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Chapter Four: Vengeance of the Thors
4:15 AM,Feb.12, 1983
On board the Marine Electric
North Atlantic sea-lanes off Virginia
Phillip Corl, Master of the SS Marine Electric, a veteran Captain of Thor, fumbles with his life jacket as the voice of a Coast Guard rescuer crackles over the radio.
”What color are your lifeboats?” the Coast Guard voice asks. ”State the color of your lifeboats.”
Eugene Kelly, the third mate, reaches past Corl, whose arms momentarily are snarled by the life jacket straps.
“Orange! International orange!” Kelly yells into the mic.
A shrill whistle blows. Abandon ship! But Kelly hears a voice on his walkie-talkie — Engineer Michael Price far down below. Do the deck officers want the engine-rooms pumps tied down? Price says he can do that.
“Mike!” Kelly yells. “Get the hell out of there! We are going down!”
Kelly jumps down a stair flight. His walkie-talkie tumbles in front of him. He looks up, sees Corl climbing the rail of the bridge deck.
Now he looks down to the scene below. On the main deck, Chief Mate Bob Cusick is calm, commanding the crew to lower the life boat. It seems but a drill. Cusick calms them. He is proud how they are holding rank. Waiting to board. Patient. Orderly. Trusting.
Seaman Paul Dewey pays out the life boat lines, pays them out, pays them out, then reaches out, reaches out far over the rail for another line.
The ship jerks. Dewey falls, the first into the water. Cusick looks down, then hears “the sound of the water going out of a bathtub amplified one billion times” as the SS Marine Electric capsizes on top of them all in a bitterly cold storm off the coast of Virginia.
Dewey finds a life raft. Cusick swims out far to a swamped lifeboat. Only Kelly finds other crew members alive.
They gather on a single life ring in 39 degree water and 50 mph winds and Kelly bears witness to what happens to men under such circumstances.
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.
Unlike the Marine Sulphur Queen, three men survive the SS Marine Electric and their moving testimony eventually and documentation of unsafe conditions seems certain to finally block the long wave of regulator laxness. l
Finally, it seemed, the Captains of Thor would have their vengeance. They would win a battle over a system that pinned them to a cruel choice: sail unsafe ships or sail no more.
Indeed, the testimony of Bob Cusick and the others illustrated in great detail how Marine Transport Lines allowed the old Marine Electric to sail with holes in her hatches, holds and hull. Cusick did what he was supposed to do as a chief mate: document deficiencies and turn them over to the Captain. His notes, carefully saved at home, documented the safety violations without doubt.
Perhaps more importantly, the testimony of Cusick, Kelly and Dewey gave maritime tragedy faces and names.
Samuel Plimsoll, the great maritime reformer of the nineteenth century, had explained it succinctly. “What the eye does not see, the heart does not feel. . .”
In contemporary American, the collective eye of the media still saw little of the suffering of seamen, and the heart of the public therefore felt little.
The stories of Cusick, Dewey and Kelly changed that.
But even with the power of Kelly’s testimony, the detailed notes from Cusick, and the story of Dewey’s agonizing ordeal, the ship company had a good chance of winning this — by pinning it on the surviving Captain of Thor, Chief Mate Bob Cusick.
Marine Transport Lines, some within the Coast Guard and even a few mariners, argued that the ultimate responsibility lay not with shoddy inspections and unseaworthy ships — but with the ship’s officers who did not “turn in” the ship owners. The ship owners, in fact, claimed no officer ever told them the ship was unsafe.
They sought to turn the table on Bob Cusick and blame him for not stepping forward. The chief mate and the captain, after all, were bound to make sure they never sailed a ship that was not safe. You can’t blame the company for not fixing problems they don’t know about and with the ship’s captain dead, Cusick as chief mate had inherited the title Captain of Thor — along with a target pinned to his heart.
Ship operators had blamed captains for decades and the practice was enshrined in custom and culture. For decades, the Coast Guard had bought it. Together, the company and the Coast Guard practiced a sort of weaponized disingenuity that let them avoid responsibility while the Captains of Thor got hammered.
At one level, the Coast Guard and owners were correct. Technically, a captain or master was bound to report an unsafe ship. But in the American merchant marine of the late 20th Century, that meant most ships would not sail, and captains would not have jobs. One survey showed that 96 percent of mariners had sailed on a ship they considered unsafe.
And if a ship were found to be unsafe, the Coast Guard prejudice seemed always to shade toward blaming the master, not the company.
For example, an academic researcher named Leo Tasca examined four Marine Board of Investigation cases and their findings in the 1980’s. Then he took the same cases and analyzed how they came out in courts of law.
In each court case, the blame was placed squarely on the ship operators. Yet in the Coast Guard marine boards, the heart of clear cases against the operators was ignored — and the blame pinned on the captains. The results were so clear-
cut, that he concluded the Coast Guard was “highly biased” toward owners.
What happened when a Captain of Thor actually did drop the hammer and say a ship was okay?
Even in 21st Century cases, you got hammered — unless you were a Captain of Thor who could afford to hammer back.
Horizon Lines master John Loftus in 2013 had asked repeatedly that the ship operator fix valves that did not work, power boxes that burst into flames, and fuel systems that failed. When the company did not respond, he filed formal complaints with the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping stating the ship was unsafe.
Horizon struck back. They ginned up a reason for demoting him. He had sacrificed safety concerns during a storm, the company stated. And Loftus did what few other Captains of Thor have done. He filed under the Seaman’s Protection Act (SPA), which prohibits retaliation against seamen who report safety violations to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Months later, a merchant mariner working at Horizon, after Loftus had wreaked legal carnage upon the company, asked the company’s general counsel:
“Of all the people in the merchant marine, why on earth did you have to choose Loftus if you wanted to make an example of someone?”
Captain Loftus was accustomed to litigation from his days in union politics. Moreover, he had a personal war chest in reserve — about $200,000 — to spend on legal expenses, so the company was not going to stall and drain his resources.
After a three-day trial, an Administrative Law Judge issued a detailed 48 page decision that vindicated Loftus.
“Captain Loftus was the most safety conscientious Master in the entire Horizon Lines fleet,” the judge said, “with an unusually strong commitment to the safety of his vessel and crew.”
The captain’s insistence on calling Horizon’s attention to serious safety hazards was ignored by the company, the judge said and the Captain took what everyone said was a duty of a Captain of Thor.
“Loftus resorted to reporting safety concerns to the regulatory agencies because of Horizon’s consistent failure to correct hazardous conditions aboard the SS Trader. Loftus was clearly a thorn in Horizon’s side.”
“Horizon’s conduct was reprehensible,” the judge continued. It involved “machinations,” “smoke and mirrors,” and “fabrication” to disguise “the real reasons” for firing Loftus as Master, “namely to discipline Loftus for his protected activity.”
So after five years of litigation, Loftus was awarded more than a million dollars in back pay and punitive damages.
The victory was hailed as a precedent for the Seaman’s Protective Act.
But the reality remained: Few Captains of Thor had Loftus’ resources and stubborn insistence on righting wrongs. If you called a company on its safety record, if you dropped a dime to the Coast Guard, your job was imperiled.
And if an old unsafe ship did wreck and kill most of your crew and colleagues, the ship company would still come after you — as Marine Transport Lines was coming after Cusick.
It would take three more men — the members of a defiant and crusading Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation — to counter that. They were Captain Peter C. Lauridsen as chairman, Captain Dominic Calicchio and Lieutenant Commander E. F. Murphy.
Back in the Marine Electric era, no one knew the story of “blaming the captain” better than Captain Calicchio for he too had been a Captain of Thor. He’d sailed for years in the merchant marine and both his brothers were masters as well.
Moreover, he had the reputation within the Coast Guard of bucking the tide. He ignored commercial concerns if a ship’s safety truly was at stake. And his trial examination skills had been honed by months spent as a Coast Guard “port judge” ruling on casualties.
As important in this case was Captain Lauridsen’s role. For Calicchio could only question the company and joist with its attorneys if Lauridsen gave him the license.
And he did. At one point, a conservative NTSB official tried to cut off Calicchio’s examination. Lauridsen, told Calicchio to proceed. “Do what you have to do, Dom.” And the marine board stood as one as Calicchio shredded company attacks on Cusick.
At times, he ridiculed the company’s assertion that an improperly stowed anchor caused the sinking. The anchor would actually have to fall upward for this to happen, he showed.
The final marine board report was devastating to the company, the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping. The company should be considered for criminal prosecution, the report said, and the Coast Guard and ABS admonished for failure to properly inspect the ship.
Moreover, the reliance on the American Bureau of Shipping as a proxy for the Coast Guard should cease completely. Calicchio felt strongly that a private company paid a fee by the ship owner could not deliver consistently an impartial safety inspection
The board wrote:
The examination of U. S. merchant vessels to assure
their compliance with the applicable Federal safety statutes and
regulations be conducted and determined by knowledgable members
of a U.S. Government agency. The responsibilities for these
functions should not be delegated or entrusted to the private
The recommendation came at a time when deregulation was popular and privatizing government services a trend. The Commandant turned down the recommendation flatly.
“The poor quality of the American Bureau of Shipping surveys in question cannot be justifiably expanded to condemn the entire system of third-party delegation,” the commandant wrote.
“What this casualty does support is the need for a more formalized oversight
program by the Coast Guard. In this regard, the issue of proper oversight of
all third-party delegations is being studied in-depth and appropriate guidance
will be published in the Marine Safety Manual.”
The ABS would remain as a “for hire” ship inspector. We’ll just keep a close eye on it, the Commandant said.
The Marine Electric legacy slowed the decades long trend of siding with commercial interests. More than 70 ships were scrapped as a result of Coast Guard inspectors who were emboldened by a new safety mandate. The American Bureau of Shipping tightened up its act. The ship company pleaded guilty to a felony.
And this time, the Coast Guard treated the Marine Electric as a true call to action. Awards in Calicchio’s name were given out at the inspection training center in Yorktown, Virginia — and are to this day. A book about the Marine Electric was assigned reading at the Coast Guard academy.
Regardless, Calicchio rued the ABS decision. The process had been tightened but structures not changed. He predicted then that the system would again turn bad.
For 31 years, three months, 68 days, and seven hours, Calicchio was wrong.
Next: Posting soon September or October
Chapter Five: Hunger Games
Blount Island Marine Terminal
August 27, 2015
Two months before Hurricane Joaquin
Like a Star Wars walking tank, the giant container crane reached out over the big ship, arched its long neck forward, down and over the El Faro and then ministered to the stacking of cargo container on the ship below. Out ran a tons-heavy truck-sized container. Cables moved, cogs clicked. The crane adjusted, calibrated, then clamped down the container hard into its rack on the ship.
Slam and a bang and the container locked in. At the hull, far down below, the water tension pulsed one tenth of an inch, so solid was the ship at the loading wharf, indifferent to the new twelve-ton weight.
High above, Charles Baird, the second mate, walked from the wing of the El Faro bridge away from the bazaar of activity on the dock. Creosote, diesel, astringent welding oxides, the fecund smell of the tide lands — all these rose up to him.
Chaos was his enemy. Baird, 52, wore creased khakis, an ironed shirt, and bore a clip board. His salt and pepper mustache was trimmed daily. His decisions meant tons of metal cleared hard rock bottoms by inches. He required precision and order and walked toward it now — into the bridge area.
But he and all the other crew members knew the ship itself – its “feel,” its culture, its morale – was anything but ordered. It was a steaming mess of toxic rumors, grudges, innuendo and back stabbing. The word was that Captain Davidson, considered a “lock” for one of the new ships, had been pushed aside and one of his chief mates got the plum assignment.
All over the El Faro and throughout the Tote fleet, the word was out: This was a maritime version of The Hunger Games, a fight for survival among the older in-place captains and a good many of the chief mates.
Whether true or not, the rumors were that some chief mates were stabbing captains in the back – spreading rumors and complaints that reached the human resources and ship manning divisions of the company.
Baird once asked Davidson why he had not gotten one of the new ships and Davidson blew it off.
“I must have said something wrong in a meeting,” he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. That’s the way it goes. He would survive, Davidson said, no big deal.
But it was a big deal. Davidson had indeed been very close to claiming one of the new ships.
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