Thirty-three years ago today, on February 12, 1983, the collier SS Marine Electric loaded with 24,800 tons of steam coal, capsized and sank in a storm 30 miles off the coast of Virginia. Thirty-one of the 34 crew members died. While nothing good can be said about the loss of 31 sailors, the aftermath of the Marine Electric tragedy led to important improvements in safety in the shipping industry.
The SS Marine Electric should have never left the dock. The ship was a T2 tanker built during World War II which had been jumboised with a new midbody and converted to a bulk carrier in 1961 by Marine Transport Lines (MTL). She had not been well maintained. When she sailed in February of 1983, there were holes in both her deck and her hatch covers, many of which patched with epoxy and duct tape. The chief mate had altered the company of the deficiencies, but nothing had been done. Inspections by the Coast Guard and the classification society, the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), were perfunctory and in some cases were simply falsified.
The Marine Electric was caught in a fierce storm off Virginia on the night of February 11. She began taking on water and developed a trim by the bow. When it was evident that the ship was sinking, in the early morning hours of the 12th, a distress call was sent out and the crew began to launch the lifeboats. Not long afterward, the ship capsized suddenly, throwing the crew into the 29 degree F Atlantic ocean waters.
A Coast Guard HH-3F helicopter was immediately dispatched, but by the time that they arrived, the ship had sunk and the crew was in the water. When they lowered a rescue basket, the survivors were so incapacitated by hypothermia that they lacked the strength to climb in. A US Navy helicopter and rescue swimmer were summoned. Navy Petty Officer McCann swam to the point of exhaustion in 40-foot seas. Conditions were so severe and the temperatures so cold that sea water on his facemask froze. He was able to save only three of the crew. Petty Officer McCann was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroic efforts under impossible conditions.
Marine Transport Lines claimed that the ship was seaworthy and sank as a result of unreported grounding damage earlier in the voyage.
Fortuitously, one of the three survivors was Robert Cusick Jr., the chief mate who had previously alerted MTL on the condition of the ship. He was supported by USCG Captain Domenic Calicchio, as a member of the Marine Board of Investigation. Prior to joining the Coast Guard, Calicchio served in the merchant marine for twenty-three years and ended his career as captain for United States Lines. Also joining in the investigation were two Philadelphia Inquirer reporters, Tim Dwyer and Robert Frump.
In the investigation, it became clear that many of the inspection reports that MTL was using to claim that the Marine Electric had been seaworthy had been fabricated. Likewise, divers to the wreck of the ship confirmed that the steel of the deck and hatch covers was heavily wasted and that the deck and covers had allowed water to flood the ship. The investigation concluded that the most probable cause of the capsize and sinking was the wasted plating of the hatch covers and main deck.
In the aftermath of the sinking, the US Coast Guard established an enhanced inspection program on vessels over 20 years old, which resulted in 70 old ships, many dating to World War II, to be scrapped.
The Coast Guard also required that survival suits be carried on all winter North Atlantic runs.
In 1984, in response to the casualties on the Marine Electric, Congress established the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer program. US Coast Guard rescue swimmers have saved countless mariners at sea and civilians in times of emergency. In the first five days following the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, Coast Guard crews performed more than 33,500 rescue and hoist operations of Katrina victims stranded on rooftops and in flood water.
Philadelphia Inquirer reporters, Tim Dwyer and Robert Frump, won the George Polk Award for their reporting on the loss of the Marine Electric. Robert Frump also wrote a book about the sinking, Until the Sea Shall Free Them.
In the video below, Chief Mate Robert Cusick Jr. describes the surviving the icy waters while singing Stan Roger’s “Mary Ellen Carter.”