The producers and directors at Bell Media have with great talent and flair created the best of the five or so documentaries completed on the wreck of the SS Marine Electric in 1983.
The documentary, which is airing now on the Smithsonian Channel as Deadly Neglect, uses a combination of re-enactment, computer generated images, interviews and archival video to make the case that the Marine Electric investigation was one of the most important in American Maritime history.
The compelling star of the show is Carol Cusick, the daughter of Chief Mate Bob Cusick, who died in 2013. The series rightly concludes that Bob was key in reforming the ship inspection system through his brave testimony. Carole testifies to that courage.
The other is Gene Kelley, the third mate, who survived to testify at the Marine Board, and here chillingly conveys the night the Marine Electric sank — and the men around him on the life ring slowly drifted off into the cold waters.
Diver Michael Carr and Coast Guard Captain Peter Lauridsen also both tell their stories compellingly and the significance of the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers came through loud and clear. (Michael tried to go out on the rescue prior to the formation of the Rescue Swimmers corp, but was ordered to stand down. Captain Lauridsen was the chair of the Marine Board of Investigation and deserves credit for overseeing a tough, hard-eyed review of the sinking.
The one bone I would pick is that another of the heroes of the investigation, the late Captain Dominic Calicchio of the Coast Guard, is not credited here. My guess is there just wasn’t enough available video to tell Dom’s story in a compelling manner. A former merchant marine master, Dom helped give the Marine Board a particularly insightful and critical edge. Dom’s song is not unsung elsewhere — he is a contemporary hero in the Coast Guard to this day — but acknowledgement of some sort would have been a plus.
But without doubt, the documentary does a great job of showing what happened, what the seamen suffered, and why the reforms were important. It realistically recreates the Marine Electric and the capsizing. It’s artfully and accurately done. The film entertains but never sensationalizes or overstates.
(I should add only that I do make an overstatement in the documentary — there were 70 ships scrapped in the wake of the Marine Electric board, not 90 as I say. My error, not theirs. I imagine the toll did hit 90 at some point, but “only” 70 were scrapped in the immediate aftermath. Not sure where that 90 came from. As they used to say, “Loose lips sink ships” and mine sank 20 more than were scrapped. Apologies to all, but the affect of the Marine Electric on maritime policy in fact cannot be overstated.