black void.

Then the boat turned.

“It just went like this, it just went like this,” Cusick said, moving his hand in the arc of an inverted “U.”

”Shhhhhhweeerrrrrrppppppp.” At one instant he was at the forward end of the lifeboat. A second later he was in the water, clawing and swimming below it.

Cusick passed the porthole of the room where he had been standing. The

lights were still on. He looked in as if in a dream. He swam by it, clawing, swiming, swimming.

Then he broke the surface and began swimming from the ship, turning onto his back to catch his breath and rest. Then he would swim again.

He swam for half an hour. Then he found an oar. He hung onto it. The seas would raise him from the water. He would look back. There were all the strobe

lights of the life jackets winking away. He could hear cries. There were groans from the darkness.

He thought he saw Powers flashing his light – the tankerman’s light. As he came up on the crest of a wave in the pitch dark, he saw the shape of a lifeboat. Not the one they had tried to launch, but the other, which had been torn lose from the ship. It was swamped. Cusick swam for it. It took him half an hour.

Dewey, trapped under the ship, had reversed direction by now and popped to the surface. He swam on his back away from the ship. He was surrounded by people in the water.

“Help me, help me, ” they cried.

Dewey, reaching as he swam, felt a line in the darkness. He turned to look.

On the end of the 10-foot line was a life raft in its canister. He placed his feet against it. He pulled hard on the rope. The canister popped open and the raft inflated – and in the process it blew Dewey from the raft.

He swam back. Three other seamen were there. Dewey struggled for 15 to 20 minutes. The raft had a canopy with the front and back sides open. The sides were high. Finally, Dewey clambered in.

Another seaman – Dewey, who had been on the ship only 10 days, could not remember his name – tried to get in. Dewey tried to pull him in. Heavy seas washed over them.

Dewey could not pull him in. The seaman was nearly motionless, frozen by the sea.

Dewey yelled to the other two seamen: Hang onto the life line around the raft.

The second mate, Clayton Babineau, swam over. Dewey could not get him in the raft either, even with Babineau trying to help. The second mate was in control, though. He was doing what officers are there for. He commanded.

Put the ladder down, he told Dewey. If Dewey would help him get in, he would help Dewey get everyone else in.

There was no ladder. Dewey found a cargo net draped over the other side. The seamen were pleading for help, unable to help themselves.

Follow the line! Dewey told them. Work your way around! A cargo net was draped over the other side. He yelled and yelled.

And the men worked their way around.

Babineau tried the cargo net.

Even with Dewey’s help, he could not get in.

His hands just did not work. He could not grab on top of the raft. The net was flush there, providing no handhold.

Dewey placed Babineau’s numbed hand in the net. He gathered the net so Babineau could grab it. It didn’t work.

Get a foothold in the net! Dewey yelled.

I can’t! Babineau cried.

Then Babineau put his feet on the edge of the raft. Dewey pulled the second mate’s knees up over the edge.

But that way, the mate’s head was underwater.

Dewey was losing him that way, so they stopped. They had struggled in the cold for half an hour. Now, Babineau could only try to hang on. He was going to sleep. The cold water was stealing his energy.

Dewey looked in the raft for something else, anything to help. Was there another ladder? There were canisters. One was marked “one small oar.” Another said “hot catch rain water.” Another said “fishing line.”

Then Dewey looked back. Babineau had drifted away.

One of the other seamen struggled to get into the raft. The other two were in shock and made no effort to get in. They could only cry: “Help me. Help me. Help me.”

Then one by one, they all drifted away.

Dewey was alone in the raft.

He shivered convulsively as he sat in the darkness. When he heard helicopters, he shined his flashlight toward the sound. The chopper did not stop. Dewey was not worried. He was going to make it.

The chopper circled and came back.

A basket was lowered. He saw a picture showing him how to huddle inside. He just fell in. Then he was in the helicopter, door open, freezing, shouting above the noise: “There’s no one else in the raft!”

But when Dewey looked down, he could see a man swimming in the water. It was a Navy diver, James D. McCann.

McCann, in wet suit, snorkel and fins, was finding a lot of dead seamen. But among them, he was finding men alive.

From the first, Kelly had not been a likely candidate for the rank of survivor. He had narrowly escaped the fall of the ship’s huge stack, thanks to an unknown shipmate’s tug on his collar. He never saw who it was.

In his words:

When I turned around there was nobody there. I think we got separated by the seas. And it was about a half an hour, maybe a little bit less, that I swam away from the ship. . . .

Finally, after some time in the water, I came across a life ring, and there were five other people hanging on. . . .

It was the chief engineer (Richard Powers); the third mate, Richard Roberts; one of the ordinary seamen, his first name is Harold – I don’t know his last name; the day man, Joe, I don’t know his last name; and it was the radio operator, (Sparks Lane), and myself.

We were on the life ring.

Everybody was pretty well stunned. We sounded off so we could find out who was there. We sounded off by number and came out with six.

And then it was just talking, giving each other encouragement, that we thought daylight was coming pretty quick. Several times the chief thought we saw a ship in the distance, or saw lights in the distance when we got to the top of a wave.

The only lights I could see around me were the strobe lights of the life rings, the water lights, and I could hear people calling all the time, but I couldn’t see anybody else . . ..

And I don’t know when I started to notice that people weren’t on the life ring.

I noticed that Harold wasn’t there at one time.

And then I turned around and the day man wasn’t there.

Right after that, I called out to Rich Roberts and I asked him how he was doing. He responded that he was okay, that he was cold, he was okay.

I don’t know how long it was on the life ring before I noticed that the only ones there were the chief engineer and the radio operator.

He was stiffening up. He kept saying, “I’m cold. I’m cold. Help me.”

At that point, I noticed that the chief – the chief – when we went into the water, had his spotlight and he had been shining it up into the air all this time.

I noticed that he wasn’t shining it any more. I thought he might have lost it. So I whacked him on the back of his life jacket, and there was no response

from the chief. And as I hit him, his flashlight floated away from him, and I was able to grab that, and use that as my signal.

I never looked at my watch in the water because I was afraid that I would lose my grip on the ring. So I wasn’t concerned with the time element. I kept talking to Sparks. Sparks was the last one on the ring with me.

The helicopters arrived, and it seemed like I could see them passing over me two or three times before they spotted us.

When they lowered the basket, I turned to tell Sparks that the basket was here, and Sparks wasn’t on the life ring anymore.

It was just myself.

Kelly had tried to flash the tankerman’s red light at boats and ships earlier. But he could not aim it. He did not have fingers and toes. That is how it felt. He would shiver for a minute, be still for 10 seconds and then shiver again, repeating the cycle over and over like convulsions.

When he heard the chopper he tried to point the light straight up. He did not even know the Coast Guard diver was near him, helping. The chopper looked so close, almost floating on the crest of the waves. He could reach out and touch it.

Then he was in the basket, heading toward the chopper and he thought:

I should have taken the light. I should have saved Power’s light.

On board the chopper, Dewey and Kelly were freezing. Kelly’s pants were down around his knees. He was sobbing uncontrollably, throwing up water and oil. There were three dead men with them in the helicopter as the crew searched and picked below like a pelican scooping fish.

One corpse had its eyes open. Kelly took a blanket and pulled it over his own eyes to keep from looking at the dead man.

Then the copter crew found a lifeboat. They brought a body up. Kelly yelled to Dewey. “Was that the chief mate?” Dewey could not hear him. Kelly yelled again. “Was that the chief mate?” Finally, Dewey read his lips.

He wasn’t sure. The body was covered with oil. Finally, they could see it was Cusick. But was he alive, or dead? They could not tell.

When he had reached the swamped lifeboat, Cusick put his hand on the gunwale. Only then did he let go of the oar and grab hold with his other hand. He paused, then kicked off his heavy, water-filled rubber boots. His stocking feet found a rail that ran along the underside of the boat.

He did not struggle. He waited, poised for the right moment. Then it came: A wave carried the boat and Cusick up together. Then, when the boat started down – Cusick was still going up – he heaved, shifted his weight and allowed the momentum of the wave to topple him in.

Cusick sat on a thwart of the swamped boat as it floated only inches above the sea. The air was freezing cold.

A wave nearly washed him back overboard, so he lowered himself into the water within the boat and thrashed about to stay warm.

He began to yell: “Lifeboat here! Lifeboat here!”

But no one answered.

So the old chief mate sat in the water and prayed for daylight.

When it came, a Norwegian tanker had also arrived. It was a big one, the Barranger. It pulled alongside the small lifeboat.

Norwegian seamen dropped a Jacob’s ladder down the side and valiantly clambered down to help. They reached for the American. But the waves were too big.

The captain of the Barranger saw the danger clearly: The waves threatened to smash both the tiny lifeboat and Cusick against the steel hull of the ship. So the ship pulled back.

Cusick, realizing why, was relieved. Better this way, he thought. There was a better chance this way.

So the old mate sat in his boat, hanging on now, hanging on, hanging on, . .

Suddenly, the copter whirred overhead. A basket dropped from the sky.

He tumbled in and, as he was being hoisted up, he looked below: The small orange lifeboat grew smaller and smaller.

Then hands were working on him, pressing on him. Dewey and Kelly watched, still wondering: Was he alive? Or dead? The Coast Guardsman asked: What month was it? What month was it?

“February,” Cusick finally coughed. Kelly and Dewey knew there was a third survivor.

A short time later, rescue ships, including the Tropic Sun out of Philadelphia, approached. Crew members spotted men in life jackets, bobbing about on the sea, and messmen exuberantly prepared coffee and soup for them.

But as the ships drew closer, it became clear – the men who were left were dead. Their bodies drifted by the ships in packs, rising and falling with the waves.

Jim Walsh of the Tropic Sun said the dead floated eerily, in relaxed positions. They reclined, their eyes staring, as if they were in their living rooms watching television.

The Marine Electric stayed afloat belly up for several hours. Then, at 37 degrees 51 minutes north, 74 degrees 51 minutes west, it turned and sank.


John Abrams


Eric Bodden

Chief cook

Celestino Gomes


Peter Delatolla


Jose Fernandez

Desk utility

Malcolm Graf


Robert Harrell

Ordinary seaman

Robert Hern

Ordinary seaman

Charlie Johnson

Able-bodied seaman

Edward Matthews

Able-bodied seaman

Richard Morgan


William Mulberry


John O’Connell

Ordinary seaman

Jose Quinones


Anthony Quirk


Thomas Reyes


Raul Ruiz


Norman Sevigny

Able-bodied seaman

David Sheperd


Ricardo Torres

Able-bodied seaman

John Wood

Able-bodied seaman


  1. I just finished listening to the CG (I’m assuming) recording of the 500 kHz transmissions during that awful night. At the end, R/O Albion Lane sends “30 30” in response to LJKR’s query of how many POB in starboard lifeboat. Mr. Lane then ends with “AR SK” — SK being the morse code prosign for “end of work”. It was then that everyone on the channel knew he was (hopefully) heading for the lifeboats.

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