Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever . . . it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
10:00 p.m. / Thursday, Feb. 10, 1983 / Coal terminal
At the loading pier near Norfolk, Bob Cusick, the veteran chief mate, spread steam coal into the holds of the Marine Electric like a pastry chef layering a cake. No chunk was larger than a Ping-Pong ball, and some of the coal was just black powder. In bulk, the coal formed a huge mass, heavier than 10,000 automobiles, and it had to be loaded carefully so that the ship remained balanced.
Huge chutes passed over the ship and dumped black coal evenly at Cusick's command. Normally, it took three passes to load a ship this size, but Bob Cusick had done this more than a few times. He almost never needed the third, "finishing" pass. That was an advantage of time on the water, of time on the piers. There was a lot he knew, a lot he'd seen that the younger kids aboard ship might never see.
Still, Cusick always felt the excitement of leaving, of casting off, of starting the voyage. All of them, all thirty-four seamen and officers, felt it, even if this would be just a milk run up the coast, Virginia to Massachusetts and back, shuttling coal to the power plants of New England.
There were a number of green kids on the ship who felt the excitement more than Cusick, and he wondered what they must think he was doing now. For anyone with just a few months at sea would think Bob Cusick was cheating. Clearly, the chief mate of the Marine Electric was overloading his ship--she had sunk below the legal load line. You could see it, if you knew just enough about the business not to know what you didn't know. Cusick had filled the hatches with 23,000 tons of coal on top of the 1,800 tons already there. And now the ship was five inches below its legal load line.
Or so it seemed. The truth was that Marine Transport Lines, the owner, never asked Cusick to overload a ship. That was one thing he liked about this job.
Another truth was that Cusick had checked the salinity of the harbor water carefully. It measured 1.013 on his hydrometer. That meant the harbor water was far less salty than ocean water. So when the Marine Electric sailed into the ocean, she would rise magically, like some huge high school science fair display, leaving her load line comfortably above the waterline.
Only there was nothing magic about it. It was professional procedure. And it was how Cusick got and kept a job that paid him well at a time when American maritime work was scarce.
He liked this job, and he liked the men he worked with. Most all of them, with their different ranks and duties, had drifted back to the ship as he was loading it.
They were members of diverse tribes with diverse skills, and on some ships, the tribes never got along. There were the officers, of course. Deck officers, like the third mate, navigated and steered the ship. Engineers, like the first assistant engineer, kept the turbines humming and the power up. Ordinary seamen fell near the bottom of the organizational chart, just learning the business. Able-bodied seamen, or ABs, were veteran, skilled seamen. Oilers and wipers worked the engine room down below, assisting the engineers. At the bottom of the officer social order were the cadets--the men and women still in a maritime academy who shipped out for the first time on an American merchant vessel.
Fissures would form along these differences in rank and mission on many ships. The deck officers and engineers grumbled at each other and did not fraternize. Deck crews and the engine room workers followed the lead of the officers. They blamed each other for problems and held grudges.
But Cusick, the chief mate and second in command of the Marine Electric, mingled with all the men and set the tone for the ship. They had their differences, as men do, but they all pretty much got along.
Certainly all classes and ranks on the Marine Electric joined together to poke gentle fun at George Wickboldt, the cadet. The cadet was in love, they said. It seemed a real romance. Cusick's friend Mike Price, the first assistant engineer, had taken the cadet under his wing and treated him like family, even took him home to Massachusetts. There Wickboldt met a pretty young girl named Cathy. They had hit it off, became an item, and the whole ship kidded George about his love life. Price even speculated that the two kids might get married some day.
But the crew, all of them, made certain the ribbing never turned nasty. This was so because all of them knew the Wickboldt story, and there was an unspoken agreement among them to watch out for the kid.
The cadet's family lived on Long Island near the Sound, and the four sons of the Wickboldt family had been called to sea. The family dream was to restore a large wooded property they owned on a lake in New Hampshire. There, no matter how far the seafaring sons roamed, they could have places near their parents. A year earlier, they'd begun planning to renovate the old house there.
And while George Wickboldt was quiet about the story, the crew all knew what happened to that dream. All of them heard what had happened only a year before to George's older brother Steven. And all of them knew it could as easily happen to them.
Take the wrong turn. Stop for a moment. Do some inconsequential thing you would not even think about. Go left instead of right. On board a ship you could be dead or maimed in an instant.
Twenty-four-year-old Steven Wickboldt sailed on the Golden Dolphin, a modern oil tanker. He was a conscientious man who took pride in his work. It was a Wickboldt family tradition.
But his ship had two routine maintenance problems in March 1982 as she sailed from Louisiana to Dubai on the Persian Gulf. The first problem was common to all tankers. Sludge had accumulated in the cargo tanks. It had to be removed. The only way to do it was the old-fashioned way: sending men down in the tanks with shovels to muck it out manually.
The other problem was more technical and required skilled labor. The steam lines that ran into the cargo tanks were so corroded that they did not work. These lines were important because oil sometimes had to be warmed to make it portable and pumpable. And the sludge now lining the cargo tanks of the Golden Dolphin would be much easier to remove if the steam lines and heating coils in the tank were activated. The heat turned the oil from a hard, unpliable solid to a more liquid, movable muck.
On the Golden Dolphin, the steam lines connecting the engine room to the cargo holds snaked along the deck and had succumbed to the corrosive powers of saltwater. The crew had tried to seal the leaks with fiberglass and epoxy patches, but to no avail. Steam leaked so badly that the pipes no longer did their job. It was clear the steam lines on deck had to be replaced, and the only way to do that was to break out the welding equipment and put in new lines.
Steve Wickboldt was safe in the engine room when the welding started on deck. At the same time, about 3:20 p.m. on March 6, Seamen Roy Leonard, Martin Wright, and Manuel Rodriguez ended a coffee break and entered the number-four cargo hatch to begin mucking out the sludge. Seaman Zemlock went to the mucking winch--a hoist that would carry the sludge up and out of the tanks below. Norman Beavers, who as bosun supervised the deck crew, popped down below to join the men.
At 3:45, the welding crew continued to fit new steam pipes. This was "hot work" on a tanker, not to be taken lightly. But the crew was some distance from the number-four hatch, fifty feet or more away from any combustible fumes coming from the oil.
Paul Rippee, the chief engineer, was supervising the welding. He asked the chief mate to tell the third assistant engineer, a man named Fitzpatrick, to pick up a 1 1/8th inch impact wrench and bring it to the worksite. The chief mate, heading for his stint at the wheel, saw Fitzpatrick and relayed the message. Fitzpatrick fetched the wrench and was walking forward to the welding site. Just ten seconds more and he'd be there.
In the engine room, men were changing shifts. First Assistant Engineer Cronin showed up early, at 3:45, to stand his watch. Steve Wickboldt could now take a break. It wasn't common to see hot work on board a tanker, and Steve wanted to see how it was done. He jogged forward to lend a hand.
Then, as always in such times, events happened both quickly and slowly, as if caught by a slow-motion camera. Fitzpatrick, walking with the wrench, could see the welding team. Wickboldt was about to join them; the kid had slowed to a walk. The chief engineer, wearing his blue jumpsuit, was looking off the port side of the ship. Fitzpatrick raised the wrench as if to say, "Hey, Chief, I've got what you wanted." But he did not catch the chief's eye. Fitzpatrick saw a metal strip on the deck and looked down, afraid he might trip. He heard a long whooshing sound, then a noise like a firecracker inside a barrel. A wall of fire rose straight up. Pieces of metal started flying and landing around him.
One piece looked like the steam pipe. Fitzpatrick did not stop to examine it. He ran aft for his life, to the rear of the ship. A thirty-eight-knot wind was blowing over the Golden Dolphin, whipping the flames like a blowtorch. He found shelter from the falling debris behind the deckhouse, then peeked around a corner to survey the starboard side of the ship. The cargo tanks from below had been blown out and up, so that now their bottoms were above the deckline, pointing jagged steel toward the sky. The whole huge midsection of the ship was aflame.
The general alarm was sounding. Smoke and fire engulfed the deck. There was no sign of the small group of men who had been huddling over the hot work. Friends and colleagues--Paul Rippee, Wickboldt, all of them--were simply gone.
Zemlock, operating the winch when it happened, by all rights should have been killed instantly. As he was hauling out buckets of sludge and dumping them into fifty-five-gallon drums, he felt and heard a vibration directly beneath him. He was looking down into the tank, but instead of being burned, he was hurled away from the opening. He heard one explosion. He was in the air, floating, when the second one came. Fate had it that he was blown aft forty feet, away from the inferno forward. He did not remember landing, only that when he did, he was sitting.
He looked forward. The force of one explosion had blown up part of the cargo hold bulkhead straight in front of the spot where he landed. The shattered bulkhead had shielded him from the flames. Yet another explosion had blown the deck out directly behind him. He sat, stunned, protected by jagged metal armor on both sides. He waited a moment, then picked his way toward the stern.
Steven Wickboldt, the men on the welding crew, and the men in the tanks, all nine of them, died instantly. What had happened was dreadfully simple. The heat from the welding torch had entered the steam line that still ran into the cargo holds. Although the tank in which the men were working was gas-free, the other holds were in that most perilous of tanker conditions--empty of oil, but not empty of vapors. The steam coils lining these tanks were connected to the steam line the men were welding. The cargo coils were corroded. Thus, vapor from the tanks wafted up through the steam line, venting to the deck where the men were welding. A spark or flame or heat from the acetylene torch in effect lit a fuse running from one part of the ship dozens of yards to the explosive vapors of the empty oil tanks forward.
Which explains the "whoosh" sound many of the survivors heard. It was the gaseous fuse linking torch to tank.
On the bridge, the captain ordered hard left rudder. This turned the ship sharply and cut down the fierceness of the wind blowing the fire forward to aft. Then he hit the abandon ship button. The remaining men found lifeboats. They were rescued a few hours later by a passing merchant vessel and sat there on the deck and watched as the hull of their tanker burned and glowed cherry red.
Nearly a year later, the men of the Marine Electric knew the lesson. Even good men, even smart men, even men who thought they had things under control, could die in a thousand different ways. The flames did not care. The steel did not care. Most particularly, the ocean did not care.
But the men of the Marine Electric cared. They watched out for Cadet George Wickboldt. Like all cadets, he needed to prove himself. And he took some hazing about his love life. But in many ways, they figured, he had already paid his dues. Anyone whose brother could die like that, and who then went to sea, anyway, well . . . the men did not talk about it much. Such things did not need to be said.
Philip Corl, the master of the Marine Electric, Cusick's boss, could look down from the bridge on all of this and figure he was a lucky man. Captains in the American Merchant Marine could make annual incomes equal to those of many doctors and lawyers but usually paid a price. They spent months at sea.
The Marine Electric run was an easy one. She ferried coal from Virginia to an electric utility at Brayton Point, Massachusetts, near Boston. It was about thirty-two hours each way, and the earlier trip down just a few days before had been glass-smooth, unusual for the North Atlantic in winter.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Until the Sea Shall Free Them by Robert Frump. Copyright © 2002 by Robert Frump. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.