Archive for the ‘Contemporary Commentary’ Category

Scott Pelley, CBS News Anchor and 60 Minutes correspondent, is famously ripped. We know this from his muscle man shot appearance pumping iron with Hugh Jackman back in 2012.

Big biceps have done little for his journalistic weight class and his most recent venture makes one wonder whether he and his executive producers combined could move from the floor the brief cases that Morley Safer or Mike Wallace carried so ably into their 80’s.

This was seen most recently when 60 Minutes sought to do an investigative inquiry into the wreck of the SS El Faro, an American ship that was lost on October 1, 2015 in Hurricane Joaquin.

el faro
What they came up with instead was a light weight feature story with easy answers and an easy villain.

Had 60 Minutes spent sixty seconds reading online clips from the Jacksonville papers or the maritime press, they might have produced a meaningful investigative story — one that deals with a major American policy called the Jones Act, an ancient piece of legislation that keeps a rust bucket fleet of American ships at sea.

Or perhaps they knew all that — but just went for easy.

Pelley led the reporting on the story — and with a “hem” here and a “haw” there pretty much concluded that the late Captain Michael Davidson led the crew and officers to their death by charting the wrong course straight into Hurricane Joaquin.

The killer line — the cusp of the story — came when Pelley asked the NTSB investigator about Davidson leaving the bridge and going to the cabin.

“How unusual, in your experience, (is it) for a captain to be eight hours in his cabin going into a storm like this?” Pelley asked ominously.

The NTSB officials — on camera at least — did little to head off negative conclusions.

“It’s a difficult question to answer,” was the tentative reply. “This captain on this accident was convinced that they were on the better side of the storm already and that they were gonna beat the storm. But he was using the information he had, which was outdated, to make these decisions.”

But of course it’s the sound bite question that is the killer.  There is no soundbite answer to that question — so the issue raised by the soundbite question rules the rest of the story.

Actually, Davidson had some decent enough reasons to retire to his cabin and be confident that a sound and seaworthy ship could weather this storm. Key words — sound and seaworthy ship — that get no dramatic sound bite questions from Pelley.

It is hard to understand why not. The NTSB and Coast Guard hearings certainly have served up those questions and sketched out a voyage that cannot be explained in such simple terms as “captain error.” There is a heavy weight of evidence that suggests that the culture and company bore a great burden in this tragedy — evidence that Pelley and 60 Minutes simply ignore.

And there is clear evidence over the years that US maritime policy and the Jones Act play a heavy role and bear some responsibility for the tragedy.  There is convincing evidence that the El Faro was unseaworthy when she sailed.

Here’s a soundbite question Pelley did not choose to ask anyone:  Why did Davidson sail for a company, Tote Maritime, that kept a ship in service near twice the age at which most vessels are scrapped?scott pelley

Tote did this as a matter-of-fact affair because that is how the American Merchant Marine works under “the Jones Act.”  Tote is no better nor worse than other American ship lines in this matter and government policy actually encourages these unsafe and bad economic  practices. A good one-third of the American merchant marine fleet is composed of “over-age” ships.

And the Jones Act is a major policy issue in America — one raised frequently not by liberal progressive types like me but Ayn Rand Cato Institute think-tankers.  It’s real and obvious and –lord  save my liberal soul — legitimate.  You don’t have to scrap the Jones Act — just the unsafe ships that sail in its fleet.

The Jones Act requires all American-to-American port shipping be done with US crews and US ships.  The problem is:  American shipping companies can’t afford new ships.  So they keep very old ships in service and try to keep them patched up.

They can’t.  What they have is the equivalent of you driving a 1976 Oldsmobile with 300,000 miles on it — and swearing to God to your spouse and kids that it’s safe to drive to Chicago through a blizzard, don’t worry. It’s fine. Just fine.

That’s a great Chevy Chase “Vacation” movie, but the problem of course is that it’s not fine.  You can only fix what you see is wrong.  Gaskets, seals, rusted brackets not in plain view — all of these can give way even under close inspection.

And even if it is tip-top, your ’76 Olds does not have the safety features of a 2017 car — no airbags, disc brakes, collapsible crash-friendly frames.

And so it is with ships.

Three times the company asked to modify the ship to add containers up top — and three times the Coast Guard required that the ship be considered for major inspection and possible modernization first.    This might have included major inspections and repairs — and new automatically launching “Captain Phillips” type lifeboats.

The fourth time, the Coast Guard caved and let the company refit the ship — without a major inspection and without those new lifeboats. The refitting lowered the ship two feet when fully loaded — and at least one captain said the added containers on top made the ship lean even in still weather.

What shape was she in when she sailed?

Her sister ship provides a pretty good proxy.  The vents in the ship — pretty much identical in design, construction and length of service to the El Faro — were no longer water tight.  If the ship listed, these vents could scoop in water and send it into the holds. And thanks to the refitting, they now were two feet closer to the water line when the ship was loaded.

The  Coast Guard found so much wrong with the sister ship, that the company scrapped her, rather than make repairs, this past December.

And a special study of the El Faro, commissioned by the US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, found that the El Faro would not pass many modern day stability tests if she were built to the same spec in 2017.

So what was Davidson to do in September 2015?

He had the reputation as a very cautious captain.  He would not let pilots — the guides to navigating hazardous inner waterways — take elevators to the bridge in case the power tripped off and stranded them when most needed.

And at one point, a few years ago, working with Crowley Maritime, he ordered two tug boats to escort his ship because he feared the vessel’s steering was off.  He told his wife he was fired by Crowley for that (Crowley says he resigned) and he had to start over at a new company as third mate.

As he set out to sea on the El Faro, he was uncertain of his future with the company.  He had been considered for new ships being built by Tote — but he’d also been turned down once, then interviewed again.  The word aboard the ship is that another officer — not on the last voyage of the El Faro — had backstabbed him with HR, claiming falsely that he was a “state room captain.”  True or not, the mood in the company and onboard the ship was clearly contentious with officers and crew uncertain of their future.

The culture seemed to some more “make no wrong move” than “make sure safety is first.” Everyone wanted a job on the new ships.  No one wanted to make waves.  Everyone knew what a rust bucket the El Faro was.  They scraped her decks and carted off the rust, one seaman testified.

Certainly, this was not a company where questioning captains seemed welcome, according to some testimony.  A short time earlier a Tote master — one who had been honored by the company for his service on board the El Faro carrying military equipment to the Iraq war — was dismissed.  Supposedly, he was let go after two seamen were busted on drug smuggling charges — charges that involved no other crew members or officers.  The captain — who is roundly considered a professional and straight shooter on maritime discussion boards — testified he felt he was fired because he had complained that Tote was not making timely repairs to serious flaws in the ship the captain had pointed out. (An arbitration panel cleared him of any wrong doing or fault.)

Given that, did Davidson have a choice in sailing that day if he wanted to keep his job?

Certainly, he did not have a real option to stay in port.  Generally, that’s not the right choice if a storm is coming — and if you do, special rules apply.  You need to hire tugs, for one thing, and Davidson knew how tug expense vouchers affected your career.

The route Davidson tracked was close to the hurricane but no track was safe in a storm that was perilous and unpredictable.  Was he to go north from Jacksonville? That’s where Joaquin was said to be heading.

Should he have ducked into the Old Bahama Passage?  Easier said than done:  barrier islands protect against waves, but not winds, and the Passage poses other threats of being run aground by high winds in narrow straits.

The ship and the captain were both veterans of Alaskan waters and treacherous seas.  The chief mate was a master in his own right — and agreed the course was good.  While it seems clear in retrospect that he might have picked an easier route, Davidson had every expectation of the ship remaining seaworthy.

And if the El Faro was overall a tentative affair, she had one thing going for her: speed.  She was fast. God she was fast. She was built to move at military speeds north of 20 knots  and Davidson asked for and got 20 knots from her — enough to beat the storm moving at six miles per hour and plow through Joaquin.  Thirty foot waves are big waves — they aren’t killer waves in Alaska or the Atlantic, if your ship is sound.

The El Faro was not. Downplayed by Pelley is that simple, basic fact. The ship was not seaworthy. Boats must float. That is a basic responsibility of the owner.  Davidson did not wreck her.  He did not run her aground, into an island or another ship.  The El Faro stopped floating.

She took on water — and the transcripts of the ship show the officers could never quite account for the large amounts of water that came in. The flooding was consistent with a large rupture in the hull — perhaps the vents that were so corroded and porous on the sister ship, the vents that were two feet closer to the water, thanks to the Coast Guard approved refitting.

Once she developed a list, the oil levels in the old steam plant shifted and killed the engine — a 40-year-old steam engine not present on any modern day ship.

From that point, the ship was lost but not necessarily the crew.  The vessel carried lifeboats after all, and any one who saw Captain Phillips knows how easy modern lifeboats are to use.

Only they did not have those modern lifeboats — required since the mid-1980’s.   They had gravity drop Lusitania – like lifeboats because they were not required to modernize the ship when they added the containers.  Gravity drop lifeboats don’t work when the ship is listing.

And so, the crew had only a slim chance at a survival suit escape. Or launching life rafts. One maritimer said the pictures of the El Faro seemed to show a desperate attempt to launch life rafts from lines tied to the railings.  None made it.

Was it Davidson’s fault?  It’s easy for Pelley and others to conclude that — or roundly imply it.  It makes for a good drama. It’s a short punchy feature story. What was this guy thinking?  Why did he go to bed and report that — as Pelley plucked from a 500-page manuscript — that he “slept like a baby”?

And yes, there is a point there.  But it’s unfair out of context.   Davidson, faced with several bad options, may have succumbed to honest mistakes in a very bad system that was bound to produce this sort of outcome someday for someone.

What his options were, I’m not sure.  A mariner I greatly respect said, “If you get gored by a bull, you ought not be complaining that I told you the bull was going left and the bull went right.  The question is: ‘Why were you in the ring?'”

It’s a nice metaphor. But the answer is easy:  Masters don’t get paid to stay out of the ring.  They get paid to assess and manage risk.

And in the American merchant marine, with its old ships and rust bucket culture, the risk is far greater than it seems.  It is systematically and institutionally ignored for one good reason.  Upton Sinclair pointed it out decades ago:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

And so it is with our merchant marine, the Jones Act and the rust bucket fleet.  It is difficult for a system to understand it is fundamentally flawed, when its existence depends on ignoring that flaw.

Many of these old ships are unsafe, far past their prime.  Yet the companies keep them and officers and crew sail them because they have no other choice if they want to keep working.

So it was in 1983 when the SS Marine Electric sank — and three men survived to testify about the unseaworthy old rust bucket. The resulting scandal reformed maritime safety for a few decades.

And 60 Minutes might have done that again with the El Faro.

Either Wallace and Safer would have seen the real story here and dead lifted this one with one big easy move.    They knew the leverage points of news. And they knew instinctively to heft the larger story with large policy implications.

Pelley, alas, is content to do feature stories.

The network news is not the enemy of the people, as some say.

It’s just hanging with Wolverine in the gym.

“60 Minutes” revisited the wreck of the SS El Faro tonight with an update of the maritime disaster.  That’s the good news.  A major news show on a major network is covering maritime safety.

Here’s the bad news: It got about one third of the story.  It missed the other two thirds because it really hasn’t been covering the investigation into the El Faro, just the sexier parts that involve deep underwater searches and Titanic-like underwater footage.

So the viewers of tonight’s 60 Minute episode are left with one conclusion:  Captain Michael Davidson, the master of the El Faro, messed up, steered too close to Hurricane Joaquin and went to bed too soon. The other officers tried to get him to change course but he would not.

That could be a valid reading of the transcript of the last hours of the El Faro.  I’ve heard knowledgeable maritime experts come to that conclusion.

I can’t with certainty because there are other readings of the tragedy  in a fuller context that place the disaster and Davidson in a different context.  Not mentioned by 60 Minutes — or the NTSB investigator who appeared on screen — is the fact that Davidson had a reputation as an extremely conservative and cautious captain who:

— Got fired by one company for hiring on tugboats to help steer one iffy-ship

— Feared he would be let go by the owner of the El Faro

Not mentioned is the fact that another master felt he was fired by the company because he reported safety violations.

Also missing from the 60 Minute report?  A major and obvious fact: This ship was forty years old — about twice the age at which most ships are scrapped.  Its sister ship was scrapped recently because ventilation shafts were so ruined they were no longer air tight.

Add to that the fact that the company that ran the El Faro also was convicted of the felony of price fixing — one of the worst anti-trust cases in US history — and you might wonder about the company’s character references.

Irritating too was this quote from the NTSB investigator:

“This accident was unique in the fact that we didn’t have any survivors to interview that would enlighten us to the events and the situation that took place aboard the vessel as they approached the storm.”

Alas, not the case. The SS Poet.  The SS Marine Sulphur Queen.  All very old ships that sank with no survivors.  Check out the world shipping lanes.  A big one goes down once per month, often with no survivors.

I suppose I should say hats off to 60 Minutes for covering this.  And hats off to the NTSB for pursuing an investigation that recovered the “black box” recordings of the last words of the crew and officers.

So: hats off.  That’s all good.

But the shame here is that both seem to buy into what I call the “bang and hang” tradition of government maritime investigations.  They bang the captains then hang them.

Read the old NTSB and US Coast Guard Marine Boards of Investigation and you see an number of “human error” conclusions.  Probe those just a little bit more deeply and you see a pattern of very old ships sent out to sea decades after they ought to have been scrapped.

It’s a shame to see neither 60 Minutes nor the NTSB investigator raise an issue about the safety of a 40 year old ship and place the weight and responsibility on a man who cannot answer his critics.  It’s a shame to see one third of the issues presented and all the other arguments that exculpate Davidson ignored.





“Crossing the Bar” by Tennyson

Richard Wickboldt, one brother among four who sailed in the American merchant marine, died recently  in Michigan. His brother,  George, 24, died on the Marine Electric. Another Wickboldt son, Steven, was killed in 1982 in an explosion aboard the ship Golden Dolphin.
After George’s death, his parents, having lost two sons to the sea and having two sons still at sea,  asked Richard to leave the merchant marine, which he did, but as noted below answered an emergency call from SUNY in 2014 to man a training cruise.

My sincere sympathies to the Wickboldt family.

No obituary information is yet available, but here is Bill Halloran’s remembrance.

This from Bill Halloran
Class of 1982,

I have sad news to pass along. I received correspondence from the Wickboldt family that Richard Wickboldt, SUNY Maritime class of 1976, had suddenly passed away last weekend. Rich lived in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife and daughter. The family was in the process of planning for a service to be conducted in Ann Arbor MI this weekend. The family indicated that they will eventually arrange for another service in New York sometime in the future and they will let me know the details at that time. That is all I have to report at this time.

I recently went out to dinner with Richard, the night before his 40th class of 1976 reunion, on Thursday September 29th. All was well, he was busy with work, planning for his daughter’s college next year, and caring for his parents in NH with frequent visits.

My Memories of Richard Wickboldt
My name is William J. Halloran Jr.. I was George Wickboldt’s classmate at SUNY Maritime College from 1978-1982. I first met Richard Wickboldt way back in 1979 during our MUG SUNY Maritime College training cruise when he was the “much feared” Watch Engineer. I distinctly remember being in the lower engine room on watch with George.  Both of us were in our boiler coveralls, drenched in sweat, face to face, wavering from the intense heat and the roll of the ship. I asked George if the rumor was true……was “that guy”…. the Watch Engineer his brother?? George just stood there with a sort of a half smile & half grin and said “yeah”. For some reason, I then felt a bit safer minus the fear but still somewhat “on guard”. Richard had the reputation of being “the Sgt. Stryker type” of the engine room (as played by John Wayne – Sands of Iwo Jima). Richard was flunking some of the upper class men for their watch grades on cruise. Watch Engineer Wickboldt news stories among the cadets would spread like wild fire daily on the ship.

After a very long period of time, we crossed paths again, as shipmates for three months during the SUNY Maritime College Summer training cruise in 2014. On a very short notice (few days till departure) we both answered an emergency call from the school to fill MT slots on the ships billet. We reunited in the officers mess upon reporting on board for duty. We worked together training the cadets- Richard was an Engineering Training Instructor & I was the Watch Engineer. We were task masters of the engineering cadets keeping in step with the traditions of the school as we had known them to be. That was our reference point, plain & simple. The irony was that the modern day SUNY Maritime was not what it was back in our day, so we were in shock just as much as the cadets were from us. There were many twists and turns making the cruise very interesting, challenging and rewarding for the both of us. We both got along well like brothers who never were separated. Our minds thought alike in many aspects. Connected without the cord. For jokes, laughs, etc…everything. Rich’s mind was as sharp as ever pertaining to all things engine room. We shared together many sea stories, life experiences, opinions, we learned from each other……and from the cadets. We also met many different alumni, officers and ships staff whom added to the great training endeavor.

Rich enjoyed very much being out to sea again. It was definitely his calling. That life style fit him well…..and he had missed it so much. His sea going career (1976-1983) occurred at the end of a great era for shipping-out in a much different world from the present day.

I’m glad I answered the telephone on the day I got the call from Conrad Youngren and the push from my wife “to go” on the 2014 training cruise. Initially I had replied no. Since the cruise; we had our lil’ reunions, kept in touch on the phone and exchanged email. We texted often.

In retrospect, the greatest gift for me is – I now know what the experience would have been like to have had an older brother by being Rich Wickboldt’s shipmate for the last two and a half years. And I will miss him as such.

See pages 5 & 7

Quietly over the weekend, under the twitter radar and cable news flash alerts, “Casey Anthony” attorney J. Cheney Mason has joined the plaintiff’s team in pressing a civil case against Donald Trump alleging he raped a 13-year old 20 years ago. 28c7c-caseylawyer28c7c-caseylawyer.jpg

Perhaps “celebrity” is what it will take to break the news media’s reluctance to report the case.   That reporting would be welcome because while the suit may stand or fail, one journalistic point is clear:

It needs to be reported -responsibly – by responsible news media. It is one of ten million facts swirling about this campaign — but it is a fact and deserves more than the informal “boycott” the major news media seem to have imposed.

To ignore it is to empower some bad trends:

  • Those who would hush up a discussion of sexual assaults and  think “rape” is an unmentionable word not to be discussed in public.
  • Those ill-intended trolls who bend and twist facts, left and right, to their own cause, in posts and tweets.

There are certain good rules in journalism regarding any civil suit.

One of them is: Never publish a story about someone threatening a suit.  It’s a cheap way to make cheap headlines.  It makes serious what may be trivial and gives heft to lightweights.

It’s a rule thrown out the door in the coverage of Donald Trump (850,000 hits on “Trump Threatens Suit”) and perhaps there is a special rule for Presidential candidates which does allow such license.  It is one of his trademarks of course.

But why would the news media not cover a suit properly filed against a presidential candidate?  Specifically, this one, which now includes two witnesses who say Trump raped a 13-year-old and a third witness corroborating  discussions of the incident?

There are a couple of factors to consider holding the story:

  • Rape is among the most serious crimes.
  • This happened 20-years ago.
  •  The news media and prosecutors have been wrong on rape accusations. Look at the Rolling Stone story.  Look at the Duke prosecutions.
  • This could be a campaign gimmick.

And sure, those are good questions before rushing into print.  But there also are countervailing journalist points for printing:

  •  Silence from victims is not new.  Coming forward against such a powerful and litigious figure takes courage — and sometimes years of therapy.
  • The news media consistently downplayed allegations against  Bill Cosby dating back to the 1970sand sloughed off coverage of “Jane Doe” civil actions against him.
  • We still have at least some semblance of a  “rape culture” that deep sixes rape kits, let’s college sports stars skate, and sweeps suits under the carpet.
  • Trump is no different than Clinton.  (Multiple news stories during the campaign about sexual abuse.)
  • Trump himself has made the suppression of women coming forth in such cases a major campaign issue.

Those are very large points.  There should be a good discussion around the news desk.

But the discussion needs to take place.

And then, the Associated Press and every other decent news outlet in this land should do a by-the-book bit of beat reporting.

The attorneys and the court system will sort it out.

The press does not need to censor the news.

It does not need to be a long story.  It does not need to be an expose.

Just print the facts.

We’ll figure it out from there.

But you need to do your job first, please.




When doing research for a book about guns, I attended numerous training courses in Dallas and soon discovered a side of the NRA that is at complete odds with its public image.
Quietly, most of its instructors strongly stress the danger of relying on guns as a first line of defense, suggesting avoidance not confrontation, and warning about the consequence of even drawing a weapon.
Time after time, too, the instructors in private conversation would point to a class of users who seemed to habitually draw too early and fire too often.
Police, these very conservative folks said, receive poor training in real world firearm use, rely on their weapons too casually, have poor instruction in stages of engagement and a bad understanding of the post-shooting impacts on themselves and others.
I mean this not as any specific comment on recent events and the difficult decisions faced by officers..
But a lack of training penalizes everyone and serves no one. When conservative Texas gun instructors make that point, we all should be able to accept it. The standards of police engagement and gun use training needs to improve for their sake and ours.
It’s a shame this widely held view among NRA instructors I have encountered in multiple states in multiple courses  (and among many military veterans I know) is not more fully publicized. If the organization spoke out to reflect the balanced views of its own membership, we’d be in a better place.

It’s hard to say where the new Public Editor of The New York Times will take her column.  Friends who have worked with her say she is no one’s shill and knows how to play the critic’s fiddle with finesse.

But right now, it’s hard to quite discern the songs she is playing — except that some of them seem oddly “off” — as if she had one good ear and one tin ear.

There are a few cases in point but the big bogie is what she wrote about the doctrine of “False Equivalencies” the other day.

The problem I have with the column — which purports to tell “The Truth About False Balance” — is that she sets up a profoundly false definition of “false balance” — and says critics of false balance are idealogical not substantive.  They simply want the Times to stop saying bad things about Clinton because Trump is evil.

She then trots out some ideologue who says the Times should not run critical stories of Hillary because Trump is so bad.

Well, of course the Times can’t do that. But it’s also not the definition of ‘false equivalency.”

.Clear false balance is when someone says vaccinations cause leprosy and a reporter says other people say they don’t.  Or Smith is a commie but Smith denied it.

The more subtle and important version — which non-idealogical non-Clinton supporters like me can make fairly I think — is that The Times, terrified that it will be seen as a liberal mouthpiece, might overcompensate by flooding its columns with Clinton investigations.

It’s an understandable, perhaps even noble, fault and we’ve all seen this happen in the business even at the institutional management level.

But Spayd  dismisses the entire concept as authored by ideologues  — even though she says some reporters have done a bad job of covering Clinton.

Says Spayd:
“…some foundation stories revealed relatively little bad behavior, yet were written as if they did. That’s not good journalism. But I suspect the explanation lies less with making matchy-matchy comparisons of the two candidates’ records than with journalists losing perspective on a line of reporting they’re heavily invested in.”

So because it’s not “matchy-matchy” it’s okay?  Can’t there be larger forms of “balance” abroad in the land?

And most important: You’ve just told us New York Times reporters are apparently covering Clinton unfairly in at least some important instances?

It’s not something Spayd goes into.  Remarkably.

She just says what it isn’t. The Truth of False Equivalency is that it is a doctrine of ideologues who don’t Hillary covered at all. Nothing to view here, folks move on.

I don’t know how the damned house fell down, but it wasn’t those false equivalency termites. That’s the Truth.

But then why is the coverage skewed at times?

The less charitable explanations are that reporters actively dislike Clinton or want to win prizes. Or the reporters are just professionally incompetent. Of those, I’d say maybe “prizes” might be a factor.  I’ve known few journalists at this high level who actually hate the people they cover and none at this level are incompetent.

So I’d actually go with false balance as an explanation. We try to be fair. We tried too hard.
Denying that it exists — or treating it as a straw man cartoon issue — doesn’t help anyone.

As it turns out, I’m the kind one.

Says Slate:
New York Times Public Editor Liz Spayd Writes Disastrous Defense of False Equivalence

Let’s just say the first major performance was marred by off-tune logic.  And hope for better.




“Race-Splaining” (definition)

The act of a cable news-reader, politician, liberal or conservative activist, who says we need an open dialogue on race — and then in a self-confident and condescending manner makes broad statements and conclusions based on stereotypes of blacks and whites that reinforce previously held positions and biases and fans the flames of bias through inflammatory questions and statements.

Tom Roth-Roffy, the aggressive Investigator in Charge of the National Transportation Safety Board inquiry into the sinking of the SS El Faro,  has retired midway through the investigation to accept a position with SUNY Maritime College.

The retirement occurred a few weeks after Roth-Duffy aggressively questioned senior executives of Tote Services, the operator of the El Faro, and then seemed to apologize for suggesting the company was at fault.  The 40-year-old El Faro sailed into Hurricane Joaquin in October of last year, and all hands were lost.

In May, during a joint NTSB and US Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation hearing in Jacksonville, Mr. Roth-Roffy said to Peter Keller,  executive vice president of Tote, the parent company of firms that owned the El Faro.

“Few would dispute the loss of the ship El Faro and its cargo — and most importantly the loss of 33 souls aboard the El Faro — represents a colossal failure in management of the companies responsible for the safe operation of the El Faro.

“Could you share with this board your thoughts of the management failures that led to the loss of the El Faro?”

Mr. Keller replied:

“I think this tragic loss is all about an accident and I look to this board as well as the NTSB to try to define what those elements may or may not have been. I for one, with 51 years of experience in transportation, cannot come up with a rational answer.”

Later, Mr. Roth-Roffy said, “I would like to apologize to Tote if my question as stated was misinterpreted ”

“Tom’s retirement had nothing at all to do with the El Faro investigative activities or anything at the Marine Board of Investigation,” said Peter C. Knudson
NTSB Office of Public Affairs, in response to a question about the earlier Roth-Duffy incident.

“He received an offer from another organization that he said was just too good to pass up.  He was one of our most experienced investigators and we were sad to see him go”

Said a family member of a crew member lost on the El Faro, “Mr. Roth-Roffy was professionally and emotionally committed to this case.  It makes no sense that he would leave the biggest investigation of his life half way through it.”

The NTSB reached out to family crew members and said this in a June 29 letter:

“Earlier this month, the Investigator in Charge, Mr. Tom Roth-Roffy, retired from the National Transportation Safety Board. Mr. Roth-Roffy served with the NTSB for 18 years and completed 34 years of federal service before retiring. Mr. Roth-Roffy represented the NTSB from the initial on-scene phase of this investigation, through the search for the vessel in November, and during the USCG Marine Board of Inquiry proceedings. The Assistant Investigator in Charge, Mr. Brian Young, has assumed the duties of Investigator in Charge.  Mr. Young previously served as the Group Chairman of the Engineering Group and has been actively involved in the investigation.”

Mr. Roth-Roffy has not returned requests for comment.



(I had hoped this would happen and was figuring out how to introduce the families.  They beat me to it.)

(The daughter of Ray Steele, a seaman rescued from the Pendleton, and the daughter of Bernie Webber, the rescuer, met more than 60 years after the 1952 rescue.)


This week my husband, Joe and I made a Bucket List Trip to Chatham Cape Cod!
We were treated to a personal tour of Coast Guard Station, Lighthouse, beach and everything in Chatham. It was magical for us. Through the Coast Guard we met a wonderful gentleman who is active in the restoration and maintenance of the CG36500, who introduced us to no other than Patty Hamilton, Bernie Webber’s Daughter!! A once in a lifetime meeting that we both will cherish forever. We actually got to board the 36500! I sat where my Daddy sat 64 yrs ago after being rescued!
It was magical! Totally unplanned and worked out to be surreal! For all of us!

Renee  Steele Pellegrino


This is Patty Webber Hamilton,(left) and Renee Steele Pellegrino,(right) celebrating our meeting. Her Daddy saved my Daddy. We will be friends forever!DaughtersKids

(Author’s note:  Members of the Steele family contacted me after reading my book, “Two Tankers Down,” which recounts the wreck of the Fort Mercer and Pendleton off Cape Cod in 1952.  The Steele family story is one I would have loved to have told to Bernie when he still lived.)

Of the 32 men rescued from the SS Pendleton, for sure one was a father.

Perhaps it played out this way for all 32 who were plucked up by Bernie Webber and his crew that night off Cape Cod in February 1952.  I’d like to think so.

But what is certain in this case and many other rescues performed by the Coast Guard and other search and rescue ops worldwide is this:

You often don’t just rescue one person.  Often, indirectly, you rescue families.  You don’t save just one person. You may save a whole generation. And the next.

But as I said, in this case, they saved a father — a guy named Ray.

Here’s what happened in February 1952.

Raymond Guy Steele was 25 years old when he climbed down the ladder of the sinking SS Pendleton and was plucked from the sea and certain death by Webber and his crew aboard the CG 36500.  Ray

He was the sixth of nine children, raised in East St. Louis, in a one bedroom house by a family of Pentecostal farmers forced off the land in Southern Illinois into the city to earn a living.

His brother, Roy, was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.  Another brother, Russell, joined the merchant marine — though statistically, that was more dangerous than Army infantry.  Ray followed those footsteps and when he was 18 became a merchant mariner as the war wound down.

He was a good looking kid and saw the world in the booming post-war years. “I’ve been everywhere, sometimes twice,” he would say later.

“Wow!  The whole world was opened,” Marie, his wife, would write. “He could go anywhere, see everything, do anything, and he did!

And in case some shore-leave brawl pops into your head, that’s not what Ray considered fun.

“He always liked to end up in New York City and visit all the jazz clubs on 52nd Street. He had a life-long love of jazz…”

And these were not jazz for the chumps clubs.  He hung at Kelley’s Stables. There,  a new bee bop sound emerged with advanced harmonies and altered chords. Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis were there but Ray came to hear the Hawk — the great saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

So he was not your ordinary able bodied seaman — if there is such a thing as an ordinary able bodied seaman.  He was, it is fair to say, a handsome fellow.  Look at pictures today and a teenager would say, “Your grandad was hot!” Ray Hot Shot

But he was also quiet, sometimes even shy. He thought about meaning.  If ever he had a son, what would he name him?

In 1952, the top boy baby name were James, Robert, John, Michael, David.

But Ray particularly liked Coleman Hawkins — so much the thought formed in Ray’s mind: 

Coleman would be a great name for a son if ever he was to have one.  

“Coleman” was not among the top ten baby names of 1952, nor the top 50, nor the top one hundred.  Not a lot of white merchant mariners were naming their sons after African American pioneers of the bebop sound, but that, as they would say now, was just how he rolled.

Somewhere in there on leave, he returned home to East St. Louis, just in time to have a friend of the family introduce him to Marie, a lovely young woman and freshly minted high school graduate.  She was flattered that this handsome 23-year-old man of the world asked her out on a date but saw something beyond that in his nature.  He was “between ships” and did not rush “off the beach” back to sea very fast at all.   The two of them were together all that summer.

He was not gone long when Marie got a call from Ray.  Would she meet him where his ship was docked in Baltimore? Would she come right away?

She did and his intent was clear. Deeply in love, the couple hopped a cross-country Greyhound to New Orleans and were married.

busRenee, their first child, was born 18 months later in June 1951.  Ray was making good money shipping out.  He continued.

Ray sailed for seven years after the war, making 61 trips.  He had some sweet gigs in the banana trades, on the “white fleet,” to South and Central America and back.

And there was plenty to do more than bananas.  America was exporting, importing, trading with a world being rebuilt.  The country throbbed with an industrial hum that ran on energy from oil and gas carried in tankers.

So it was a routine thing in February 1952 when in Louisiana he stepped on board the SS Pendleton, a T-2 tanker built during World War II to win the war, for a voyage north to New England.  The ships were made hurriedly but won the war for America, supplying Great Britain and our armies and navies with the fuel needed to defeat the bad guys.

The problem was, they kept sailing.  Inside the steel was a high amount of sulfur which at low temperatures made the metal behave more like a crystal.  The problem was known but was said to be managed by huge metal straps wound round the hull.

Off Chatham in February 1952, those straps did not hold.  Two T-2 tankers, the SS Fort Mercer and the SS Pendleton, split in half.  The Coast Guard station in Chatham scrambled its small boats to rescue the crew as cutters swept toward the rescue from miles away. Pendleton_Half_Ship_2

Ray and the crew of the Pendleton maintained their cool.  They were in the stern half of the Pendleton — still upright and somewhat navigable.  The poor folks in the bow had been swept away and were just gone.

The Pendleton mess boiled up eggs for the men and they held them in their pockets — both as food and as make-shift hand warmers.  It’s not improbable that Ray heard “Hawk” Hawkin’s riff on “Body and Soul” cross through his mind as he pondered his fate.

From the rail of the broken ship, the odds seemed very bad for Ray to be fathering any sons or daughters, whatever he might name them. All those dreams ended here.  Any rescue attempt through these seas would be a suicide run.

Then, through 60-foot waves, with no compass, no radar, no guidance from this earth, Bernie Webber and the CG 36500 came from nowhere on an impossible mission that was — impossibly — accomplished.


CHATHAM, Mass. (May 15)–The original crew of CG 36500 sets sail again 50 years later in commemoration of the anniversary of the tanker Pendleton rescue off the coast of Chatham, Mass., in February 1952. The Pendleton split in two during a fierce storm boasting 60-foot seas and hurricane force winds. All but one of the 33 crewmen onboard the Pendleton were saved by the crew of 36500. USCG photo by PA3 Amy Thomas

The men filed down the ladder and all but one were saved.  Webber and the crew brought them into Chatham, where the townspeople gave them comfort, food and dry clothing.  Webber collapsed in a bed and as he slept the crew members, Ray included, sneaked into his room and emptied saltwater-wet dollar bills from their wallets onto the dresser.  Pendleton_Relief_sm

There were awards of course.  Medals. Bernie was a hero.  And from my hours talking with him, I know for sure he knew that he and the crew did something good.  But it was truly overshadowed in his mind — and the minds of the others — by the one guy they lost.

This was no false humility and it was not to be argued with. (I tried.) There’s no giving comfort to a rescuer regarding those who were lost.  They have their own math, count their own sums. 

But you can sure show the lives of those who were saved — and I would  have loved it if Bernie were alive now so I could show him what he gave to Ray, his family and the world.

So Bernie, in the reverse format  of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey style, here’s what would NOT have happened had you not made that trip, but did because you did.

Ray stopped shipping out after the Pendleton.  He returned home to his young daughter and into the arms of Marie.

In March, just a few weeks after the rescue, she learned she was pregnant.

In December, Ray and Marie had a child, a son.  And they named him Coleman of course.

Ray found land work.  They returned to Illinois to be around family.  Eventually, they moved to the river town of Alton.  Quiet and introspective personally, professionally Ray was a natural salesman.  He sold ads for a radio station first, moved to insurance and then to autos.

The couple had two more children, Mark in May of 1955 and Laura in June 1955.Kids

Outside the job, “Ray was shy and didn’t socialize much,” Marie wrote me. “We had his big family to visit with.  It was all he needed. At home he was full of jokes, stories — and music! … music everywhere.”

Coleman looked just like his dad, but it was Mark who had the musical gene. He played bass in local bands for years.

And of course, the kids grew up.

Marie writes:

“Renee had Tony; Coleman had Carrie and Nathan; Mark had Damon, Spencer and Ryan; and Laura had Amanda and Chad.

“Now we are having Great Grand Children, Damon has Mason and in April Chad will have Ben…


“We are truly Blessed, Ray would have adored them…”25th anniversary

“Ray developed Parkinson’s Disease in 1996, no known cause, but the doctors were interested in the fact that he sailed so many ‘Banana Boats that filled the holds with pesticides…”

“Ray passed away 10/15/2006-8 weeks to the day that he fell and broke his hip-1 week after his 79th birthday.”

Which, given his life expectancy in February 1952 , is what you would call a right good long run.

The generations continue.


“The 5 oldest Grand children, Carrie,Tony,Amanda,Chad and Damon have all graduated from College and the girls have their Masters,  Carrie in Art , and Amanda in Social Work. All are ‘gainfully employed,’ what more could you ask for?

“Thank you again for writing ‘2 Tankers Down’ it has brought back so many memories to share with the next generation.”

Ahh, thank you Marie and Ray and the entire family for sharing this. And showing that rescuers, often rescue more than one person.

And happy Father’s Day Bernie and Ray.

And to all Coast Guard rescuers everywhere of all genders and nationalities.

You do good.  Far beyond what you see first hand.  Or could ever imagine.

For years and years, through the people you save, and through their people, you do good.


Below are notes and pictures from the family



Coleman and family


movie poster

Hi, here’s my short bio about myself:)

I am 32 years old and live in St. Louis, Missouri. I have my Masters in Social Work and work for the state of Illinois. I am passionate about my work and am one of the fortunate ones who enjoys their job everyday! I am extremely social, love trying new restaurants and going to new fun spots in the city. I love traveling and keep myself pretty busy with an active social life.

I loved your book, Two Tankers Down, as well as the movie, The Finest Hours. I grew up spending a lot of time at my grandparents house, and spending a lot of time with Gramps, that’s what his grandkids called him. I had heard the story about his shipwreck, but too be perfectly honest, as a child I thought it was a, “tall tale” that gramps had embellished to make a good story. I mean how can a tanker break in half, stay afloat, and the crew steered it??? That was the most amazing part to me about this story, the unbeliveablenuss and what a brave man my grandfather was. In the years where he spent watching all of us, he didn’t have any desire to travel or at sometimes really leave the house. He would always say,” I’ve been everywhere, some places twice, I want to stay home and be with my family.” At the time I couldn’t begin to understand what he meant, but I knew that we were the most important thing to him, and that was really all that mattered. There are a million great things I could say about gramps; he was funny, kind, mild mannered, and loving, but above all he had integrity, compassion, and a love for knowledge and those are things I’ve always strived to posses as well. Thank you for your research into the Pendleton, and making my grandfather live for eternity in your writings!

Amanda Kraner

Hello Robert,

My name is Chad Kraner and I am Ray’s grandson. My mother is Laura Steele Kraner and I am 31 years old. I was very excited to hear the news the Disney was making a movie about the Pendleton. It was a story all of us grandkids loved to hear my Grandpa tell. My Grandfather was an extremely kind man and had a great sense of humor. I can remember sitting on his front porch watching cars go by and trying to guess which direction the next car would come from. Every time we would come to visit he would give us a dollar before we left and it just meant the world to me. We had so many good times playing wiffle ball in the back yard or watching Notre Dame football games. I’m smiling now thinking about all of the memories with Gramps and I miss him a lot. I know he would have loved reading your book and reading it to the next generation of Steeles to tell them the story of the SS Pendleton.