Film Review: “The Finest Hours” (Lars and the Real Boat)

Lars and the Real Boat

Let me be clear: I was loaded for bear when I walked into “The Finest Hours.”

The movie is not based on my book, Two Tankers Down, but I put in months of research and writing about the rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton (and in my book, also the SS Fort Mercer.)

So with that investment, I was certain Hollywood was going to screw over another honest hero and turn him into some stereotyped cartoon character. The trailers and previews of the movie — cheesy bits and clips — only set my jaw in resolve to clobber the lotus eaters.

But slowly, as the film rolled, I was won over.

Director Craig Gillespie, who also did one of my favorite indie films, Lars and the Real Girl, pulled off a minor miracle here: giving what could have been a mindless action movie depth, emotion and importance. 

No, the meeting with Miriam was not exact. Bernie was no looker for one thing so the lines about how handsome he was surely would have made Mr. Webber shake with laughter.

And they left out this huge “meet cute” scene in the book where Miriam was a telephone operator who anonymously called Bernie and talked with him for hours when he was on overnight duty.

But they did what film directors and screen writers are supposed to do when they do things right: They captured the essence of it. The “bear” coat joke was in there. And so was the mood of the relationship.

When the scene changed to action at sea, I was astounded at how they captured the motion of the boat, the waves and the wind. You only get that sense if you’ve been to sea in winds and waves near that velocity. So how they imagined it or recreated remains a mystery to me. I just know that they did because I’ve been in seas that have made a supertanker roll at 30 degree angles.

You can quarrel with some of the plot choices. I won’t.

Miriam never visited Bernie at the Coast Guard station the night of the rescue. They were not engaged then. She was home in bed and Bernie did not even want to bother her. But of course she knew he would be “out there” on a night like that.

As a non-fiction author, this is something I could never do in my book, but then there are and should be different rules for film. No, you can’t have aliens intervene and show Bernie the way. (That only happens in Fargo.) And you can’t have him tow the ship to safety while swimming with a rope in his teeth.

But to my mind the romance is not some cheesy bit thrown into the movie stew to make this a date movie and sell popcorn. The romance serves a real purpose in defining the plot and the tensions and conflicts.

And that tension is this: the macho code of “you have to go out, you don’t have to come back” versus a more humane understanding of life and death situations.

In the world of non-fiction writing, I was able to do that by illustrating some of the crueler historical results of “you have to go out” philosophy where men needlessly were sent to their deaths — or in some cases shamed themselves into impossible rescue missions. Yes, it’s a code of valor and honor. But the cruel side of it is undeniable and needed to be stated.

You can’t do what I did in a movie. But Miriam can express that very human concern. And particularly in the confrontation with the Chief, she does this. To me that is a huge scene with the Chief reluctantly but resolutely confirming the order and Miriam persisting — until she could no longer persist.

So as a stickler for fact in non-fiction writing and narrative literature — no compound characters! no collapsing of time! — and as one of the toughest purveyors of fact in this rescue, I think they get more than a pass here.

I think they get applause for defining the issue. The Coast Guard spent more than 50 years wrestling with the philosophy before adapting a more common sense version of risk assessment. The Finest Hours nails it in about 10 minutes of narrative. They get props for that.

So much to my surprise, I walked out of the theater feeling the story had been told well and truly.

Other critics have not felt that way. I think many of them walked in expecting a Disney movie and a lot of the subtext to the movie went over their heads.

I’m not suggesting they are mouth breathers or slow learners.

Not all of them.

I am suggesting they know little of the real world of oceans and maritime rescues.

And also that they’ve spent way too much time expecting Iron Man to ironically save Wolverine from the Silver Surfer.

They seem to have lost their palate for a story that is — though not always factual — ever so truthful.

We seem to have forgotten that people act as Bernie Webber acted. (And as many people still do today, overshadowed by overpaid auto-tuned divas, overpaid athletes and cartoon comic book heroes with the same first world adolescent problems.)

One critic actually called the film “too old fashioned” because of its values.

And in a few weeks, I’ll wonder again how “Mad Max Part Five” is actually a contender for the Oscars and why those same critics consider it such a cinematic wonder.

In the meantime, let me urge you to see The Finest Hours.

Forget about the cheesy previews. Forget about the half-hearted reviews.

Just sit down and experience how a common man found true heroism within.

Because this is not a story from an earlier, simpler time. It is a story from a time when we recognized these values as true and worthwhile. The actions and the values are still around us.

We just don’t recognize them.

And in part, that is because they just don’t get that much attention from critics who have had their brains blasted out by irony and SurroundSound cartoon movies.

—–Bob Frump

Press Release: Fact Check “The Finest Hours”

Author of Coast Guard Rescue Book Launches Fact Check of “The Finest Hours”
Author Robert Frump has launched a detailed fact check blog about the movie “The Finest Hours” Frump wrote Two Tankers Down, a book that chronicles the Bernie Webber rescue — an heroic act portrayed in The Finest Hours
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Bernie in the CG 36500
“…there are some errors — some big ones. But in my mind..justified by the truths the movie tells…” Bob Frump
Summit, NJ (PRWEB) February 01, 2016

Author Robert R. Frump has launched a fact check assessing inaccuracies in the movie The Finest Hours.
“It is a good movie that captures the spirit and the truths of a famous Coast Guard rescue lead by Bernie Webber,” said Robert R Frump, the author of Two Tankers Down, a book that tells the tale of the rescue of the SS Pendleton and the SS Fort Mercer.
A truthful message does not always mean a factual message however, said Frump, a former maritime writer of The Philadelphia Inquirer and the author of a book about the wreck of the SS Marine Electric, “Until the Sea Shall Free Them.”
“Overall, the movie really respect the story here and the values of Bernie Webber,” Frump said. “There are surprisingly few flubs on facts. They are accurate even to the Dodge Power Wagon they use on the land-part of the story.
“But there are some errors — some bigs ones. But in my mind, mostly justified by the needs of movies to merge characters and themes.
To see Frump’s Fact Check, go to his blog.
For media interviews, please drop a line by email and set up a time with Mr. Frump. For more information about the other tanker that went down that day, see Frump’s book, Two Tankers Down.

The “Other” Finest Hours: Rescue of the SS Fort Mercer

The Finest Hours does a great job of telling the story of the rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton — a T-2 tanker that split in two off Cape Cod.

The other rescue that day was nearly as spectacular.  The SS Fort Mercer also split in two, with the bow and stern bobbing away from each other.

Unlike the Pendleton, the bow of the Fort Mercer remained stable enough for the officers aboard to survive the initial split-up.

But there then followed a sometimes tragic, sometimes heroic rescue where some men lived and some men died.  And the eventual rescue was via a boat far smaller than that used to rescue the men in the movie.

For the full story, read Two Tankers Down.

Would Bernie Webber Have Been Happy with “The Finest Hours”

“I wonder what Bernie would think,” said a writer friend of mine.  “He was so meticulous in his telling of the story, that he may not have appreciated all the liberties the screenwriters took.”

Would Bernie have liked the film?

Oh, hell no.  HELL no.

Not at first anyway.

Bernie wasn’t happy with any account of the rescue, including his own.

He was okay with “Two Tankers Down” but wrote me:

“…it is difficult for me to read such a glorifying accout. To this day it was one of the many challenges of service life and going to sea for 24 years thereafter on all kinds of buckets makes it pale to some of the other adventures faced….”

And he would not let me forget that somehow in the sea of ink in galleys, in one spot ever so briefly, I put the wrong number on a rescue boat.  He was peeved at that for days. Only reluctantly, over a couple of weeks did he acknowledge the book got it right, more or less and all his Coast Guard peers thought so

Bernie on the red carpet? He avoided the limelight and never profited from the rescue and in fact suffered a great deal as a result of the spotlight

But I sincerely think he would have warmed to this.

I think he would have enjoyed seeing Miriam portrayed as a glamorous woman, which he is exactly how he saw her. And after hurling his popcorn at the screen a couple of times, I think he would have recognized the larger truth here.

The spirt of the rescue was accurately portrayed.  The film could have gone wrong 10,000 different ways.  But the screen writers and director and actors shot the bar on this one, in my opinion

I think Bernie would have agreed.  Eventually.

The Finest Hours Rescue FAQ: Why No Choppers?

Let’s start a Frequently Asked Questions section on The Finest Hours.

First off: Why no choppers?

The Finest Hours is a fine movie that chronicles one of the greatest small boat rescues in the history of the US Coast Guard.  In the movie, its namesake book, and my book, Two Tankers Down, you can find out how Bernie Webber and his crew overcame impossible obstacles to save the crew of the Pendleton.

And in Two Tankers Down, you can also see how another valiant crew on that same day rescued many members of the SS Fort Mercer.

But implicit within the movie is a question: Why no helicopters?

Certainly choppers were in use during this time period.  The Navy used them extensively in Korea.

But not in the Coast Guard. Choppers were very late to the game because of a running conflict between the fixed-wing aviators and the choppers.

As the cover copy for a book on the controversy says:

Incredible as it now seems, great resis¬tance to developing and utilizing rotary-wing aircraft was entrenched within each of the armed forces, and only the relentless, dogged determination of less than a handful of Coast Guard officers turned the tide and launched a new chapter in aviation history.

The book by the way is: “Wonderful Flying Machines” by Barrett Thomas Beard

In a nutshell, the fixed way aviators dominated the Coast Guard budget and policy making until in a series of famous impromptu rescues the rotor boys won the day.

Would the choppers of the day been able to help the Pendleton crew?  Probably not, given the distances and wind speed involved.  But we’ll never know because at that time, the Coast Guard chopped were few and far between.  They did not come into play until later in the 1950’s.

In the meantime, the fixed wing aviators did develop incredible new methods of sea rescue — pioneering methods of landing parallel to waves instead of into them.  Those techniques are thought to have saved many lives because they are applied in passenger airliner emergency sea landings.

Questions and comments welcome.

 

 

Bernie Webber: An Appreciation


(A reposting of my 2013 take on Bernie.)
Posted: February 18, 2013 in Contemporary Commentary
Bernie Webber was the least likely candidate to execute the greatest small-boat rescue in American history.Yet that is what he did, nearly 71 years ago to the date, in a very small boat, facing very large waves and larger odds.

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Bernie

His rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton, a stricken oil tanker, off Chatham, MA, in February 1952 is one of the most heroic deeds performed by any Coast Guardsmen anywhere, anytime.

The second rescue crew that day accomplished a similarly impossible mission in pulling the officers from the Fort Mercer, a second tanker that had split in two during a powerful Atlantic storm.

Bernie was the trouble-prone son of a Baptist minister, who’d been well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. Until he went to sea.

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Tbe Gold Medal Crew

And then, on the night of February 18, 1952, in a raging blizzard off the coast of Cape Cod, Webber, now a young lifeboat coxswain with the U.S. Coast Guard, and his crew performed a miracle.

Two big oil tankers had split in two in raging seas, and nothing—not a big cutter, not a sea plane, not a chopper—could reach them in time. Only Webber and his crew of three volunteers had a chance.
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He knew they would probably die on this mission. They were, after all, in an unassuming thirty-six-foot rescue boat that didn’t even have a name but for the “CG 36500” on its side. But he loved this boat—and he knew the inauspicious Coast Guard motto: “You have to go out. You don’t have to come back.”

Webber took the CG 36500 out in sixty-foot waves and saved thirty lives. He and his men won the rarely bestowed Coast Guard Gold Medal for Valor and a place in history that shapes the Coast Guard culture to this day.Pendleton_7_sm

What placed him apart from others?  Webber did not know; he only knew that events aligned so he was able to do the impossible, and he attributed it to  a higher power.
I think it surely was that — God, luck, karma, providence, you name it — but he was also captain of his fate.  Or at least a bosun of it.The man’s integrity was unbreakable.  When they offered him the Gold Lifesaving Medal and his crew the Silver, he turned them down.  He’d only take it, he said, if his crew received it as well.
Pendleton_Half_Ship_2_sm
It would be nice to see his integrity and courage in today’s leaders. Oh, I think it is still in the Coast Guard.  I was thinking more of Congress as they now set off on a witch hunt to discover the holes in our maritime safety network — holes that they have put there.

Fact Checking “The Finest Hours”

The Finest Hours is a faithful and truthful telling of the rescue of crewmen on the tanker the SS Pendleton.

Truthful does not in all cases mean factual.  There are no huge bloopers in the movie.  There is compounding of characters and time is both stretched, cut and pasted.

For me it works, and I figure I’m in as good a position as anyone to judge this.  I spent a good chunk of time and hours and hours talking with Bernie, researching the wreck, combing through archived records and cross-checking with him for my book on the rescue, “Two Tankers Down.”

In other words, I know this subject matter well, and I am not indebted to the studio.

So how did the Hollywood guys do on the facts?

Based on the cheesy previews and trailers, I was prepared to flatten this baby.  But in fact, it’s well done and true to the event and the people even if the facts are not sometimes.

There are no “Pants on Fire” rankings here.  And some of my “catches” are nerdish maritime writer notes.  What some people MIGHT think are whoppers I can accept and I’ll explain why.

Let the Fact Check begin:

  1. Miriam Webber did not come down to the Coast Guard Station.
    In fact, she was very sick at home with the flu.  The couple had been married before the rescue.
    Why it doesn’t matter to me:   The film pretty well represents the couple’s romance, right down to the “bear skin” coat.  The presence of Miriam in the film allows for a nice conflict of concerns:  a human concern for life versus the Coast Guard code of the ‘You have to go out– you don’t have to come back.”   I guess for purists this would be a pants on fire fact fail.  For me, I think it’s a great bit of dramatic license that while not factual gets the truth across.
  2. Bernie was far taller and less pretty than Chris Pine.
    Bernie was kind of a big lug of a guy.  Okay, but Pine does a pretty good job of playing Bernie as the good-hearted and well-intended fella he was. If there is a critique here, I’d say the director portrays Bernie as a little dumb and simple.  He wasn’t.  He was cagey enough to know questions I would ask him before I asked them.  The guy had been admitted to a top prep school.  He had an unerring ability to compute multiple factors in his head — navigational and personal.  On the other hand, Bernie often played dumb.  And in social matters, he could be dumb. I can’t fault Pine’s performance at all and feel it’s on the money.
  3. The Pendleton did not split at a weld.
    I told you this would get a little nerdy.  But T-2 tankers did not have welding faults — though it was widely suspected they did.  Their fault was in the type of steel used, which under 50 degrees turned brittle.  Cracks would form and race through the whole hull.  The “crack arrestors” or steel belts were there to stop that, not reinforce the welding.  This is about a big a false fact as I can find.  But it’s not crucial to the plot or the fact that the ships were flawed.
  4. At times the movie actually understates conditions.
    I’ve read some reviews that say the angle of the lifeboat ascending waves was improbable.  The movie had it right.  It might have been interesting to dwell on the boat descending waves — when Webber had to jam the engine in reverse to slow the boat as it gained speed.  Had he not done that, the boat would have essentially kept going to the bottom.
    Other understatements: Bernie emerged from the “bar” crossing with windshield fragments embedded in his skull.  The men in the engine room of the boat fried great sections of their arms on the hot motor.  Not essential to the movie, and I thought actually showed some restraint.5. The “Lost Man” was probably “lost” before he hit the water.If I did nothing else through Two Tankers Down, I hope I eased Bernie’s mind on this death.  Throughout his life Bernie was haunted by the one guy he lost.  He mentioned this frequently in conversations and correspondence.  The crew and the rescuers even concocted a story to say that Tiny was the last man down the ladder — and had waited until all were clear.
    In fact, Tiny was probably in the advanced stages of hypothermia.  He was a large man, 300+ pounds.  And at the top of the ship, he had stripped off all his clothes, in the advanced stages of hypothermia.  This phenomenon is known as “paradoxical undressing.”  The blood flows suddenly from the heart to the extremities and causes a feeling of burning.  Once in this state, few come back.  So yes, the rescuers could not get Tiny in the boat.  But almost certainly, even had they been able to wrestle the huge man up over the side, he would have passed.6. Livesey and Bernie had no beefMore dramatic license here.  Bernie and his crew member had no quarrel or grudge as suggested in the film.  They respected each other.  The director uses the grudge as a way of referring back to the story of an earlier failed rescue — when Webber and others tried in vain to reach a fishing boat on the other side of the Chatham Bar.Again, in my mind: poetic license granted.  This worked for me as a dramatic device.7. There is a bittersweet ending to the real story.

    The movie tells the tale well and has no obligation to go beyond the story.  Truth is life got very complicated for Bernie after the awards with some of the brass.  He was offered the Lifesaving Gold Medal and declined it unless his whole crew got it. (They did.) He was nearly court martialed for disobeying the order to take the boat out to sea to offload the rescued.
    Worse, some of his own colleagues shunned him in the egalitarian ranks of the non-officer corps, or gave him the cold shoulder.
    Uncomfortable with the spotlight, he nevertheless was forced to do speech tours with the Coast Guard brass when he wanted nothing more to get back on his boat with his crew.
    Then, as a publicity project, in the early days of the Vietnam War, the Coast Guard shipped him over in charge of a riverine warfare gunboat.  There he performed close-in duty, in the mode of Apocalypse Now.  It’s the one thing I could not get him to talk about. He retired from the Coast Guard shortly after this tour, thinking the Coast Guard had moved into another era.
    The good news is he maintained his sense of honor and self dignity.  He actively chose to stay within the working ranks of non-commissioned officers when he might easily have become an officer.  Decades later, Coast Guard rescue workers still talk of him.

    8. The movie may have overstated Bernie’s natural courage and understated his doubts.

    Throughout his voyage to the bar, Bernie kept saying to himself that they would call him back, he hoped they would call him back.  I mention this not to criticize Bernie but to underscore the fact that he was a real human being with real thoughts, not a hero sprung from whole cloth.  I can’t fault the director too much here.

9.  They did not sing a sea chanty as they motored toward the bar.
           
          They sang the hymn Rock of Ages.

Let me know what other questions you have.  Also, if you’re interested in the other wreck that day — involving the SS Fort Mercer — you’ll find it in my book, Two Tankers Down. 

Frumped Fact Checking El Faro: Are 40-Year Old Ships Safe?

Are 40-year-old ocean-going vessels safe?

The owners of El Faro, the American-flag lost to Joaquin with 33 humans aboard, assert that the age of the vessel — 40-years — was not a factor in the ship’s failure.  A number of experts and inspectors support that viewpoint.

But any number of studies clearly show that age is a factor in big ship casualties — and that most casualties occur among older ships.

Moreover, the useful lifetime of a big ship is generally set at 20-years.  Ships live on past that time, but insurance rates are higher — a fact that recognizes the risk.

Says an independent 2012 study of ship casualties by Southampton Solent University, School of Maritime and Technology, in the UK:

“The evidence confirms that the majority of accidents can be linked with older vessels….

Says a study in Traffic Review analyzing 30 years of ship casualty data:  78 percent of the total casualties occur among ships that are 13 years and older and “are 3.5 times more frequent than in new and middle-aged ships….”

In fact, the age of a ship is one of several factors the Coast Guard uses to profile potential risk — both in foreign vessels entering our ports and our own fleet.

Can a 40-year-old ship be safe?

Undoubtedly, for a particular period of time.

But experienced sea captains and veteran Coast Guard inspectors say it is difficult to make sure a 40-year-old ship remains in good shape even one day after the inspection.  Hidden hoses, rusting pipes, corroded wiring — all may not be visible to the inspector.

So there is little to support a statement that a 40-year-old ship would not encounter problems at sea in normal service.  All statistics appear to indicate a strong correlation.  Maintenance can offset problems of course.

Age is simply a high risk factor in ships — reflected by the statistics, strong anecdotal evidence and insurance rates.

To state flatly that age would not affect the El Faro is an exaggeration.

To suggest that the age of a vessel would not play a factor when it is heading into or near a hurricane is just plain wishful thinking.

 

 

A Prayer for the Paper

 

“The devil’s finest trick,” wrote Baudelaire in the 1800’s,” is to persuade you that he does not exist.”

In the post-post modern times of 2014, the more refined trick is to convince us that good men and women do not exist.

And that is a sleight of hand so deftly played by George Norcross III that many of the good folks with The Philadelphia Inquirer may well be headed over the side with hardly a tear shed in a few weeks.

This is so because the smart money says Norcross will be the last man standing when a bid among quarreling owners finishes by the end of May.  The bid for the paper — sold just a few years back for $55 million — will start in the $70 million plus range.  Norcross already has offered that — in what he hopes is a pre-emptive move against the papers’ rescue by  Lewis Katz or any others riding a white horse.

The other news media in general have sort of sighed about the ongoing struggles at The Inquirer.  The writer for Philadelphia Magazine announced he has stopped covering the event because it was the equivalent of bad television — the crew of Star Trek stumbling to one side of the screen to another.  The website Big Trial, at its salacious worst, dismissed the issues at play as “all pussy and bullshit.”

Such is the state of cynicism in the city.  At its best, such cheap ironic resignation is a disguised cowardice.  It is the same camo that covers the lazy workings of fearful journalistic minds that report objective and false “moral equivalents.” Thus it was that throughout the reporting of the events, Norcross was somehow portrayed as the moral equivalent of the senior editors at The Inquirer who will be fired if Norcross wins the bid.  And the paper’s editors and writers — heroic in most cultures — were portrayed as sluts and knaves.

Most of these folks I know.  They are good men and women who seek to report facts and truths.  They cannot be reduced to “liberal” or “conservative” thinkers because they are journalists.  They are imperfect as we all are, but they have chosen a path I still consider noble:  examining events and facts and providing a report of them upon which readers may act with affect.  Without them, without that function, we’ve lost the essential fourth estate.

The Philadelphia citizenry — its leaders and large and small — are about to hand over its metro newspaper to an effective but ruthless politician, who claims to be acting on behalf of the papers’ readers at the same time he sends out campaign contribution solicitation letters to its reporters and smears women journalists.  HIs electronic strategy is pegged to a hopelessly outdated and discredited “Boston”approach.  His chief claim to fame as a Democratic machine politician is a real talent for running ruthless political campaigns a la Republicans like Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes.  He thinks a rally good story on Philly.com is a contest among a narcoleptic squirrel, a how to story on sex in airplanes, and the opening of a South Jersey strip mall.

Life will go on if Norcross wins.  Just as it would if Donald Trump directed the Philadelphia Orchestra.  But it would be life greatly diminished.

And here at least is one prayer that the people of the city — particularly those who can speak with money — understand that the moral equivalencies are not equal here.  If Norcross wins, there aren’t just a few losers on the other side.  There are millions.

For those with the means to join this fight and the ability to change the outcome, let them please join now.

 

 

Journalism and the Industries of Hope and Reform

“Hey, you, Mr. Frump, who are you to say to us our sons and brothers and husbands are all dead? Who are you to say there is no hope?”

Those words from Lotte Fredette some 30 yearUnknowns ago ring in my ears as the Malaysian airline saga proceeds today. She would become a friend, a confederate, a colleague over the decades, a strong voice for ship safety and reform. But then she was spitting mad, her gentle German accent pointed and clipped.  I felt the intensity of her eyes long before I met her in person.

The Phillies had just won the World Series and in the shadow of the stadium in October 1980, the SS Poet had slipped away, cleared the Capes of the Delaware and sailed out into the Gulf Stream where it simply disappeared, along with 34 officer and crew, including Lottie’s beloved son.

I had filed a few short stories on the missing ship and then, after consulting search experts, filed a longer story stating that in all probability the ship and those on her were lost.

“Look, these are just the hard facts,” I told Lotte over the phone.  “I’m the messenger here of bad tidings, and I am sorry for your loss, but if no one else has made it clear to you, I guess the story does.  The ship is almost certainly gone, m’am.”

She implored me to continue covering the story and pressure the Coast Guard to continue searching for the ship.  It was a fair enough request to simply quote her and the group of parents, husbands and siblings who were behind the request.  At their invitation, I slipped into a Coast Guard briefing on Governor’s Island in New York, and reported the heartfelt grief of the families.  I was not in a position to shut down all hope.  Who was?

Perhaps if this were a lost passenger ship or a lost airliner, I would have pursued the search for months and months, as the current news media is now.  Eyeballs do not attach themselves to merchant ship losses.  If they did, CNN would be busy.  A big ship goes down at sea on average once a month, with little fanfare other than the sobs of Filipino wives, Senegalese mothers, Haitian sisters and the relatives of other third world crew members.   Even American deaths could not hold the headlines long.

For Lotte and me this may have been a blessing.  Make no mistake. The survivors did not fare that well.  A friend wrote a book about the SS Poet and of particular pain was the inability of the survivors to come to term with the deaths of those never found — and no certain cause of death.  At the extreme, there was no certainty of death.

But at least they did not twist in the wind at every CNN report, every “ping” and every political and expert comment.

Every year on the anniversary, they would take the Cape May-Lewes Ferry round trip and at the mouth of the Delaware Bay at the rough point where last contact was made with the Poet, drop flowers and a wreath.

And the rest of the years, Lotte and a dedicated corps of Poet relatives turned their attention to reforming the maritime safety industry.  As did I.  The SS Poet hearing was a laugh and a coverup of an American system that sent old unsafe ships like the Poet out to sea.  Three years later “the Poet mothers” (as I came to call them) attended the hearing of the wreck of the SS Marine Electric and heard the late Captain Robert M. Cusick take the witness stand and blow the lid off that bad system.  Five years later, the entire system would implode thanks to those who maintained hope for the system and the pragmatic patience to force that system to work.

Some still spin stories of the Poet’s fate, some in good faith, others from boredom or delusion.  Drug dealers hijacked it.  Or Reagan shipped arms to Iran in an “October Surprise Scenario” and Lottie’s son and the crew are still alive in a secret compound in Iran.  I’ve thumped those melons; none seemed ripe.  Or real.

But you can peddle hope and mystery for a long time if you don’t thump very hard.

I wonder some whether I would have jumped onto the “hope” story if there had been more popular demand for stories about missing mariners.  There is a natural appeal to those.  The child in the well.  The miners in the shaft.  They are legitimate stories.

To a point.  But at what point are they not?

There are no doubt survivors who bless CNN for its continued coverage and keeping the heat on officials.  There are for sure those who are suffering by the moment as the coverage continues.   Hope grasps at all that floats by.

At what point does the continued reporting turn salacious? At what point is “hope” turned into a sick trick for sweeps week?

Those aren’t original thoughts.  As a newsman, I know they are not as easy to answer as I might think.  But as one who has gone through this several times in my career, I know there is an overall commandment: report hope and report truth.

I know that I was wrong all those years ago to suggest there was no hope for the relatives of the Poet crew.  But I know too that when hope becomes the dominant element in your reporting, you are no longer a reporter.  Or  friend.