The Marine Electric Sank Off Chincoteague 37 Years Ago This Week

0
1138
By Neal Ammerman
Special to the Eastern Shore Post
.
A cold, blustery rainfall drenched the men on the deck of the rusty old freighter as it took on its load of coal and made final preparations for its voyage from Norfolk, Va., to Brayton Point, Mass. Although gale warnings were posted, this was no cause for alarm to the crew of the 605-foot freighter. These men had been out in far worse weather than this.
.
The Marine Electric pulled away from the Norfolk And Western coal piers beside the Elizabeth River in Norfolk just before midnight of Feb. 10, 1983.
.
During the night, the vessel worked its way out of Hampton Roads and into the Chesapeake Bay. The temperature was in the 30s, with rain and wind increasing as the ship headed past the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and toward the mouth of the bay.
.

In the bay, the seas were running about four feet but building noticeably as daybreak came. Wind speed increased steadily to about 50 knots and waves had built to about 40 feet and higher as the Marine Electric passed Cape Henry, Va., and Cape Charles before heading to a northeasterly course once out in the open Atlantic.

Although the ship had averaged about 12 knots in the passage across the bay, the speed was ordered reduced to five knots Friday morning. By this time, the captain and the crew knew they were in for a slow, rough, and exhausting run up the coast.

The Marine Electric was built in 1944 but had been “stretched” in 1961 by the addition of a longer mid-body section to allow for more cargo. This consisted of five cargo holds, each separated by watertight bulkheads 80 feet apart, with the holds covered by MacGregor hatch panels. These panels had been extensively repaired during a drydock overhaul just two years before.

The extent of rust deterioration was so severe that many of the hatch covers had been covered by “doublers”— steel patches layered over the rusted-through sections. Not only had holes been caused by this rust-through process, but in some places the steel had become much thinner and could be easily punctured.

Another complication caused by these “doublers” was the warping of the hatch covers, which prevented a snug fit. An estimate had been given that a complete overhaul of the hatch covers would cost about $350,000.

An inspection of the hull had been scheduled for that February, but an extension until April had been given by the Coast Guard at the request of the owners, Marine Transport Lines. This would allow for all the needed repairs to be made as part of the dry docking.
.

The vessel had a long history of mechanical and structural repairs. Although some of these were expected in the normal course of an old ship used in the oceangoing freight business, many of the problems were due to old age and neglect.

As the ship headed into the teeth of the gale off the Eastern Shore of Virginia, huge seas pounded the hatch covers and crashed across the deck. The vessel settled into a slow clumsy roll. The seas and wind continued to build during the afternoon hours. The bow, so far, was rising and falling with no sluggishness and the propeller kept churning the water.

In the meantime, the 65-foot fishing vessel Theodora, out from Cape May, N.J., was running into trouble. The boat was taking on water and had lost its course in the storm. It was offshore from Ocean City, Md., and had radioed the Coast Guard at Chincoteague for assistance.

A helicopter based in Elizabeth City, N.C., was summoned. The Coast Guard Point Highland headed out from Chincoteague.

The Marine Electric, approaching from the southwest, had spotted the Theodora and stood by to assist if needed. Soon, however, the Point Highland had escorted the Theodora into safer waters near Chincoteague and the crisis was averted. The helicopter returned to Elizabeth City.

Ironically, trouble was just beginning for the Marine Electric as it resumed a northeasterly course. Shortly after dark Friday afternoon, the Marine Electric sent word to the Coast Guard, “I’m taking a beating out here. I’m going to be in trouble myself pretty soon.”

By midnight, the struggling ship was slightly down by the bow, and not rising as quickly as it had before. The vessel, in effect, was plowing through the waves rather than riding with them. About 2:30 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 12, it became obvious the ship was down by the bow and the seas were no longer washing over.

The first distress call was sent out just before 3 a.m. to the Ocean City Coast Guard Station. “I’m approximately 30 miles from the Delaware Bay entrance, and I’m going down by the head.”

Shortly after the message was sent, the crew was ordered to prepare the lifeboats and stand by if needed. By now, the Marine Electric was about 30 miles east of Chincoteague, and speed had dropped to only one or two knots.

The whole main deck was awash with icy water. Because of the darkness and the amount of water over the deck, it was impossible to see if the hatches had been damaged. By 4 a.m., the Coast Guard helicopter just sent back to Elizabeth City had been recalled and was on its way back to the same area it had just left a few hours before. The Point Highland was now on its way out to the Marine Electric. The order to abandon ship was given at 4:10 a.m.

Third Mate Eugene F. Kelly Jr. described the next series of events: “The bow was underwater, and the chief engineer told me he thought the Number One hatch near the bow had broken open. … Seas were coming over the hatches without breaking.”

The next event was unexpected. Kelly said the ship did not list severely until shortly before it capsized. “I don’t think anybody expected it to roll over,”  Kelly said. “All of a sudden the ship just rolled. I watched the ocean level come up and grab me.”

In later testimony, Kelly told the board of the Coast Guard and National Safety Board officials he noticed a 3 1/2 -by-3/4-inch crack in the ship’s main deck.

“I told my wife I probably wouldn’t take a job on that ship,” he said, but did anyway because work was scarce. Kelly and five other crewmen were able to swim in the 39-degree seawater to a life raft ring, but he was the only one still holding on when the Coast Guard arrived for the rescue.

Out of a crew of 35 men, only three survived: Kelly, from Norwell, Mass.; Paul M. Dewey, able seaman, from Granby, Conn., and Robert M. Cusick, chief mate, from Scituate, Mass.

Dewey had been assigned to the ship only 10 days. He was fortunate to be able to talk about it later and described many of the hatches as “all warped, with a bunch of little holes in another patch.” Specifically, he thought the holes to be about 1 by 6 inches.

Dewey described being pulled up in the basket lowered by the helicopter, “If we had survival suits, I think a lot more people would have been saved.” He suggested that wooden ladders be on the life rafts “instead of rope ladders … and maybe newer ships. … That would help a lot.”

Another survivor, Cusick, 59, told about a hole he discovered as the ship was being unloaded in Massachusetts before it returned to Norfolk to reload. “It was a jagged hole. This was a puncture hole.”

He estimated it to be about 3 by 3 1/2 inches. This hole was repaired by a cement patch just before the ship left Massachusetts. He speculated that “water had broke through the cement patch.”
.
It was just before daybreak, about 6 a.m., when the Point Highland arrived on the scene. Senior Chief David Phipps, who was on the Coast Guard craft, described the scene. “The first thing we saw were lights out in the water. These were the lights on the life rings. We had to check each one, since we didn’t know which ones were floating empty and which ones might have had survivors.”
.
The helicopter had already arrived and picked up the only survivors. Phipps related the call one of his men back at the base in Chincoteague heard coming from the Marine Electric. “I remember hearing… you could hear the Captain … when he said. ‘Hey! This is it! We’re going!’ We could actually hear his microphone bounce across the deck when he must have just … lost his transmission. … He just let it go.”
.
The three survivors were flown by helicopter to Peninsula General Hospital (now Peninsula General Medical Center) in Salisbury. There, the same storm that had sunk the Marine Electric had dumped several inches of snow in Virginia, Maryland, and nearby Delaware. As residents cleared snow from their driveways and streets that Saturday morning, no one could have imagined the cold terror and tragedy that occurred a few hours earlier just a few miles off the coast.
.
Investigations and hearings were held. Lawsuits were filed. Widows, parents, sons, daughters, and friends mourned. As with all accidents and disasters, several factors combined to create catastrophe: the poor condition of the vessel, the cold and stormy weather, and errors of human judgment. The ship capsized quickly. There was the lack of survival suits for the crew. The frigid water caused instant hypothermia. The rescue helicopter had to turn around and return, losing valuable time. The surprise, however, is not how many did not survive, but that even three did in those conditions.
.
Neal Ammerman is a former Pocomoke City resident, now living in Crozet, Va. 
Author’s note: The U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation Report, “Marine Casualty Report, SS Marine Electric,” dated July 25, 1984, contained a detailed description of the condition of the ship and the sequence of events, which formed the basis for the article. Some quotations in this article were directly from interviews I conducted with Coast Guardsman Eugene F. Kelly Jr. at Chincoteague; others were quoted from the official report. The 154-page document can be found at https://www.dco.uscg.mil/Portals/9/DCO%20Documents/5p/CG-5PC/INV/docs/boards/marineelectric.pdf
Editor’s Note: The Marine Electric disaster investigation led to reforms in the Coast Guard safety inspection program, improvements to onboard lifesaving equipment, and implementation of the agency’s rescue swimmer program.